The dark side of conservationism

Climate change is a global phenomenon posing considerable challenges on a world scale. Nowadays, the impacts of climate change are projected globally while weather-related disasters are increasingly affecting several parts of the world. Being them relatively gradual changes – such as global warming – or more sudden events – such as floods or droughts – these facts not only prove the seriousness and dramatic nature of transformed climate patterns, but also indicate how vulnerable humans are to these changes. Hence, as evidence about its gravity and irreversibility raise, climate change is gaining more and more attention from academics, politicians, and the media. Overall, a great deal of effort is devoted in the attempt to slow down the process and ensure a more sustainable future. Nevertheless, climate change is not a uniform phenomenon, neither in terms of what caused it or who is suffering the most from it. As in many other respects, climate change is inextricably linked to inequality issues.

In fact, whereas the poorest half of the world population is responsible for around 10 per cent of global greengas’ emissions that are feeding climate change, the richest 10 per cent alone is responsible for around 50 per cent of them. Yet, the poorest half of humanity is not only the least responsible for causing climate change but it generally consists in individuals and communities living in fragile ecosystems. Therefore, as the effects of climate change intensify, environmental crises and disasters are likely to iterate more frequently and to disproportionally devastate the lives of vulnerable people who have little or no chances and resources to cope with such tragic events. Among them, indigenous communities worldwide are at the frontline. Climate change, indeed, poses acute threats to the survival of tribal people as they rely largely, if not solely, on the natural environment surrounding them. Thus, because of this symbiotic relationship, they are more sensitive than anyone else to the effects of climate change. However, although indigenous groups are the worst affected by climate change, the dangers faced by their livelihoods, culture and their very existence are seldom mentioned within the international discourse. What is more, when it comes to plan and implement measures for mitigating climate change, their perspectives and rights are generally neglected. Equally important, the impacts that some of these measures have or might have on tribal people are, at best, barely acknowledged. “Conservationism” is a case point in this regard.

Seeking to protect alleged areas of wilderness, governments, NGOS, and other stakeholders now forming the conservation industry enforce the creation of inviolate zones, free from any kind of human presence or settlement. As good as the reasons for doing so may be, however, the idea of conserving certain areas of the planet by completely excluding people from them, often build on the erroneous assumption that these areas are actually wilderness, when there is a world of difference in reality. Tribal people, in fact, have been living in some of these remote and rural areas for millennia, thus shaping and nurturing these “wildernesses” in close contact with the environment. By failing to recognise this, the conservation industry jeopardises the existence and resilience of indigenous communities – like it does climate change itself. Instead, by recognising and intentionally ignore this fact, contemporary conservationism echoes the arrogance of colonialism. This aspect is clearly summed up by recalling the statement of one of the indigenous delegates to the Fifth World Parks Congress in 2003: “first we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation”. In line with this, Survival International claims that the most inconvenient truth of all is that “the world’s indigenous people, who have done the least to cause climate change and are the most affected by it, are now having their rights violated and land devastated in the name of attempts to stop it”1.
Conservation projects can have devastating impacts. First and foremost, they can result in direct displacement and resettlement as in the case of millions of people that so far have been victims of forced evictions from their ancestral homelands in the name of environmental protection. In plain words, conservation displacement, like other forms of displacement, implies the removal and exclusion of people from particular areas, which means that people who have been living in a certain place on a continuous basis for ages become refugees overnight. If this can generally have dramatic consequences, in the case of tribal communities eviction can be catastrophic.
Tribal communities completely rely on their homeland in all aspects of their daily lives and livelihoods, from income generating local economy to spiritual, cultural, and historical connections to it. Therefore, eviction not only causes them to lose their home, but it also separates them from a land that is vitally important and irreplaceable to them since all their human rights derive from it. Yet, according to the “scientific conservationism” paradigm, tribal people are expected to relocate to an alien environment, radically transform their ways of life, and suddenly halting their connections to what has been their territory for countless generations. All too often, these changes traumatise tribal people and led them at the margins of non-indigenous societies where their presence is likely to be resented with resulting social conflicts and tensions. Divorced from their land and culture, in fact, conservation refugees are likely to face extreme poverty, racism and discrimination as both migrants and indigenous. Evicting tribal people from their traditional land in the name of conservationism thus perpetuates patterns of exclusion, denial and silencing which eventually undermines the fulfilment of both human and minority rights and makes social and environmental justice impossible.
Significantly, violating tribal peoples’ land rights is not only morally wrong but it is also deeply damaging for the local environment and wildlife. Still today, indigenous people live sustainably in some of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Rather than enemies of conservationism, then, tribal people can be rightly regarded as the best guardians of the natural world: they, more than anyone else, have always been vital to – and active in – the ecosystems they inhabit. Also, because of their culture and traditional lifestyles they have the best motivations to enhance the resilience of the land they cherish and to protect the diversity of species around them. As the director of Survival International, Stephen Corry, argued, “the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’ gave all the answers while sidelining tribal people is disgraceful. It’s time to start listening to the tribal voices, and to recognise that we are the junior partners in the fight to save the environment”2. Accordingly, modern champions of conservationism should start to learn from indigenous people and consider “eating an organic humble pie” before determining whether or not indigenous communities threat “wildernesses” and deciding that they must leave their homes for the sake of environmental protection.

 1.Survival International, 2009, The Most Inconvenient Truth of All: Climate Change and Indigenous People.

2.Survival International, op. cit.