"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Third-World land theft & the tragedy of the commons: Mother Jones ponders, "Conservation: Indigenous peoples' enemy No. 1?" - TT's Lost in Tokyo

Third-World land theft & the tragedy of the commons: Mother Jones ponders, "Conservation: Indigenous peoples' enemy No. 1?"

[Post note: Anybody see the movie Avatar? Well that's how native people perceive conservation efforts - as helping governing elites to steal their lands.]

The Mother Jones magazine has been running a series of on-line articles which exemplify how some progressives are exploring the ways in which various parts of the environmental/conservation agenda in developing countries have been counterproductive, adversely affected indigenous peoples, favored Western companies and played into the hands of local elites.

The articles are worth reviewing, as they reveal that enviros are starting to realize that protecting nature in the developing world requires protecting the property rights of indigenous communities.

One such article, by Mark Dowie, appeared in Mother Jones` on-line edition on November  2. The headline reads, "Conservation: Indigenous people's enemy No. 1?", the sub-header states, "For centuries we've displaced people to save nature. A huge project in Africa offers a chance to turn that around." Dowie, an award-winning investigative journalist, is an author of several books published by the MIT Press, including his most recent, Conservation Refugees - The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

Dowie`s thesis is that, until recently, conservationists have typically taken the approach that the best way to preserve tropical forests and other wild ecosystems, the right approach was to establish pristine reserves from which people were excluded, and describes the change in strategy in the context of a new series of parks that the government in Gabon, central Africa. Dowie notes that the traditional approach - of establishing government-owned and -administered parks free of native residents - has a long, and long-forgotten history in the US (emphasis added):

But there was another, more historically significant opportunity facing Gabon that day, one that Fay merely hinted at in his presentation and Sanderson didn't mention at all. It was the opportunity their own industry, transnational conservation, had in Gabon: to do right by the thousands of tribal people living inside those emerald patches, by allowing them to remain in their homelands and participate directly in the stewardship and management of the new parks. They would then not be passive "stakeholders" relocated to the margins of the park, the typical fate of indigenous peoples who find themselves in conservation "hot spots," but equal players in the complex and challenging process of defending biological diversity. The goal of such a policy would be the concurrent preservation of nature and culture; Gabon just might come to signify a happy ending of a tense, century-long conflict between global environmentalism and native people, millions of whom have been displaced from traditional homelands in the interest of conservation.

It's a century-long story of violence and abuse that began in Yosemite Valley in the mid 19th century, when the Ahwahneechee band of Miwoks were chased about, caught on, then forcefully expelled from a landscape they had cultivated for about 200 generations. Militias like the vicious Mariposa Battalion were sent into Yosemite to burn acorn caches and rout native people from remote reaches of the Valley. After the militias came the nature romantics who mythologized the vacated valley as the wilderness it never was, then lobbied state and federal governments to create a national park. They got their wish in 1890, and the remaining Indians were removed from the area, with a few allowed to remain temporarily, as menial laborers in a segregated village of 20-by-20-foot shacks.

Yosemite's Indian policy spread to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Ranier, Zion, Glacier, Everglades, and Olympic National Parks, all of which expelled thousands of tribal people from their homes and hunting grounds so the new parks could remain in an undisturbed "state of nature." Three hundred Shoshone Indians were killed in a single day during the expulsion from Yellowstone. This was the birth of what would come to be known, worldwide, as the Yosemite model of wildlife conservation. In Africa it would be renamed "fortress conservation," and like so many other products from the North, the model would be exported with vigor to all other continents. ...

Teddy Roosevelt also proclaimed that "the rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him… It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the dominant world races."

Our own history of theft from natives aside (which I have addressed tangentially in the context of the near-extirpation of the bison herds and the ongoing gross mismanagement and destruction of the salmon), what indigenous peoples in their right minds would not be opposed to the complicity of conservationists in continuing the process of the older colonial theft of their lands, even if the purpose was to "save" the land?  I won`t explore this now, but the record of "development" is replete with many examples - old and new - of such kinds of theft, with local ownership replaced by government ownership and a resulting "tragedy of the commons"-type of race to plunder "government" lands for valuable resources - oil and gas, minerals and timber.

Dowie notes the natural rise of indigenous opposition to "conservation" projects:

One consequence of creating a few million conservation refugees around the world has been the emergence of a vast and surprisingly powerful movement of communities that have proven themselves stewards of nature (otherwise conservationists would have no interest in their land), but were turned by circumstance into self-described "enemies of conservation."

In early 2004, a United Nations meeting was convened for the ninth year in a row to push for passage of a resolution protecting the territorial and human rights of indigenous peoples. During the meeting, one indigenous delegate rose to state that extractive industries, while still a serious threat to their welfare and cultural integrity, were no longer the main antagonist of native cultures. Their new and biggest enemy, she said, was "conservation." Later that spring, at a meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all 200 delegates signed a declaration stating that "conservation has become the number one threat to indigenous territories."

Then in February 2008, representatives of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) walked out of a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) annual meeting, condemning the convention for ignoring their interests. "We found ourselves marginalized and without opportunity to take the floor and express our views," read their statement. "None of our recommendations were included in [the meeting's report]. So we have decided to leave this process…"

These are all rhetorical jabs, of course, and perhaps not entirely accurate or fair. But they are based on fact and driven by experience, and have shaken the international conservation community. So have a spate of critical studies and articles calling international conservationists to task for their historical mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

The Mother Jones article looks like an excerpt from Dowie`s new book, which MIT describes as follows:

Since 1900, more than 108,000 officially protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely at the urging of five international conservation organizations. About half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. Millions who had been living sustainably on their land for generations were displaced in the interests of conservation. In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie tells this story.

This is a "good guy vs. good guy" story, Dowie writes; the indigenous peoples’ movement and conservation organizations have a vital common goal—to protect biological diversity—and could work effectively and powerfully together to protect the planet and preserve species and ecosystem diversity. Yet for more than a hundred years, these two forces have been at odds. The result: thousands of unmanageable protected areas and native peoples reduced to poaching and trespassing on their ancestral lands or "assimilated" but permanently indentured on the lowest rungs of the economy.

The punch line of the book summary?

When conservationists and native peoples acknowledge the interdependence of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, Dowie writes, they can together create a new and much more effective paradigm for conservation.

I am quite sympathetic with Dowie`s thinking, but it seems to me that he could make use of a little more intellectual framework, such as (i) the Austrian/libertarian awareness of the frequently negative role played by the state and of the usefulness of property rights (as I noted in this earlier post about the destruction of the Amazon), and (ii) Elinor Ostrom`s research into successful management of open-access, common-pool resources by communities, including natives.

I left the following comments for Dowie at Mother Jones:

Mark, great article. It`s good to hear that the broader conservation community is waking up, but groups like Survival International have always tried to protect indigenous peoples`s rights.

I`m afraid the headline is a bit of a distraction, because of course the broader development effort as a whole has been much more destructive, by even more widely putting power into the hands on central elites, who often behaved kleptocratically.

Regardless of the broader background, it`s surprising that you didn't see fit to link your topic to the whole problem of the "tragedy of the commons", which is often tied to the nationalization of resources, which deprives users of any control over the resources they depend on. Elinor Ostrom has extensively studied this problem in developing countries and elsewhere, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics precisely for pointing out how "government" is often the problem and not the solution:


I commend this effort by Dowie, and note some other interesting articles at Mother Jones:

GM's Rainforest Racket: People with some of the world's smallest carbon footprints are being displaced—so their forests can become offsets("There is another vexing question inherent in preserving forests: What happens to the people who use the land? Efforts to protect biodiversity in the dwindling wildlands of the world have increasingly run into a discomfiting tension between the impulse toward absolute preservation and the needs of people—many of them indigenous—who have lived sustainably in forestlands for decades or centuries. Such tensions are playing out in the new economics of carbon offsets.")

Better REDD Than Dead: The byzantine politics of paying countries to save trees: ("Indigenous people around the world, many of whom have been displaced through preservation efforts, are demanding "free, prior, and informed consent" before new restrictions move forward. Some also want tribes, like the Guarani in Brazil, to be compensated for preserving forests for centuries.")
Published Thu, Nov 26 2009 7:50 PM by TokyoTom


# Nice Post by David Henderson on "Avatar", property, corporatism & right of natives to live as they please

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 5:54 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

David R. Henderson has a nice post up at Antiwar.com , titled "In Defense of Avatar" , in which