[Marxism] Indigenous peoples as conservation refugees

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 18 09:33:03 MST 2005


LOW FOG ENVELOPES the steep and remote valleys of southwestern Uganda most 
mornings, as birds found only in this small corner of the continent rise in 
chorus and the great apes drink from clear streams. Days in the dense 
montane forest are quiet and steamy. Nights are an exaltation of insects 
and primate howling. For thousands of years the Batwa people thrived in 
this soundscape, in such close harmony with the forest that 
early-twentieth-century wildlife biologists who studied the flora and fauna 
of the region barely noticed their existence. They were, as one naturalist 
noted, "part of the fauna."

In the 1930s, Ugandan leaders were persuaded by international 
conservationists that this area was threatened by loggers, miners, and 
other extractive interests. In response, three forest reserves were 
created—the Mgahinga, the Echuya, and the Bwindi—all of which overlapped 
with the Batwa's ancestral territory. For sixty years these reserves simply 
existed on paper, which kept them off-limits to extractors. And the Batwa 
stayed on, living as they had for generations, in reciprocity with the 
diverse biota that first drew conservationists to the region.

However, when the reserves were formally designated as national parks in 
1991 and a bureaucracy was created and funded by the World Bank's Global 
Environment Facility to manage them, a rumor was in circulation that the 
Batwa were hunting and eating silverback gorillas, which by that time were 
widely recognized as a threatened species and also, increasingly, as a 
featured attraction for ecotourists from Europe and America. Gorillas were 
being disturbed and even poached, the Batwa admitted, but by Bahutu, 
Batutsi, Bantu, and other tribes who invaded the forest from outside 
villages. The Batwa, who felt a strong kinship with the great apes, 
adamantly denied killing them. Nonetheless, under pressure from traditional 
Western conservationists, who had come to believe that wilderness and human 
community were incompatible, the Batwa were forcibly expelled from their 
Photograph | John Martin / Conservation International 	
These forests are so dense that the Batwa lost perspective when they first 
came out. Some even stepped in front of moving vehicles. Now they are 
living in shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of the parks, without 
running water or sanitation. In one more generation their forest-based 
culture—songs, rituals, traditions, and stories—will be gone.

It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been 
pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and 
big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened 
for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of 
culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every 
continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also 
more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature 
Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife 
Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World 
Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention.

In early 2004 a United Nations meeting was convened in New York for the 
ninth year in a row to push for passage of a resolution protecting the 
territorial and human rights of indigenous peoples. The UN draft 
declaration states: "Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from 
their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free 
and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after 
agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the 
option to return." During the meeting an indigenous delegate who did not 
identify herself rose to state that while extractive industries were still 
a serious threat to their welfare and cultural integrity, their new and 
biggest enemy was "conservation."

Later that spring, at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the 
International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed 
a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations 
now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous 
lands." These rhetorical jabs have shaken the international conservation 
community, as have a subsequent spate of critical articles and studies, two 
of them conducted by the Ford Foundation, calling big conservation to task 
for its historical mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

"We are enemies of conservation," declared Maasai leader Martin Saning'o, 
standing before a session of the November 2004 World Conservation Congress 
sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai, who have over 
the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation 
projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn't always felt that way. In fact, 
Saning'o reminded his audience, "...we were the original conservationists." 
The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic 
cattlemen have traditionally protected their range: "Our ways of farming 
pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between 
ecosystems." Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land 
conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred 
thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti 
Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly 
compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty.

"We don't want to be like you," Saning'o told a room of shocked white 
faces. "We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You 
cannot accomplish conservation without us."

Although he might not have realized it, Saning'o was speaking for a growing 
worldwide movement of indigenous peoples who think of themselves as 
conservation refugees. Not to be confused with ecological refugees—people 
forced to abandon their homelands as a result of unbearable heat, drought, 
desertification, flooding, disease, or other consequences of climate 
chaos—conservation refugees are removed from their lands involuntarily, 
either forcibly or through a variety of less coercive measures. The 
gentler, more benign methods are sometimes called "soft eviction" or 
"voluntary resettlement," though the latter is contestable. Soft or hard, 
the main complaint heard in the makeshift villages bordering parks and at 
meetings like the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok is that relocation 
often occurs with the tacit approval or benign neglect of one of the five 
big international nongovernmental conservation organizations, or as they 
have been nicknamed by indigenous leaders, the BINGOs. Indigenous peoples 
are often left out of the process entirely.




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