The goal of our Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Europe Section Blog is to share stories and relevant information about activities going on within our section and more broadly in the conservation community. Stories and articles shared on our blog should not be taken as an official position or statement of SCB or SCB Europe Section. Thank you for reading!

Monday, 18 March 2019

Could conservation be freed from its roots of kleptocracy?

Guest post by Samantha Wolf, Student Blog Contest Series 

Modern conservation can mimic colonization, and the echoes of colonization are heard in the vast
specimen collections of European Museums. Many of these specimens have been gifts from prestigious collectors or as part of military expeditions (e.g., The Irish Natural History Collections). This demonstrates the perceived elitism in conservation culture in Europe, which is an exclusionary factor and prevents full participation and understanding of conservation ethics among all demographics. While these collections have, and continue to, undoubtedly aid in research, they also illustrate the colonizer mindset that the non-European world is for the taking. When it comes to protecting the remaining endangered ecosystems and species, even with best intentions, modern conservation efforts from the northern hemisphere and ivory- tower academics can effectively be neocolonialist.

This subject arose in my MSc program during a debate over the potential banning of trophy hunting in Africa. There are arguable points on both sides of this issue, especially considering the revenue generated by trophy hunting that is sometimes redirected into local conservation programs. However, we find ourselves still dealing with a wealthy, predominantly white and northern demographic who use an abundance of financial resources to collect specimens and trophies from historically colonized lands.

In her 2008 article published in African Studies , Elizabeth Garland breaks down the neocolonial
consequences of Western conservation culture’s depiction of Africa. She does this by considering the
sudden installment of Gabon’s 13 national parks, including Invindo National Park. Coming into effect in 2002, the transition of about 26,000 km² of land abruptly restricted livelihoods and means of survival for the Gabonese residing there. The logging industry provided employment to roughly a quarter of the population, and the land use for bushmeat, firewood, and agriculture was a necessity for daily life. A 2016 case study from Rainforest Foundation UK showed that in Invindo National Park, life for locals had deteriorated. Their foraging and hunting zones shrank significantly, and eco-tourism demand for “site purity” prohibited locals from accessing sacred sites that had become popular viewing areas. Locals were not consulted on the development of the park and very few are involved in its management, and some have suffered physical abuse at the hands of corrupt park officials. The parks in Gabon received funding from the World Bank, European Commission’s ECOFAC program, and the Jane Goodall Institute, among others. European and North American institutions have a financial stake in the conservation of the Congo Basin, and used their monetary resources to effectively persuade the Gabonese president to set aside 10% of the country, with little regard to the needs of the indigenous citizens. Behavior like this feeds the misconception that nature and people are separate entities and that a pure ecosystem is one without a human presence. This is a Western/European projection, and through instances like Gabon’s parks, neocolonialism and the continued collection in the name of conservation are extant. This is the ghost of kleptocratic empires infiltrating global conservation standards of practice. The legacy of collection by foreign and often imposing entities haunts modern conservation efforts, especially in places where human residents are restricted from life-sustaining practices. While an effort to prohibit further habitat destruction is critical, it is damaging to the human population therein to bar all acts of livelihood. Balance must be met with conservation practices that are integrative to local livelihoods ( e.g. land-sharing or land-sparing on a case-by-case basis, with sincere inclusion of residents).

I often think about one of my classmate’s research on the impacts of indigenous inclusion in
conservation. She is studying the community impacts of the progressive conservation policies of New
Zealand. A very broad description of her dissertation is that she will be interviewing Māori and
management plan coordinators on whether the personhood recognition for Whanganui river has
changed their lives and livelihoods. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to hear their responses. These
interactions must be kept in tandem with any conservation plan. This inclusion needs to be the protocol for conservation around the world. The relationship between indigenous welfare and conservation management must be at the forefront of modern conservation, but the classical, western approach leaves little room for it. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, ecologist, professor, and Potawatomi Citizen, Robin Wall Kimmerer, PhD., describes the worthy scientific data found in indigenous observations of the natural world. She recalls a student’s dissertation work based on traditional ecological knowledge of the regenerative cycle of sweetgrass as affected by harvest and absence of harvest. Her student’s data supported what indigenous sweetgrass collectors long-knew - the regular harvest of sweetgrass by people stimulated regeneration, whereas the unharvested plants gradually died away. This study, and many others, are strong indicators of the importance of inclusion of indigenous citizens in conservation and restoration management. Modern conservation by European-based organizations needs to incorporate indigenous knowledge in every case to meld conservation policies, appropriate land stewardship, and humanitarianism into a well-rounded plan. This includes creating new economic opportunities that are environmentally sound and feasible for the indigenous citizens who have been forced into unsustainable practices by the forces of historical colonialism. 

Wherever the work is happening, we must seek input from local people, and make sure the conservation practices are inclusive of their needs. This is an important way to combat neocolonialism, atone for the kleptocratic past, and hold serious, inclusive conversations about conservation. In best case scenarios, conservation efforts engage the local community, and the support from grandiose European organizations should be readily available upon appeal and no longer unsolicited. This is a utopian image of grassroots conservation, but drawing attention to (intentional and unintentional) neocolonial practices is the beginning of a better method of environmental protection.

About the author

Samantha Wolf currently  works as the Land Stewardship Coordinator for the Falmouth Land Trust in Southern Maine. I work with community members to preserve and restore habitat in Coastal Maine, and navigate the complex relationship between people and place.

At the time of the Student Blogging Contest in 2018 she was  a M.Sc. student of Conservation and Biodiversity at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

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