Faces of New Colonialism: Conservation Refugees

The last thirty years have been marked by a worldwide increase in awareness of environmental issues and the critical need for conservation. This includes conservation of resources critically needed by human societies, as well as natural wonders that should be preserved for their inherent beauty and contribution to biodiversity. One result of this has been the creation of preserves and parks specifically set aside for this purpose, with restrictions on human uses to protect fragile ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit them. Such measures are particularly championed by the West, headed by conservation organisations as well as groups like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. In fact, assistance for nations in the Global South is sometimes contingent on the creation of conservation parks.

This is touted by the West as a huge victory; the benevolent West has arrived to save the day, preserving precious resources for future generations. Thanks to the hard work of conservation groups, this land will remain pristine, or close to it. The West rarely examines its own culpability here, looking at why, for example, resources were depleted in the first place, and how the Western demand for resources paired with the imposition of artificial borders and policies might play a role in how and why land is used. Instead, the West pats itself on the back, and environmentalists the world over celebrate.

What’s not discussed is the hidden cost of conservation, a cost paid in human lives. With the creation of preserves, nations often force out existing populations, which are usually indigenous. It doesn’t matter if you have been living on land for centuries; when it comes to conservation, you are unwanted and you need to leave, considered a threat to the very land you may have been caring for, according to Western standards.

Populations that may have been protecting the land and living independently are suddenly thrown into new environments. New housing has to be found, which can result in more displacement, and meanwhile people may struggle with poverty, disease, and discrimination. Such evictions can be fatal for some members of the indigenous population, and permanently disruptive for others, creating what are known as conservation refugees. People forced from their land by meddling Westerners who think they know what is best and are willing to impose their values on the Global South in the name of environmental conservation. The same Westerners who will celebrate their accomplishments at gala dinners halfway across the world later.

This is an issue that often goes undiscussed because it makes people uncomfortable, and one of the reasons it causes such discomfort is because it conflicts with the idea of the great white saviour, and it directly illustrates the fact that colonialism is not dead, it simply has new faces. This is blatant and clear colonialism, involving the imposition of imported culture and values onto native people, people who have been self-sustaining and independent and functional on their own for centuries. It is an example of the West’s belief that it knows best and is best-equipped to make decisions for residents of the Global South.

It is patronising and infantalising, yet another reminder that people living in the Global South, particularly indigenous people, are considered ‘backwards’ and ‘childish,’ incapable of living their own lives. In the rare cases when they can be ‘trusted’ to care for their own land, it’s only after extensive ‘education’ provided by Westerners who tell them all about the land they have been inhabiting for centuries. The helpful advice and hints provided for people allowed to remain as stewards (and tourist guides) is often wrong and wildly inaccurate, something that the ‘teachers’ would know if they spent any time listening to their students.

And oh yes, let us speak of tourism, because this too is part of the face of colonialism, and this too is part of the absurdity of conservation refugees. Even as people are expelled from their land and forced to seek shelter elsewhere, tourists are brought in by the vanload to marvel at the natural wonder. They are informed that they’re receiving an ‘authentic experience’ and have a chance to see nature as it was meant to be seen; without all those pesky native people, of course. It’s just the tourists and nature and their tame guide, who takes them through formerly native lands and shows them all the beautiful things that have been conserved.

Indigenous people play a key role in the health of the land around them. Like any human population, they obviously have an environmental footprint and an impact, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. Evidence from the Amazon, for example, suggests that the famously rich and complex soil of the region isn’t entirely natural, but is in part the result of cultivation and controlled burns conducted by indigenous people who shaped the landscape around them. They worked the land to suit their uses, but along the way, they also helped the natural environment. Similar practices can be seen in other regions of the world, where native populations take the stewardship of the land very seriously. They have a vested interest in conserving their homes, after all.

Confronting the issue of conservation refugees requires not just a fundamental rethinking of environmental policy, but also an examination of racism and colonialism and the role these things play at environmental and development organisations. You can’t adequately address the displacement of native people by the West without admitting that these cultural and social attitudes are playing a role, because this displacement is not occurring in a vacuum.