In 1872 the world’s first national park was established in the USA in the form of Yellowstone National Park. The product of years of work by conservationist John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a passionate conservationist whose legacy prevails a century after his death. Widely hailed a success, Yellowstone and America’s national parks have become a blueprint for similar programmes the world over and with it the same questionable conservation ethics have followed.
In the creation of Yellowstone National Park, Muir sought to preserve a landscape he believed was a “pristine wilderness” where no mark of man is visible upon it.” Those who visited Yellowstone before it gained its National Park status often spoke of its landscaped qualities; it look like a well kept park with little undergrowth to obstruct its impressive views.
There was only one problem with his beloved Yellowstone, the native tribes which inhabited the area. He found them “ugly” and wrote “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” So in the 1850’s moves were made to expel these people from the area. This was the first attempt to deny indigenous people access to their traditional grounds in the name of conservation. 150 years later the battles and land grabs may be less primitive but they are still ongoing and still primarily in the name of creating protected spaces.
John Muir represented a preservationist view of conservation, he wanted to prevent everything from spoiling the landscaped gardens from destruction, be it the Indians or even the fire which was ironically needed to create them. This is a view which has plagued conservation and is only just started to go meet its extinction as the idea that the natural world is adaptable and cannot be preserved in the same continuous state comes to the forefront.
However modern day conservation is responsible for heavy handed tactics which bears a huge human cost. Governments are using the pretext of creating room for wildlife and eco-tourism in order to remove indigenous people from their native grounds.
The image of forceful evictions brought about through violence and destruction of property perhaps belongs at home in a textbook about the Highland Clearances. However there are 6,000 national parks worldwide, many of which were created through the removal of indigenous people.
Whilst brutal evictions are less commonplace in modern conservation today, there are still sneaky tactics in play to ensure people leave the area. Legislation which prevents people from hunting, fishing, farming or even cutting down trees in a protected area effectively forces people out even if they are having a sustainable impact on the area.
In huge contrast you have areas where damaging companies have been allowed to move in. The San have spent 20 years being treated as a threat to the Central Kalahari game park in Botswana. They are now dispossessed living on the edge of the park and forbidden from entering or hunting on their ancient hunting ground.
Meanwhile as they have suffered heavy-handed evictions which even saw their water supplies being cut off, a large diamond mine has opened in the park. Whilst they are not allowed to hunt, foreign game hunters come and stay in the luxury accommodation and pay large sums of money to hunt on the reserve.
This is not an isolated incident. Uganda’s much applauded conservation success stories come with a backdrop of Batwa pygmies making room for mountain gorilla tourism. The Baiga are being forcibly evicted from Kanha tiger reserve, India despite having lived alongside the tigers for centuries. In 1964 the Sengwer were banned from their ancestral forests and are now often found living along roadsides. The list goes on.
Of course governments are often short-sighted. There is easy money in conservation as national banks, foundations and other governments are all offering to invest money in environmental protection. There’s also the UN goal of protecting 17% of land by 2020 which needs to be met.
Yet the bitter irony of the situation is that the removal of indigenous people can be hugely self-defeating. Despite multiple human rights abuses and the removal of villages, wildlife numbers are still dropping in places like Congo DRC and Cameroon. Moreover when it comes to tiger conservation it appears that where tribal people have been allowed to stay the tiger numbers have stopped declining.
This is hardly surprising as indigenous people are often best placed to conserve the species native to their area. They also have a sustainable lifestyle despite sometimes hunting species for food as they depend on the area for survival and have done for centuries.
Thankfully the need for people vs protection conservation is dying. There is a growing outcry against human rights violations in the name of conservation and this issue is to be raised at the IUCN’s congress in Hawaii this week. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples will tell the congress how conservation is failing both indigenous people and wildlife. That a new system is urgently needed which recognises the important role these people can play in conservation and their rights to their ancestral lands.
“Studies have demonstrated that the territories of indigenous peoples who have been given land rights have been significantly better conserved than the adjacent lands”. It’s time to create a conservation model based upon this.
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