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Issue 250
September/October 2008
Indigenous Intelligence: Diverse Solutions for the 21st Century


Hegemony or Harmony?

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Cover: Surma man - Ethiopia Photograph: Angela Fisher & Carol Beckwith/


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Hegemony or Harmony?

If in the course of saving biological diversity we destroy cultural diversity, what have we accomplished?

I HAVE JUST completed my very first good guy vs. good guy story. I normally write investigative reports and histories where the white and black hats are quite obvious. This is not so in the complex and nuanced history of transnational conservation. This is a book I have been working on for the past four years, tentatively entitled Conservation Refugees: A Conflict of Nature and Culture.

The major contestants in the long global struggle I describe are transnational conservation and the worldwide movement of Indigenous

peoples. These two august and ancient movements share a goal that is vital to all of us: a healthy and diverse biota. Both are communities of integrity led by some of the most admirable, dedicated people in modern civilisation. Both care deeply for the planet, and together are capable of preserving more biological diversity than any other two institutions on it. Yet, sadly, they have been terribly at odds with one another over the past century or more; violently so at times, due mostly to conflicting views of Nature, radically different definitions of ‘wilderness’, and profound misunderstandings of each other’s science and culture.

The observed arrogance of transnational conservation is a confounding factor; so is the unfortunate but quite understandable tendency of native people to conflate conservation with other imperial forces. The result of this century-old conflict is thousands of unmanageable protected areas, and an intractable debate over who holds the key to successful conservation in the most biologically rich areas of the world.

Not everyone on either side of this issue will agree with the assertion that this is a good guy/good guy story. One peer reviewer said that it was instead “a story about a hegemonic form of Nature protection in a post-colonial context and its effects on formerly colonised peoples...[and] about the complex struggles and interactions that take place in this context”. That is also true. But as imperious as some post-

colonial conservation leaders have been, their larger mission has been to protect endangered wildlife and biological diversity. Thus they should not be assigned the same ‘bad guy’ status as extractive corporados and others who push native people around and destroy whole ecosystems in their avaricious quest for resources and profit.

I TRAVELLED AROUND all five inhabited continents to research this book, visiting hundreds of Indigenous communities: some of them were in conflict with Western conservation, others in harmony. While tension persists, along with arrogance, ignorance and the unfortunate conflicts they breed, I found an encouraging dialogue

growing between formally educated wildlife biologists who once saw

humanity as inimical to Nature, and ancient aboriginal societies who have passed their remarkable ecological knowledge from generation to generation without a page of text or the benefit of computer presentations. I was happy to find, mostly in the field, a new generation of conservationists who have come to realise that the very landscapes they seek to protect contain high biodiversity because people who have been living there, some for thousands of years, are living right. Or, as cultural ecologist Gene Anderson observed, many of the world’s traditional societies long ago came to “some kind of terms with their environment, or they would not have lasted long enough to become ‘traditional’”.

Wildland conservation has a recorded history and a literary tradition. Aboriginals evicted from their homelands in the interest of conservation have only memory and the bitter oral narrative I heard over and over while visiting their makeshift villages and refugee camps. Their pre-eviction experience is rarely recorded outside the annals of anthropology. So the perspective of ‘fortress conservation’ and the preference for ‘virgin’ wilderness have lingered on in a movement that has tended to value all Nature except human nature, and refused to recognise the positive wildness in human beings.

Thus the beautifully written and widely read essays and memoirs of early American eco-heroes like John Muir, Lafayette Bunnell, Samuel Bowles, George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold inform a conservation mythology which until quite recently separated Nature from culture and portrayed natives and early settlers of frontier areas as reckless, irresponsible abusers of Nature, with no sense or tradition of stewardship, no understanding of wildlife biology and no appreciation of biodiversity.

It was the ‘manifest destiny’ of conservation leaders, then, to tame what Michael Wigglesworth had earlier described poetically as “A waste and howling wilderness, | Where none inhabited, | But hellish fiends and brutish men, | That devils worshipped”.

It has taken transnational conservation a long and painful century to see the folly of some of its heroes, like Richard Leakey for example, who recently denied the existence of Indigenous peoples in his home country, Kenya, and called for the removal of all ‘settlers’ from game reserves and other protected areas. Today all but the most stubborn and entrenched ‘enclose-and-exclude’ conservationists are

willing to admit that conflating Nature with wilderness, and occupants with ‘first visitors’ is specious reasoning. And they have come to realise, from simple empiricism, that even if they don’t own it, Indigenous people manage immense areas of biologically rich land. And most, although not all, are managing it well.

Some conservationists will even opine that regarding the impoverishment of Indigenous people as tolerable is a policy that has wrecked the lives of ten million or so poor, powerless but eco-wise people, and has been an enormous mistake; not only a moral, social, philosophical and economic mistake, but an ecological one as well. For it is better, far better, to have good stewards living on land than to have that same land cleared of its residents and surrounded by hostile evictees. Enlightened conservationists are asking themselves: “If in the course of saving biological diversity we destroy cultural diversity, what have we accomplished?” And they are beginning to accept the bio-cultural axiom which states that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.

I wrote this book with the hope that as conservationists and native people make their uneasy convergence they will come to agreement that they both own the interdependent causes of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, that they need each other badly, and that together they can create a new conservation paradigm that honours and respects the lifeways of people who have been living sustainably for generations on what can only be fairly regarded as their native land.

It is my hope that native people will blend their ancient traditional knowledge systems with the comparatively new sciences of ecology and conservation biology, in search of new and better ways to preserve the diversity of species that is vital not only to their own security but to all life on Earth. At this point, as the entire planet seems poised to tip into ecological chaos, with almost 40,000 plant and animal species facing extinction and 60% of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth failing, there may be no other way.

Conservation Refugees: A Conflict of Nature and Culture is to be published by MIT Press in spring 2009.

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian based in Point Reyes Station, California.

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