As with most industries that rely on transnational funding and support, Covid-19 has drastically impacted conservation work. Sources of funding for major conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have dried up, with the virus’ more localized impacts taking precedence over the distant and exotic lands in which these organizations operate. As highlighted by Mike Barrett of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) U.K., the economic fallout and fall in tourism will be severe, resulting in far-ranging impacts.
Yet, far before this crisis, the communities that inhabit the lands in and surrounding protected areas (PAs), have faced hardship as a result of conservation work. An entire history of dispossession and abuse has been obscured from general understandings about conservation, the impacts of which have resulted in conflict between local communities and the governments and NGOs that govern PAs. This is a story that needs uncovering in mainstream perceptions of conservation.
Discussing the book “Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement, and Sustainable Development”, Richard Fynn and Oluwatoyin Kolawole, researchers from the University of Botswana, recently assessed the devastating impacts of relocations as a result of PAs. They recounted the impacts of these relocations on livelihoods, resulting in a loss of access to traditional resources and adaptive strategies.
They add that local communities are forced into fighting wildlife for these resources. This creates a situation whereby, “local communities are carrying a very heavy burden of conservation while elites carry very little of the burden, resulting in the cost-benefit ratio of conservation being strongly skewed in favour of tourism companies, national governments, and the international conservation community.”
In 2018, an American based think tank, the Oakland Institute, produced a report that supports Fynn and Kolawole’s claims. Focusing on Maasai tribes in Tanzania, the organization argued that the most serious threats of the past 75 years for these communities “have come in the form of conservation laws, and more recently, foreign investment.” They uncovered the murky relationship between rich and powerful investors in ecotourism. These are said to work in tandem with government officials who have permitted the acquisition of private property rights of Tanzanian land on which the Maasai live. As a result, the report continues that the Maasai have experienced starvation, outbreaks of disease and the destruction of their way of life as they are denied access to vital grazing areas. This abuse of their human-rights pre-dates the creation of the Maasai Mara national reserve located to the North of the Serengeti National Park. The establishment of the Serengeti by the British Empire resulted in the forced eviction of the Maasai indigenous populations. This displacement, in the name of conservation, continues to this day, not only to the Maasai people, but indigenous communities worldwide.
The major players in conservation justify these re-locations to pursue their aims. They reinforce this stance by lambasting those breaking conservation laws as “poachers,” as well as painting local communities as a barrier to their goals. As a result, poachers are repeatedly demonized by news outlets, NGOs and influential celebrities and politicians who shape general conceptions surrounding conservation.
This demonization, however, is a crude simplification of a complex reality. Poachers often turn to criminal activity as a result of poverty caused by displacement. Poachers are broadly defined as anyone who participates in illegal wildlife activity. This results in the criminalization of natives very way of life, banning them from their land and territory. This also results in communities being forced into working for, or turning a blind eye to, the crime syndicates that organize transnational black markets for valuable species.
The increasing use of force against poaching is also a cause for concern. In 2019, Buzzfeed released an alarming report finding that the WWF had funded paramilitary forces who not only targeted “poachers” (in the general sense), but tortured and killed innocent civilians. Again, it is the poorest and most vulnerable in these contexts that continue to be demonized and misconstrued by the organizations that have often contributed to their misery.
This history has been deliberately buried by the major players in wildlife conservation. For example, National Geographic, often associated with portraying and influencing environmental values world wide, host a luxury hotel in the Maasai Mara nature reserve. Proudly stating that their lodge is “deep rooted in the community-protecting the surrounding habitats and culture,” their website fails to recognize the Maasai’s history of displacement and anguish. It only crudely alludes to this history, explaining that whilst most still uphold their society’s traditions, “some Maasai are moving away from pastoralism as they adapt to modern life.” This suggests that they are merely adapting to an inevitable transition to modern life, rather than being forced into it due to starvation and poverty. This should perhaps not come as a surprise when considering Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox News, currently owns National Geographic.
This mischaracterization is part of a trend whereby the major actors in conservation regularly misrepresent the relationship between native populations and wildlife. Natives are characterized as obstacles to conservation aims, with many active projects aiming to instil environmental mindsets into these communities. These ignore the structural problems of poverty and dispossession they face. Maasai culture has, for centuries, lived in harmony within the rich biodiversity that the WWF aims to protect and are its greatest custodians. They often find themselves pitted against conservation efforts for their own survival. This history and continual displacement and exploitation of local communities must be addressed head on, rather than blurred into the fuzzy and often fantastical ‘win-win’ scenarios advocated by the WWF, National Geographic, the Tanzanian government and further troubling collaborations between rich and powerful conservation NGOs, governments and private companies.
Fynn and Kolawole offered a solution; “to allow sites of conservation to return to the management to those that know best how to live sustainably and produce most biodiversity; the same indigenous populations evicted to make way for the parks.” They argue for the importance of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), explaining that this is the only solution to sustainable wildlife conservation, especially in the fight against poaching. Other frameworks, including science-based frameworks such as the social-ecological systems framework argues that solutions must “clearly articulate the governance principles for sustainable conservation, highlighting the importance of devolving autonomy of decision-making rights and benefits from wildlife to local communities.” As a result, poaching activity appears to have fallen dramatically in Namibia where CBNRM policies have been adopted.
However, as Fynn and Kolawole stress, national governments continue to fail to follow through with these strategies. They also claim that private enterprises and tourist companies can collaborate directly with communities. Yet, these must present the communities with the consideration and rights that all too often have been stripped away from them by private companies and enterprise (as the Oakland Institute reported). Despite reports that find that NGOs including the WWF participate in CBNRM programmes, there is a necessity for conservation agencies to collaborate in greater unison. Thankfully, there is encouraging evidence of efforts at addressing these problems. The Tanzania natural resource forum is facilitating the process of establishing the Tanzania National CBNRM forum following consultations with various local, national, regional, and international level stakeholders. It is vital that these address the underlying causes of local community strife, appreciating the natives lifelong displacement.
In this period of great uncertainty, there is a necessity to reflect on business as usual, ineffective, and damaging practices in economic development. Conservation practice is no exception. Public perceptions of conservation need to change, recognizing the bloody history of eviction and displacement that is still taking place in the world’s most famous national parks. Rather than hiding their story, multi-scale actors must work in close collaboration with these people. As Amnesty International reports, indigenous populations make up 5% of the world’s population yet safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Perhaps it would be in conservation’s interests for these people to reclaim their ancestral lands, benefiting both local communities and native biodiversity alike.