Do Ecosystems Need Disturbance?

The spring 2010 issue of Cultural Survival has a thought-provoking article titled “Conservation Refugees.” It’s written by Mark Dowie, who wrote a book by the same title.

Conservation refugees are people who have been kicked out of areas designated as parks because the governments and environmental organizations that established the park think wilderness and people don’t mix. The article by Dowie challenges that view, mentioning such familiar groups as the Maasai as people who managed their lands in a way that enhanced diversity and now despise conservation.

Some sentences in the article made me really sad: “Banished Batwa in Central Africa sometimes sneak back into the forest to harvest medicinal plants and firewood at the risk of being legally killed by ecoguards hired by conservation agencies.”

Some I questioned: “The romantic goal of preserving nature as untrammeled wilderness casts humans as a destructive force because we ‘upset’ the natural balance, but this view belies the reality that ecosystems are constantly in flux and need some level of disturbance to make them viable.”

I question the word “need.” I question the idea that ecosystems, if not regularly disturbed, will become unproductive and undiverse. And for whom are they being made viable?

I think this article takes a romantic view of indigenous peoples as always being good stewards of the land. I’ve spent time on the Navajo reservation. I’ve heard about the decision early in the twentieth century to reduce the numbers of sheep and cattle on the reservation and how devastating it was to people’s livelihoods. I’ve also seen lands on the reservation that look really overgrazed. I think some people (indigenous or not) are good stewards of the lands, and some are not; I think all Americans could do a lot more to make their own lands healthy and diverse.

Maybe the problem conservationists have with the idea of indigenous peoples managing their own lands (and owning them, for that matter) is that those lands don’t look like a postcard. Areas around a settlement may look highly disturbed to an environmentalist’s eye, but like a meadow opening in a forest, that disturbance may increase diversity.

I also question the article’s assertion that wildlife conservationists reject rotational cattle grazing as a method to increase diversity. The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations cited as a creator of conservation refugees in the article, has been doing just that for years. TNC grazes cattle in Phantom Canyon north of Fort Collins, Colorado, and has encouraged it in the Malpai Borderlands of Arizona. (One of the reasons I quit giving TNC money several years ago was this issue of tossing people out of park areas, but I still think the organization does good things. I just didn’t think it was in desperate need of my money anymore.)

How is any of this restoration?

If native peoples can continue to live on their lands, that’s a good thing. The fewer people we have migrating to slums in the cities, the better. In fact, I wish governments would start some “return to the countryside” programs that help people farm in a way that supports them and protects the countryside.

I’m more reluctant to say indigenous peoples should be returned to their lands because it would be so hypocritical for me to advocate that for other countries when my own is so guilty of ethnic cleansing. If some Arapahoe or Cheyenne family showed up on my doorstep and said they’d read my blog and wanted to be able to return to their lands via my house, I wouldn’t be too happy about it.

Source: “Conservation Refugees,” by Mark Dowie, Cultural Survival, Spring 2010