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

Leave A Comment

  1. Cara Lopez Lee August 15, 2010 at 11:37 pm - Reply

    You’ve really considered the idea of humans as part of the environment vs. humans as enemies of the environment in a balanced way, pointing out the validity of multiple perspectives. I think you’re right, Beth: it depends on the humans in question, case by case.

    I believe mathematics bring our most critical problems into simple focus: it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the human-ecosystem interaction as the ratio of humans to ecosystems shifts with the weight of growing populations. Even if we change our behaviors dramatically, if human populations continue to grow exponentially, we’ll soon find ourselves on a treadmill, making no headway. Life requires resources and energy, and there is a finite amount of water in this closed system we call earth. Someday we will reach a limit. Some places already have.

    I think the best we can do is try to do the next right thing, case by case, and try to keep each other in mind, without driving ourselves crazy with worry over those things we can’t control. Beyond that, I believe we can only be thankful that we live the healthiest, longest lives humans have probably ever lived in history. Nothing lasts forever.

    As comedian George Carlin once pointed out, “Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned how to care for one another. We’re gonna save the f-ing planet?”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking topic. I most appreciated your admission that, while you feel compassionate about the rights of indigenous people, you recognize that you live on their land and aren’t interested in moving. I often think about this same irony.

  2. Crafty Green Poet August 16, 2010 at 12:38 am - Reply

    Excellent post! I think it depends both on the people involved and the environment involved. There are some ecosystems that if we leave them alone will just naturally become something else (a lot of heathland and wetland in the UK left alone becomes scubby woodland and a valuable ecosystem can be lost).

    Very few people live in harmony with nature, I think its true that the first people (in most cases long before the Europeans got there) to colonise any land have killed off a good number of the large animals in that landmass.

  3. Beth Partin August 17, 2010 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Cara, George Carlin gets it right, doesn’t he? We’ll just have to stumble along and do what we can. Of course, our ideas today of what we can do are quite limited. I think we’re capable of much more change than we want to admit now.

    CGP, thanks! Given the ratio that Cara pointed out, I think we have to decide what ecosystems we need the most, and do our best to protect those.

  4. Meet the Maasai: Camel Herders December 13, 2010 at 1:38 am - Reply

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