Is Conservation a New Form of Colonialism?

When you think of environmental conservation, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of beautiful national parks, diving holidays to save sea turtles, or even heroic park rangers protecting the wildlife and nature that are kept within the barriers of a state-sanctioned conservation area.


But have you ever thought about the impact that designated state-protected areas have on the communities whose ancestral homes are ripped away from them? Environmental conservation is an embodiment of colonial values: indigenous communities are forced out of their homes, presented as the enemy, and hardly ever consulted on how the land can be protected. In March 2019, Buzzfeed News exposed how WWF funded guards had repeatedly tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered scores of people in a bid to ‘protect’ conservation zones. The report, based on over 100 interviews, and thousands of pages of documents across six countries found:

  • Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units.

  • The charity’s field staff in Asia and Africa have organized anti-poaching missions with notoriously vicious shock troops, and signed off on a proposal to kill trespassers penned by a park director who presided over the killings of dozens of people.

  • WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages. In one African country, it embroiled itself in a botched arms deal to buy assault rifles from a brutal army that has paraded the streets with the severed heads of alleged “criminals.”

The stories are unfathomable. To add to this, thousands of indigenous communities are often forced out of their homes in the name of ‘conservation’. And this isn’t a thing of the past, it’s a reality for millions of people today.

Forest-dwelling indigenous people evicted in India

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In February 2019, the Guardian reported that millions of forest-dwelling indigenous people faced eviction ‘after the country’s supreme court ruled that indigenous people illegally living on forest land should move’. This came after ‘various wildlife conservation groups called for the government to repeal a 2006 Forest Rights Act that allowed forest dwelling people the right to their ancestral lands, “including those in specially “protected” areas that contain sanctuaries and wildlife parks to conserve wildlife”.

The Maasai in Tanzania


Over 12 months from 2017-2018, Quartz Africa reported that thousands of Maasai were left homeless from their homes in Ngorongoro Crater after they were “burnt to preserve the region’s ecosystem and attract more people”. Reports showed that villagers were increasingly facing “violence, arrest, and death even as foreign investors and enterprises sought to profit off their stewardship”.

The Baka People of Congo


Survival International reported in March 2019 that for nearly a decade, the Baka have been “driven from their homes and deprived of their vital lifeline of forest resources-with devastating results” since WWF started working with the Congolese government to set up the Messok Dja National Park. There have since been reports of torture, discrimination, violence and murder. Meanwhile, conservation has played a major part in malnutrition among tribal peoples in the Congo, often leading to conservation-related deaths of children.

The San People of Botswana

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In April 2014, the Guardian reported how the 2014 ban prohibiting all hunting in Botswana except on game farms or ranches ended thousands of years of San culture. Jamunda Kakelebone, a member of the San, explained, “We have survived for millennia in one of the world’s driest areas but they treat us as stupid. We are hunter-gatherers yet we get arrested. We cannot damage the wildlife. If we kill one animal we eat it for a month. We are not allowed to hunt but others can”. Since 2002, the Botswana government have removed thousands of San from the Kalahari reserve in a bid to encourage tourism, diamond money and conservation groups to the area.

The Ogiek of Kenya


In 2009, the Kenyan government revealed plans to ‘remove the Ogiek from their ancestral land in the Mau Forest’. This is after persisted attempts to force the Ogiek off their lands: in the 1960s, Kenyan police burned Ogiek huts in attempt to drive them out, meanwhile in the 1990s politicians handed out large plots of forest to political friends. Amnesty International has expressed the fear that ‘the indigenous group of nearly 15,000 will become the newest group of “conservation refugees”, forced from ancestral lands in the name of conservation’.

Communities have been pushed out with just memories of the areas where they once gathered food, built their families and lived harmoniously with nature. The dictionary definition of a conservation area is an area of notable environmental or historical interest or importance which is protected by law against undesirable changes. Yet, the conservationists ship out the native peoples and drive in drones of tourists riding 4X4s, with binoculars in tow looking out for ‘exotic’ animals, while the evicted peoples look in from the outside. The biggest irony is that conservation charities such as WWF aim to ‘protect’ the natural state of these ecosystems, yet they repeatedly evict and alienate the land’s best allies. This video created by Survival International perfectly demonstrates the connection between conservation projects and colonialism. They’re both “built on the racist idea that “we” know best”:

So what can you do about it? It’s about understanding how your actions as a tourist in these spaces play a role in the destruction of indigenous people’s homes. Then it’s time to raise petitions, create some buzz around the injustice, and support projects led by groups such as Survival International.

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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