A few weeks ago I worked on an excerpt from Birdsong After the Storm and developed it into an article for openDemocracy. The theme is familiar one. I was making the case that many of the big NGOs in North America and Europe have lost their connection with why they started their conservation work. They have morphed into a form of market environmentalism with unintended consequences for local communities in Africa, Asia and South America.
I used some case studies to illustrate my point. The Gonds and the Baigas – tribal peoples in India –have been evicted from their ancestral homelands to make way for tiger conservation. Palm oil companies are hiding behind their NGO partners through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Big NGOs have scuppered efforts to control polar bear trophy hunting in the Arctic while they benefit from lucrative corporate partnerships for other areas of polar bear conservation. I also spoke of NGO financed eco-guards brutally mistreating the Baka tribes-people in Cameroon through their gorilla conservation programmes, while turning a blind eye to the destruction of the Baka’s way of life through logging, mining and the trafficking of wildlife.
I sent the article, knowing it was scheduled to run the following week. Late in the week the editors emailed to ask if the article could be delayed for another week. I had no deadline so was happy to oblige and turned my attention elsewhere.
A few days before my piece went live the BBC reported on gorilla tourism in Uganda and the evictions of Batwa pygmies from their traditional forest lands, even though the Batwa had no impact on the gorillas. The Guardian covered the story of Botswana wildlife officials opening fire from a helicopter on San tribesmen who were collecting food on their traditional lands. These lands are now covered by national park for elephants and rhino. The Guardian also covered the terrible effects of conservation laws for Dukha reindeer herders in Mongolia. My article became part of the momentum.
In the past few days I have wondered if it was serendipity or if something else is afoot. I have been surprised how readily conservationists have embraced the ideas I propose.
Perhaps many of us sense the current system has major flaws. Perhaps we are yearning to hear about solutions that are ‘human scale’ – proposals local enough and small enough that we can embrace and understand them. Perhaps we want solutions that don’t require begging big business to come to the rescue or for the super-rich to feel benevolent.
Somewhere inside we know the world is already full of people, and that setting aside great wilderness area means moving many of them. We worry. Will it work? Where will they go? What happen when the world population grows?
I believe that big NGOs need to devolve their grip on how conservation is conceived and respond to community ideas and wisdom about protecting the wildlife with which they live.
In July Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, tabled a damning report to the UN General Assembly. She sounded the alarm about the impact that conservation is having on tribal peoples in Kenya, Uganda, Bangladesh, Namibia, Botswana, Ethiopia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I extend this alarm to many local communities in rural landscapes around the world. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz rightly asserts that many of the better conserved forests, savannahs and waters are in indigenous peoples’ territories.
Big conservation NGOs need to free themselves from corporate pressures and transform themselves into supporters of local civil society. There is an important role for them to play – they can project the unpasteurised voices of local communities into the halls of the United Nations.
Together everyone is stronger. Together we can turn our collective might on what is really destroying the world and the wildlife we cherish.
Perhaps it is not serendipity that these articles were all published at the same time. Perhaps we are getting ready to shift the paradigm.
The absolutely wonderful photograph that heads this article is by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami. Read more about his work and more fascinating photos of the Dukha ‘Reindeer People’ living in Mongolia in an article by Alice Yoo.