Saturday, May 25, 2019

When conservation is colonialism

In the name of "conservation," thousands of families, tribes and communities in Africa and Asia have had their land stolen and been forced into destitution and despair.

It is claimed, the local people don’t know how to look after their own land and care for its wildlife, so they should get off it and let “the real experts” manage it instead.

The reason outsiders are so keen to get their hands on this land is that these areas are very rich in biodiversity. Though indigenous territories make up only 22% of the world’s land, they hold 80% of Earth’s biodiversity. The fact that endangered species still survive on their land yet have been wiped out elsewhere should speak for itself: the truth is that tribal people are the best conservationists and understand their environment better than anyone else.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working with the Congolese government to create a protected conservation zone in Congo, known as Messok Dja. This land is home to the Baka people, one of the "Pygmy" tribes of central Africa, who rely on these forests for survival. Already, even though the park is not yet established, rangers funded and supported by WWF have stolen the Baka’s possessions, burnt their camps and clothes, beaten and tortured them.

Survival International is campaigning with the Baka against the establishment of Messok Dja protected area. In December 2018, Survival released letters signed by over a hundred people from six villages outlining their objections to the Messok Dja project and the abuse they have suffered at the hands of WWF-supported eco-guards. These objections, and many others, have been largely ignored.

The WWF should actually be talking to these communities, because they know better than anyone else how their ecosystem works and how to protect this forest. Its reply was simple: no, you’re wrong, they don’t know better, an opinion  born of prejudice, not fact. WWF would never impugn the Baka’s knowledge like this publicly however, as global powers now have to at least pretend they respect indigenous peoples. International law says that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous and tribal inhabitants must be obtained before such projects take place on their land. The fact that the Baka do not consent means that WWF forcing through the demarcation of Messok Dja is not only unjust, it is actually illegal. In the case of Messok Dja, WWF has outright lied about getting FPIC from the Baka, but produces a lot of warm-sounding words to justify their land grab.

Consultation is not consent. WWF has been working on this project since 2005, but only began the consultation process with local communities at the start of 2019  Consent means you have the right to say no and have that "no" respected, but the only thing conservationists are granting the Baka apparently have is "the opportunity to express their opinions to decision-makers and managers;" they can voice their objections, but, on their own land, the Baka are not the decision-makers. As long as communities associate WWF with violence and oppression, “free” consent is impossible.

The Baka and their neighbors have lived as hunter-gatherers for generations, which means that their day-to-day survival depends entirely on their profound understanding of their environment, and the ability to maintain healthy wildlife populations. The Baka play as vital a role in maintaining the ecosystem as any apex predator. For example, it is well known that elephants and other large mammals in these forests spread seeds, trample paths, and perform other roles which facilitate the growth and flourishing of other species. Likewise, Baka forest camps create clearings, which, well fertilized by ashes and organic material, result in more food and better habitats for gorillas.

"Conservation is actually worse than colonization. It’s about slavery." explained one Baka.

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