Conservation in former colonies, how to stop dehumanizing people

The more I was attending those meetings, the more I was getting this feeling that as if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up new reserve in an occupied country; in the countryside, ‘protected’ from access by the colonised people; where the white settlers will be enjoying the utilitarian and intrinsic values of the ‘nature’, and the natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.

Problem with this feeling is, first of all, I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know), those meeting happened between 2013 and 2016. And, there were very few white people attending those meetings. Those meetings were not taking place in India under East India Company’s brutal rule, or in colonized Zimbabwe, those meetings were held in present-day Bangladesh. And most importantly, no one was talking about the violent business of colonization; cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities, in old or new form, neither.

Now, let me use the vocabulary of a good-hearted politically-correct liberal naturalist; those meetings were about nature ‘conservation’, where conservationists (experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs) were discussing ‘spatial management’ or ‘protected area’, and so on; they were discussing strategies, management plans for ‘protected areas’, to create ‘alternative livelihoods’ for the ‘local communities’.

Probably, you can make a guess, this type of meetings are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences and so on, mostly organized by INGOs, NGOs, UN agencies, and universities. Unfortunately, I have found myself among the organizers, sometimes. It’s been almost one year I am not attending any such meetings, but all these thoughts recently came back to me while I was talking to one of our colleagues; we were on a very long-distance call about something else, but he was seemingly uncomfortable about a discussion recently took place in Dhaka which he was a part of.

It was a discussion about conservation of Hilsa, and one of the talking points was, riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘beyond amending’, and we should think about pulling them out of this largely subsistence and artsianal fishery and re-employ them as workers in export-oriented ready-made garment factories. Maybe it is a noteworthy fact that most of the experts who attended the meeting are aquaculturists.

Children at Saint Martins
”The question is, if the best leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful for the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought?”

It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups, it is happening. Rather than focusing on addressing major stressors in social-ecological systems, conservation projects are going after the most vulnerable communities. Because simply it is ‘doable’ to mislead about ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, where in a fishery hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices, a conservation project can just declare success by forcing out some subsistence-oriented fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation’.

If you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, experience of being dehumanized in this way, you will find it very difficult to get the idea, why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era; how in 21st-century conservation is still rationalizing violence on people.

So, while protecting or conserving the nature always sounds unquestionably innocent when we live in our liberal bubbles, it is not that rosy for the people who are suffering most from ecological degradation without contributing much in the process of degradation, and again they become ‘victim’ of nature conservation efforts. When it comes to ‘conservation’ efforts by a specific government or inter-governmental agencies or international or national NGOs; things are not very black and white for the people living on the edge.

The question is, if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful for the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend? Or it was just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of government in the global south, in countries where oftentimes political participation is restricted, you know it better, there’s no other easy things to do, than motivating such a government to go after the marginalized communities.

But we can’t allow it to be continued. Because in this time when the unsustainable global economy is at its peak with all the consequences in the forms of global warming and extinction threat and so on, we can’t afford any more false hope in conservation.

If any ‘conservation’ efforts exclude the ‘nature’ from social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources’, if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they consider communities as ‘means’ to achieve ‘conservation’ ends, we should call those efforts out, those projects are not conservation, something else.

Conservationists should certainly stop excluding nature from societal spheres. In this way, we will be able to see that, we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people’. We need to be conscious of this savior complex of ours and avoid it.
And, when working with the communities to empower them against internal and external stressors within the social-ecological system, we should certainly stop stereotyping about communities because as a people no community is a homogeneous group. Individuals in a community need to be recognized for their unique vulnerabilities as resilience.

Conservation needs to empower people who are the worst victims of ecological degradation; in countries like Bangladesh where political participation is very limited, that is a very difficult thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much difficult it is. Of course, there is the sectoral limitation, we can’t just start talking partisan politics, we should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is a good way to start, it will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.

The development agencies who fund conservation efforts run by the governments in the global north need to understand that, if they want to serve interests of their taxpayers, which they are supposed to do, the interests should be mitigating the biggest global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.

Saving Saint Martin’s Island is not a lost cause, yet

It is true that what is left of the coral colonies in the Bay of Bengal around Saint Martin’s Island is almost a ruin. But it is not lost yet. Still, we’ve time to salvage the almost collapsed social-ecological systems of St. Martin’s Island.

Peoples say the local population is growing rapidly, tourists are coming in droves, in thousands and the island is losing its natural beauty; more than that, the local people are not cooperating with any efforts of environmental protection, so on and so on. In short, the island does not stand any chance when it comes to protecting its biodiversity and touristic attractions.

Such has been the narrative since we’ve started working in St. Martins. At least, I am getting these speeches from the people and institutions that are responsible for environmental protection of Bangladesh’s only island with coral associations.

In addition, this narrative is being repeated once again in the wake of the government’s recent initiative to promote more tourism in the area, among other seemingly horrific things, which also include making it a destination for a regional Ocean cruise.

Indeed, the scenario is not something which can be described as ‘promising’. Even the government has acknowledged the scenario by declaring the terrestrial area of the SMI as an ‘Ecologically Critical Area’ long ago in 1999. And the irony is, the degradation of coral habitat finally started with introducing irresponsible tourism back in 2013 under a Ministry of Environment and Forest run project titled ‘Promoting eco-tourism in Saint Martin’s Island’.

You just can’t allow ships coming into a very shallow coral habitat carrying thousands of tourists daily and host minimum three-thousand strong entourage on the island overnight. Only responsible ‘marine’ tourism (such as Diving, Snorkeling, Sailing, Angling and harmless watching from the onboard boat without big propeller) is counted as ‘Eco-tourism’ in a coral habitat. But the ministry did the opposite thing under the eco-label of ‘eco-tourism’ with expected consequences.

And now, about 67% of the coral is bleached to death, according to a survey. So, it would, of course, be foolhardy to say that, everything is fine in the SMI. But it would be equally hard to argue that, the island with its coral colonies is beyond saving, which I’ve heard from almost every government officials, conservation practitioners, and researchers I’ve ever met. Because what do we need is just reverse the process; shutting down irresponsible tourism. It works.  A closer look deep into the coral colonies around SMI, in fact, will assure you about this.

Saint Martin's Island

I took this photo last year after two consecutive tourist seasons were largely disrupted by the nation-wide violence erupted in the wake of last general election. Healthy coral colonies; It was an unusual sight in the island during last decade and after tourism fully revived last year. If we can have a planned retreat from the island for more years, say we keep the tourism shut for ten years, help it to regenerate, we will able the salvage the coral habitat.

So chances are good. Besides, the corals here in SMI are more tolerant than purely marine populations, it seems.

Saint Martin's Island

The photo says it all. It seems that species in St. Martin’s Island are too tolerant to be easily defeated by siltation. Like other coral colonies under the influence of estuarine sedimentation, they fight longer with the adverse environmental attribute.

And about the narrative that, the extent of degradation of the ecosystem is so high that, taking any small effort now (like what Save Our Sea is now trying to do by engaging tourism businesses and community) will be like bailing out a barge with a bucket. I do agree about the bucket. And this is what we need.

 

Team Turtle

The ‘Team Turtle’; in nesting season of 2015-16, 38 of the volunteers patrolled the beach at night to protect the nesting sea turtles. Coordinated by Save Our Sea, they were on their own, and thanks to the Department of Environment to house them at the Island. While the government and NGO-run turtle conservation efforts largely produced dubious success stories, the turtle volunteer activity continues to document the real scenarios and engaging local youth in conservation without any monetary incentives.

‘Project-based approach’ did not work in the coastal region (such as Saint Martin’s Eco-tourism Project, Coastal, and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project). Because these sorts of big projects run by desk-based managers and experts are designed to be doomed. Without any understanding of the community and ecosystem, these projects actually accelerated and covered-up the degradation of SMI. They did more harm than good by alienating the local community. So, instead of big fat bideshi or deshi projects, we need to start small.

 

Team Turtle

This photo is something, which testifies to people’s power to protect nature’s magnificent creatures. The turtle nest was saved by the volunteers from disastrous nest-relocation, which saw at least 600 unsuccessful hatchlings in the island in last season only. On the night of nesting, after almost months of intensive activity on the island, the Save Our Sea team was out the money. The price of the fencing materials was bKash-ed by one of our colleague from Dhaka, the fence was made-installed and maintained by local youth. Later we have conserved (in-situ) two more nests in the last season.

Rather than siphoning off foreign or domestic taxpayer’s money on designed-to-be-doomed projects, we need to start to remove the legal restriction on the community (who was the protector of the island before irresponsible tourism started) so that they can simultaneously rehabilitate the ecosystem and revive the marine fisheries, which is their most sustainable option for livelihoods.

 

Save Our Sea Team

Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib (left) and Alifa Bintha Haque (right); two of the researchers with Save Our Sea, who joined the team voluntarily to delineate ecosystem boundary of the Island. Without any financial consideration, they took conservation as their responsibility to discharge with own capacity. We do hope, the conservationists will get it that, being ‘hired’ by some agencies or projects does not make one a conservationist. Conservation is not something we can wait to be ‘funded’ by some other external forces; rather as part of nature, it is our job to take part and fund conservation efforts with our own capabilities. I am optimistic; I can see many of the young professionals are thinking this way.

The efforts needed to be rooted in the community in a true sense. If we can make it happen, passionate conservationists, other individuals, and institutions will certainly join the efforts with their own capacity, as they are doing right now with Save Our Sea.

 

Save Our Sea

The smile of volunteers. Heroes from our local Turtle Team and cleanup volunteers with Enamul Mazid Khan Siddique (fourth from the left). Despite having a full-time job in a I-NGO, Siddique personally helped the students and other young professionals in Bangladesh with training, guidance, and inspiration to build their lives around coastal and marine conservation. The list of such conservationists by passion we know is much longer in Bangladesh and other Bay of Bengal countries. This brings me the hope that once more organized, these people are going to bring some real change for Saint Martin’s Island and other coastal and marine ecosystems.

This post I guess explains why I’m optimistic, why I’m supporting hope over fear. The photos, I hope, explain that we’ll be able to see a locally-led marine protected area in Saint Martin’s Island very soon.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

 

(This post was first published on Save Our Sea’s blog)