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 colonized 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 since 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 artisanal 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 the ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, when 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, the 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 to 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.

Published by

Mohammad Arju

Conservation Practitioner working in the Bay of Bengal region.