The more I attended those meetings, the more I got this feeling of time travel into the past. As if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up a new reserve in an occupied country. Enclosures; in the countryside, ‘‘protected’’ from access by the colonized people; the settlers will enjoy the practical and intrinsic values of the ‘‘nature’’. The natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.
The problem with this feeling is that I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know); those meetings 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 talked about the violent business of colonization, cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities in an 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 were discussing ‘‘spatial management’’ or ‘‘protected area’’, and so on. You have experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs among these conservationists. And 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 meeting are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences, and so on. These were mainly 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 recent discussion in Dhaka that he was a part of.
It was a discussion about the conservation of Ilish. One of the talking points was that riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘‘beyond amending’’. We should consider pulling them out of subsistence and artisanal fishery and re-employ them in export-oriented ready-made garment factories.
It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups; it is happening. Rather than addressing significant 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 hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices in a fishery, a conservation project can just declare victory by forcing out some subsistence and artisanal fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation.’
Suppose you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, the experience of being dehumanized in this way. In that case, you will find it very difficult to understand why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era. In 21st-century, nature conservation is still rationalizing and justifying violence on people who do not contribute to the global ecological and climate crisis.
So, while protecting or conserving 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. Again they become the 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.
Is the leverage well-thought if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful to the people who provide the minor negative trend in the system? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend in the system? Or was it just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of a government in the global south, in countries where political participation is often restricted, you know it better; there’s no other easy thing to do than motivate 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 the social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources,’ if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they think of 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 see that we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people.’ We need to be conscious of this savior complex 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 assembly is a homogeneous group. Individuals in society 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 minimal, that is a tricky thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much challenging it is. Of course, there are sectoral limitations. We can’t just start talking partisan politics. We should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is an excellent way to start. It will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.
The development agencies that fund conservation efforts need to understand it. The main interests should be mitigating the most significant global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.