AI in Conservation: Communities’ control over the decision-making process

Imagine a tropical forest region, a seascape or mangroves, where big data on the society and ecology— on biodiversity, the behavior of peoples as individuals and the community— are being collected through data sensing and other methods and used in a larger Artificial Intelligence project. The machine— the computers and so on— will, of course, learn in the process. Still, from the beginning, the decision about what information to acquire and what and how to use that information is decided by specific (human) stakeholders. Gradually machine learning will take its course and will take AI processes forward. AI will acquire data and set rules for data-use to decide about the access to nature by communities about natures’ commons. AI will determine nature conservation and what is not; it will choose where, when, and how to intervene for conservation.

In recent years, several non-governmental organizations based in North America and Europe embraced AI in nature conservation. The plans and actions of these conservation NGOs have significance for communities all across the world. Because narratives promoted by these big NGOs and their work heavily influence policies and resource allocation outside North America and Europe, unfortunately, it appears that conservation groups who have international influence are yet to recognize that AI is an automated decision-making process. None of these groups are addressing the question of communities’ participation in and control over AI. But the success of these NGOs will mean that, in the coming decades, AI will increasingly determine the extent of control over natures’ commons enjoyed by local and indigenous communities across the world.

For instance, the largest association of nature conservation groups— the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is currently drafting its program for the 2021-2024 period. The IUCN has identified Artificial Intelligence as one of the main enablers to achieve its goals related to core program areas. It seems the use of big datamachine learning, and AI is considered the most critical enabler in the future programs of the IUCN. But there’s no word about safeguarding against the autonomous superpower of AI to harm; nothing is mentioned about whether there will be efforts to ensure communities’ participation in AI and communities’ control over big data.

If you take a serious look into the current state of the AI field, you will see that basic premises of discussions on AI in the governance of nature conservation should at least consider the following;

  1. AI is a simulation of the human intelligence process owned and run by big data monopolies that also simulate all human biases and aggravate violation of rights and accelerate injustices.
  2. AI is an autonomous decision-making process that has independent power to harm individuals and communities by violating privacy and other rights and has inherent features to aggravate the current state of global inequality through the unequal distribution of resources.
  3.  To date, AI innovations and applications are primarily run and owned by a few big data monopolies. Suppose communities do not have ownership of big data. In that case, AI processes and tools have inherent capacities to be used in the disempowerment of people and to hinder equitable governance of nature’s commons.

Unfortunately, while conservation groups are embracing AI, none of these discussions are present. After decades of community work to secure environmental rights and justice, inclusion, and participation, and establishing the concept of free and prior and informed consent— why is this happening all over again when it comes to AI? I see three main reasons. Firstly, conservation groups consider AI as a mere technological tool that is innovative and can tremendously enhance the operation of nature conservation governance. Secondly, conservation groups fail to recognize that the AI processes are still business products owned by a very few giant corporations with a total monopoly on the powerhouse of AI— the big data. Lastly, conservation groups do not recognize that AI is resource-expensive, and the absence of AI is not necessarily the main challenge for many communities to conserve nature’s commons.

These limitations of big conservation groups’ position about AI should be seriously addressed. Members, supporters, and patrons of conservation NGOs should know better that AI isn’t just an innovative technological tool that state or non-state actors can use to implement nature conservation interventions; it’s much more than that. AI brings a very high level and extent of automation to the decision-making process. It will determine who gets to decide about what interventions are necessary and when and how to intervene.

To date, the main powerhouses of AI— the Big Data are owned by invasive, non-transparent, and unaccountable corporations who have established their monopoly in the business. So, AI has all the inherent biases against marginalized communities in every nation and innate capacities to be used against marginalized communities (e.g., indigenous nations, artisanal fishers, and vulnerable gender groups) whose livelihoods practices offer protection to nature against unsustainable extractive industries. So, without ensuring the democratization of AI, it will be dangerous for vulnerable communities to welcome it in the management of environmental commons to which their life, livelihoods, and cultures are deeply connected. Deployment of AI without securing direct control over the data by communities can undo decades of efforts in environmental justice; and participatory and inclusive governance of nature’s commons.

AI is resources-expensive. Nature conservation management is doable with the less; it will be counter-productive to welcome such a resource-expensive process indiscriminately. The efficiency in nature conservation governance promised by Artificial Intelligence is helpful for indigenous and local communities only if they have the political power, opportunity of direct participation, and authority to control such an automated decision-making process. Imagine artisanal fishers or indigenous communities who aren’t allowed to participate in governance directly. Then outside actors bring AI into the scene without ensuring democratization of the ownership of the big data. In that case, AI will be used to justify injustices against communities.

Conservation groups should make it very clear that when they talk about Artificial Intelligencebig datadata sensing, and machine learning— they recognize AI as a highly automated decision-making process with inherent biases and inherent power to harm communities. Secondly, conservation groups should prioritize democratizing such processes before deploying AI in nature conservation. And lastly, it should be recognized by conservation groups that democratization of AI does not only mean that communities have the right to know or see (access) about what’s going on. Instead, it means communities own the big data, and the communities have total control over the processes related to AI.


Featured Photo: Fishers and honey collectors in the Sundarbans— the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world. Photo by the author.

Thoughts from Pathways 2017 conference, the future of human dimensions

As a journalist, when I started inquiring about ‘community-based conservation’ projects in 2010, I anticipated that we will be dealing with works which are empowering and enabling people into conservation, but that was not to be. We have found out that, in many cases, communities are less likely to be planning or implementing the conservation projects and more likely to be silent ‘poster child’ for the NGOs who are. Not only CBCs, to my experience back in Bangladesh, other approaches to conservation are also built on the gross dehumanization of people who are suffering the most from ecological degradation. And oftentimes, the ‘best’ leverage to trigger conservation interventions turns out to be very costly for the people who are the least negative actors in the system.

In this context, I am happy that I got the opportunity to attend the Pathways 2017 Conference in Colorado last year. It was very positive to listen to the first-hand account of professionals from many countries that, things are changing in many places. Most particularly, considering ‘human dimensions of wildlife conservation’ is being gradually popular among managers, slowly, but it’s happening.

YMCY Estes Center Fireplace
‘What an awful fireplace’, a friend commented after seeing this photo on my Facebook wall. Except fireplaces decorated with animal trophies like this at YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (located between Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park), the Pathways 2017 Conference venue was a very quiet and scenic place. I was not surprised to see herd of Elks outside my window in the morning. ‘Ample opportunities to see wildlife’ is well advertised on YMCA’s website. Elks in flocks still frequent the 860-acre mountain resort where ‘wholesome Christian environment’ ensure that they are not being disturbed.

More than three hundred professionals involved in social science aspects of fisheries and wildlife management took part in the conference from September 17 through 20, 2017; mostly academics, and there were other scientists, NGO professionals, and students. Partnered with The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the conference theme was; ‘Futures: Integrating Human Dimensions into Fish and Wildlife Management.’ With a poster session, a number of panels and workshops, and at least 142 (not official count) contributions as oral presentations, it was very tightly scheduled.

Organized by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the Colorado State University, to my knowledge, it is THE largest knowledge forum to know about HWC works and meet the related people. Pathways is also a training platform focused on ‘increasing professionalism and effectiveness’ in the human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management.

Elks a YMCA Estes Park
The wild mountain elks on the campus worked as ‘energizer’ during the breaks throughout the conference. And, seasonal warning signs of ‘bear activity’ brought hope to some participants, though the conference ended without any reported encounter. I remember a conversation during an Elk-watch. One of my colleagues exclaimed that ‘now that’s something that we call human-wildlife conflict!’ I added that, how about ‘human encroachment into wildlife habitat?’ The reply was intriguing; ‘I don’t think so. Maybe something worse could have happened if we were not here.’ Now, that’s something. What could have been happened if ‘humans were not the dominant species.’

It’s not my purpose here to inventory all the sessions and presentations I attended, but just a few notes are in order. And, of course, nothing preoccupies me during looking at a conservation intervention as much as the stake of the community who is being affected or expected to participate. So, I was mostly focused on that type of presentations and sessions.

Getting mainstream: Research related to human dimensions of wildlife conservation can be traced back to as early as the 1930s in North America (Stevens & Organ., 2017). But still, in the particular case presented by Stevens and Organ, the funding ratio for HWC research has not significantly increased. But interestingly, diversity of HWC research projects has been increased involving diverse stakeholder communities, and ‘society began to demand greater input into decision-making regarding wildlife and fisheries management’.

Rocky Mountain National Park
At 8000 feet, the temperature was fluctuating between 2 and 8-degree Celsius. The sudden change in altitude and temperature was little difficult for me. But after our presentation (Self-funded Model for Community-led In-situ Conservation of Sea Turtles), one day I went for a hike to more higher altitude into the national park on a 7-mile out-and-back trail. I was alone, and throughout the hike, while I was, of course, enjoying the well-conserved landscape I could not stop thinking about the indigenous people who were massacred and almost wiped out from this region. The massacres continued, even in many cases ‘accelerated’ after the independence from Britain. Probably later in November last year, I came across a news story on the Denver Post that, ‘Rocky Mountain National Park is going back to its roots, expanding its representation of Native Americans.’ Now, it should make us hopeful of the future.

Another thing I would like to note that, at least half the presentations I have attended was about working with something ‘first of its kind’ or ‘one of the first’. Social Suitability Index (SSI) for predator conservation that ‘measures the cultural context for conservation in a region’ (Kraftee et al., 2017), for instance. Given the history of big cat conservation, one can think that this could have been done long ago if there were enough attention and resources. And, that is a possibility if it is mainstreamed into conservation narrative. I remember, President and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquarium, Dan Asher’s main argument during his keynote, that is, ‘there are no human dimensions of conservation, conservation is all about humans.’ It is an very effective rhetoric to show the way forward; we need HWC to be mainstreamed into conservation.

The challenge to transform ‘human dimensions’ into the ‘new normal’ of conservation: And, how do we do that? There are many critical opinions out there. And, with my little experience as a practitioner, it does not seem like a disciplinary case. For instance, mainstreaming social sciences (Bennett et al., 2017) in conservation will not do the job as such. Of course, it might help HWC to be broadly accepted; we will be seeing more works of this kind. But I can’t see that will necessarily transform HWC into the new normal of conservation. To me, the challenge is, whether HWC will enable us to intervene in core political and policy premises of traditional nature conservation narrative that still see ‘human dimensions’ as just another ‘tool’ to do the old job more effectively, that is, continuing the ambivalence towards ecological justice while celebrating only the presumed success of species-level conservation.

 

References:

Stevens, S., & Organ, J. (2017). The Evolution of Human Dimensions Research through the Lens of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program Grants in the Northeast United States. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Kraftee, K., Larson, L., Powell, R., Allen, L., Hallo, J., & Jachowski, D. (2017). Assessing Cultural Context for Predator Conservation. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. (2017), Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.

Gellately, Robert. 2006. The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Conservation in former colonies, how to stop dehumanizing people

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.

Children at Saint Martins
”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 well-thought?”

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.

People and conservation in the south, first impressions

No matter what they are up to; hurricane evacuees waiting at the gas station, shrimpers struggling to feed their families, mothers working hard to keep children in school, billionaire retiree anglers feeling under the hot and humid weather, salespersons greeting 25 people in an hour, or for instance my colleagues who are knee-deep into their work, people here on the South Atlantic Bight seems to be always in a better mood with a big smile. Though I am based in Skidaway Island, but trying to make it to other coastal cities and barrier Islands as much as possible. Some say, ‘southern hospitality’ is a myth, and I see, not only my colleagues or acquaintances, down here people generally are inherently cautious about being unwelcoming or unhelpful.

For me, this Island is remote in a sense that the only grocery is more than two miles away from my place, and in this late summer, we don’t have any neighbors on this jungle-campus of the University of Georgia on Skidaway river except the deer, raccoons, squirrel, mockingbirds, owls and chirping cicadas. Of course, we have the water birds who are year-round residents of the maritime forest and salt marsh, and the tidal visitors in afternoon; the pelicans and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I remember, when Mona was driving me down here from Atlanta airport, it was late in the afternoon when we crossed the river to the Island, driving through the huge loblolly pines with ‘deer Xing’ road signs, I thought it is going to be the best of the both worlds, and it has been exactly turned out to be so. Mona, Dr. Mona Behl is my community mentor at the host organization.

I don’t know what draws me, but being near Ocean or streams make me kind of feel ‘home’.  Living this close to the Ocean, a tidal river, the bluff, the marsh, and all those ambient sounds always remind me the backyard of our home on the Island of Bhola, the place I was born and raised, bordered by the Ganges river mouth and the Bay of Bengal aka the northern Indian Ocean. Looking back, I reckon, in a way, that sedimentary swampy Island in the center of Bangladesh’s 710-kilometer-long coast, was the best place to continue to grow with what I had started.

The path I took can be termed in the present-day jargon as ‘youth work’, through a mix of outreach, public relation, and mass-communication. My father was a high-school language and literature teacher, and an Imam also– leading Friday prayer services and guiding the community.  For me, it started with public speaking from the school platform before I was involved in local politics at a very young age, then I found myself as writing for national newspapers and magazines. I had this personal trait, which may be loosely identified as being an ‘introvert’. But now when I look back it surprises me that, this personal trait was not a limiting factor for me to be a youth leader in my community. I was a fluent speaker and tireless organizer. I could spend a whole day on my bicycle to reach out to the farthest flock of young people. Though my community work, of course, was a limiting factor for my reading habit and writing too. And at the end of the day, I did not want to ditch my vision to be a writer who is deeply involved with the local community. But, the coastal local economy of Bangladesh was on the decline. Like most lower-income families who send their children to school, my parents did not see any ‘future’ for us on the Island. Jobs dependent on coastal and marine ecosystems was not ‘respectable’ anymore because of dwindling income.

The first thing after settling myself in the city of Dhaka what I did is to start writing for newspapers, and within a few years, the course of events had brought me back to community work. And here I’m today! as a ‘Scholar-in-Residence’ with the Georgia Sea Grant and Marine Extension at the University of Georgia, I am trying to understand how coastal people on the south-eastern Atlantic Ocean are faring in their life, where they do not have any apparently direct dependence on the ecosystems for subsistence, but highly vulnerable to ecosystem degradation, extreme weather, and sea level rise; trying to figure out how people of Indian Ocean nations can be benefitted from the American experience of nature conservation through institutionalized process facilitated by public agencies.

The stilt house I live in on the Island is part of a joint campus shared by an Oceanographic research institution established in the late ’60s, an extension facility of UGA, and a reef sanctuary office of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After the office hours, only 4 to 5 people stay on the 1425-acre campus for most of the days, mostly visiting fellows. There are few crews though, living on board the research vessel on the river. On some days I’m the only person staying the night on campus. Outside this campus, life on the Island is expensive. It is home to the largest and one of the most affluent gated communities in the country.

Amid all these, when I am alone on the campus which was formerly part of plantations run on slavery, what comes back to me is the flashback of the daily life on this island from more than two hundred years ago. The flashbacks are becoming more organized into some kind of visual frames day by day, as I’m reading a lot about the history of this region and talking to people. When I walk through the nature trails or just sit idle on the bluff in the middle of the night, I can feel like I was here with the indigenous tribe hundreds of years ago, but certainly, I was not. Sometimes, I go the neighborhoods in the downtown of Savannah. I need to talk with people who are living in poverty but not living on the Island anymore. Because I am trying to come up with a public program for Georgia Sea Grant which will diversify the audience, will be able to attract people of marginalized races, ethnicities and lower income levels.

I try to keep the conversations very personal. Many of them ask me about the institutional nature of my work. With pleasure, I mention that I am grateful to the American people for they have institutionally and financially facilitated this opportunity to serve them.  This sort of exchange of experiences has all the potentials to help them address unique environmental challenges through people to people collaboration. In this time of disaster and despair, this kind of learning-sharing can significantly influence our ability to look for common grounds for collaboration among the coastal communities of the world. Of course, many of them are doubtful about their benefits from any international roles taken by US government, or they just distrust any activism by ‘liberals’. For some, the ‘fact’ that the former Vice President Al Gore– the ‘guy close to Hillary’ is one of the celebrity leaders in the fight against climate change is enough to dismiss the whole threat. 

A few of them ask me, what’s in it for you? I tell them my story, what happened back in Dhaka when after a few months into my first full-time media job, I managed to start extensively travel to the communities living across 710 kilometers long coastline on the Bay of Bengal. Those experiences were unlike anything I have ever read in newspapers. During our childhood, we had three newspapers at our home,of course, one-day-old, arriving from the capital by passenger ferries. We used to read them through next 24 hours, starting from the dateline to the printers line, before taking the afternoon walk to the river next day, waiting for ferries. But during my travel to the coastal areas, I realized that I knew nothing about these people. I thought all the ‘bad’ things are happening only on our island. During those years, I got to know what is actually going on in the life of coastal rural people in other places, who were forced to migrate to inner cities and take the perilous boat journey to other nations. But in public sphere on the national level, they were barely present in any discussions, they were totally left out.

I am grateful that my travels and conversations pushed me into serious community works, once again. The last couple of years, at the network we have founded in Bangladesh, with our associates and affiliates, we are trying to design, develop and monitor Participatory Action Research initiatives in coastal communities to enhance resilience.  But no matter what we do, what is missing is concerted efforts to remove policy barriers for the communities so that they can avail the public resources to address social-ecological challenges by themselves. Conservation NGOs and INGOs in countries like Bangladesh do their ‘projects’ in a colonial ‘settler’ mode; they mostly address problems which do not exist in the first place. For instance, they run ‘awareness’ campaign among communities when the communities do not have access to the forest anymore, and the deforestation is led by industries. If sometimes they are forced to act based on local priorities, they always deploy top-down interventions, sometimes with misleading names, ‘co-management’, for instance.

They are always ‘parachuting’ science and conservation initiatives based on stand-alone projects and then leaving to pursue another project that may or may not be consistent with previous efforts. Virtually there’s no effort for local institution building to run permanent programs for creating local workforce and helping communities to achieve and maintain social-ecological resilience. There is no NGO-led ‘conservation success’ in last few decades which benefitted the people en mass. This is unfortunate, but this scenario is going to be changed, I believe.

Unlike those green-washing projects, I see at Sea Grant there is a notably different approach to conservation, the approach which necessarily related to its institutional nature. At Sea Grant, I see, my colleagues are working for the people, and with the people. I know, how this publicly funded institution strives for working with full intellectual autonomy to serve the most vulnerable people of the nation while remaining accountable and transparent to them. I am observing how the community leaders, natural resources managers, social workers, businesses, and members of academia work together for healthy coastal ecosystems, resilient communities, and environmental workforce development. This is one of the strongest public institutions in the world engaged in coastal and marine research and extension, and they are working for you, I say to the people I come across here.

To my relief, whether we agree or not, we can find some common grounds to explore more. It seems, the binary of global south and north does not work always. Besides, this region is the south of the global north. Particularly, many white people are proud as ‘southerners’. And, I am from the ‘south’ also, globally and locally, in a totally different meaning though.

 

September 9, 2017
Skidaway Island

‘I am the river; the river is me’, what it means for Conservation?

What will be the implications of attributing essentially secular person-hood to a natural process, a River, for example? Was it even something Maori people wanted for the Whanganui river as such? How will this new development influence the secular notion of ‘nature’ and vice versa? How it challenges the idea of ‘natural resources management’ as we know it? Will it bring any hope for dysfunctional and ‘native’ hating European approach of nature ‘conservation’

These are the questions I’m exploring since last week. And I’d love to share a brief note from what is gathered so far.

First of all, technically speaking, the New Zealand parliament did acknowledge Whanganui River as a legal person.

Of course, the 170-year old political battle of Indigenous people was not only about securing equal status for a river to a human person, the kind of legal person-hood enjoyed by incorporated entities (companies for instance).

The Maori people consider themselves as an indivisible part of nature; as a people, they consider the rivers, the mountains, the sea as members of their kin, their ancestors. But unfortunately, there is no scope of recognizing such a relationship within secular law. So, they had to choose an ‘approximation in law’, as one of the leaders said.

Secular ‘personhood’ for the Nature?

The ‘approximation’ of course granted the River ‘its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’ But the NZ parliament agreed to do more by recognizing the river as an ‘ancestral’ river of Whanganui people; as a ‘person’ the River will be essentially considered as a member of the Whanganui people, not otherwise. Thus, the legislation also effectively says that from now on the rivers’ ‘interest’ will be represented by the indigenous people.

Technically, under the English common law, the Whanganui River is now a ‘minor’ person who needs to be represented by two guardians before the law. Supposedly, on behalf of this minor person, the guardians are entitled to sue anyone violating this persons’ rights. What if anyone invokes the rivers’ ‘liability’ in a case of a flood? Maybe it sounds naïve as much as the person-hood of the River seems amazing. How exactly will the things be played out in the court of law? That is something to see in the coming years.

What interests me more is, how this new development will be translated globally in different contexts. Moreover, how diverse form it will take if people in countries with the diminished participation of the citizens in the government try to peruse this political path of reclaiming their relationship with nature?

But one thing we can be sure about is, in absence of effective direct participatory government, in these times of judicial activism, courts in many countries will step in where ecological degradation is an epidemic. Citing the parliamentary precedent from NZ, an Indian court already tried to declare Ganga and Jamuna Rivers as ‘human person’. Turns out, ancestral status as goddesses is not protecting the rivers from pollution and encroachment

The Maori Message

So, this new development has all the potentials to be a stepping-stone for a new political path of reclaiming the relationship with nature, and for a legal one also. But if it is to be, it is totally up to the people, a common law court can’t deliver it. For the Maori people, it took almost two centuries of struggle. In spite of that, they were faced the Hobson’s choice of ‘legal status as a person’ for their natural kin. And they took it. Because in New Zealand, probably their leaders did not see themselves in a position to radically change the perceptions towards nature and ‘development’ in a Maori way.

While today we’re seeing people affiliated with ‘conservation’ movement, and ‘Natural Resource Management’ regimes across the world, and in general people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘nature-loving’ are cheering this legislation as ‘victory’; I think it is important to note what a Maori MP said to us, he said ”It is not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them.”

As far as I’ve read through interviews of members of the different Maori communities, the message is very clear to me; a River is not a ‘resource’ you are entitled to ‘control’ or ‘manage’, just let her be and live respectfully.

 

PHOTO: The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene. Photo by James Shook. Source: Wikimedia Commons