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Wildlife conservation should not disregard the rights of indigenous peoples

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Indigenous people and animals live together

The conservation of lands and habitats for wildlife is a crucial, noble mission. Unfortunately, through history this has been done at the expense of the indigenous peoples that have populated these areas and lived in balance with the ecosystem for thousands of years according to environmental activist Winona LaDuke.

Indigenous people have been displaced from the land their ancestors have occupied for centuries. According to Chris Lang, writer on forestry and power relations, they have been driven off and forced to live in impoverished conditions without assistance they were promised by local governments. In some cases, people’s dwellings and possessions have been destroyed, land and animals confiscated and the people have been driven away at gunpoint or even killed according to investigative journalist Keith Harmon Snow.

In the past, large wildlife conservation organizations have ignored the real causes of endangered species decline such as habitat destruction, while denying local peoples’ rights resulting in further diminishment of the animal population. According to Marcus Colchester, Director of Forest Peoples Programme, in the case of the panda in China, putting the species on a conservation pedestal had the effect of diminishing the wild panda population as they became prestige gifts between dignitaries, zoos’ demand for them increased to attract visitor revenue and the illegal fur trade increased poaching. The life ways of indigenous cultures should be respected as these have proven to be more beneficial for animals than proposals from the educated first world responsible for the most egregious ecological destruction. Ignoring the needs of the people in the name of saving animal species does not work. Governments, with the support of conservation nongovernmental organizations, have done this without consulting the very people who have the most knowledge of how to care for their land and the resources they have the most intimate knowledge of. Indigenous people and animals have lived together sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years. Species don’t live in a vacuum; they live in connection and interdependence. To select one favorite species and not take into consideration the others and the forces that have shaped its evolution is to do it a disservice.

The scale of modern life with its unsustainable growth now driven by multinational corporations accelerates the disruption of the delicate balance of species, not the ancient ways of life of people who have survived on the land for centuries. According to Winona LaDuke, the unchecked expansion and exploitation by industrial nations has done more damage to the earth in the last one hundred fifty years than all of the indigenous peoples of the earth since homo sapiens first walked the planet 250,000 – 500,000 years ago. Overpopulation, urbanization, industrialization and development, mining, logging, tourism, over-hunting and poaching have had a much greater impact on the environment than the rural and forest dwelling inhabitants’ way of life.

Why can’t the original inhabitants of the lands be stewards consulted on land and resource use? This would be a practical, effective way to conserve species, land and cultures. They were the original conservationists for this was necessary for their survival for thousands of years. It need not be an either/or situation. Conservation with cooperation and respect for the local people will bring about sound and lasting success over the long run.

Comments

  • Reader 5 years ago

    While I see the point, at least theoretically, of small-scale, indigenous peoples-friendly solutions to wildlife preservation, I don't think the actual adversarial relationship is between wildlife preservationists and local tribes. Indigenous people are hurt just as much as wildlife by massive logging operations. They are also hurt and displaced much more by business and governments than by preservationists -- and the scale of the damage is so massive that I kind of doubt that return of control to local tribes could possibly affect the outcome.

    Preservationists didn't make pandas into prestige gifts; China's government did, in an attempt to enhance their perennially sour relations with other countries. Preservationists don't have that kind of dominion over China's pandas, and they certainly don't have a tremendous amount of power in any country.

    Preservationists are not the enemy; business and corrupt government is. In the U.S. as well, it wasn't preservationists who killed Native Americans, it was our government.

    That being said, and without denying the wrongs that are done to indigenous people, there is a risk of over-romanticizing traditional cultures. Indigenous people drive the bushmeat trade that kills monkeys and apes wholesale across Africa. Granted, if this remained purely local it wouldn't be as large a problem, but at what point do indigenous people become businesspeople just like everybody else? Preservationists don't make people move from their villages to the cities, but still demand that monkeys be killed for their dinner.

    And let's not forget less than a month ago CNN carried a story of Amazon Indians in Brazil cannibalizing a local farmer (cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/02/09/brazil.ritual.cannibalism). Indigenous cultures no doubt do smaller-scale damage than our own, but they're certainly not inherently nobler than we are. It's purely a question of scale and opportunity.

  • Zsanine Alexander 5 years ago

    As an animal lover, the purpose of my article was to remind other animal lovers, like myself, that in our quest to protect the animals we so passionately care for, it is important not to ignore the real, large scale perpetrators of ecological destruction and step on people of color that have little or no power. It was not within the scope of this article to discuss the romanticization of indigenous people. To speak out in the behalf of people that have been taken advantage of is not idealizing them. As an animal lover, I take for granted that humans, as a species, whether they live in cosmopolitan cities or in the most remote jungles have an impact on the environment. There's no question that people of all walks of life have done violence to the earth and other people. This does not justify their human rights being violated. Conservation groups have made big mistakes that have had destructive consequences. Yes, conservation groups are not the only ones that have done things that have caused damage. Governments and other interests have carried out harmful actions. This is why we need to be aware of the implications of what we do. As an amimal lover, I address this article to other animal lovers as an entreaty to do our part to not do more harm in our quest to do good.