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.