Monday, September 14, 2009

Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples
by Mark Dowie
The MIT Press

It's become common to think of Indigenous peoples as the first environmentalists, but while the reality is more complex, the basic link between the land and the people who have long been part of its ecologies is strong and true. In the late 1980s, when the South American rainforests were a global environmental concern, one of the celebrities making the case--Sting, who started the Rainforest Foundation--made common cause with Indigenous tribes, particularly the Kayapo of Brazil, and stated the principle: the way to save the rainforests is to save the Indigenous peoples who live in them.

Some twenty years later, this is still something of a radical principle, according to the history that journalist Mark Dowie relates in this book. Citing situations in Africa and Asia as well as South and North America, large environmental organizations in league with international development powerhouses have too often attempted to save wilderness areas by moving Indigenous peoples out. The repeated result has been to impoverish and destroy these peoples (with countless individual tragedies) while often enough also failing to really preserve a healthy ecology.

Dowie doesn't dismiss the problems. He acknowledges harmful practices of some Indigenous groups, but argues that it is better to negotiate changes in these practices than to arrogantly dispossess entire peoples, creating these "conservation refugees." It is that arrogance--including that of a largely white environmentalist establishment--that contributes to the misunderstanding and suspicion that has divided two groups that should be natural allies: Native peoples and environmentalists. Dowie argues as well that the idea of wilderness as meaning human-free is another cause of these conservation tragedies.

"One can only wonder what Yosemite would look like today were the descendants of Tenaya still thriving in the valley, sharing the native wisdom accumulated over 4,000 years in the ecosystem, and sharing, as equal partners in the stewardship and management of the park," he writes. "What would be the state of its biotic wealth? Would the grizzly bear and bighorn sheep still roam its meadows and canyons?"

Such observations are backed by reporting in that difficult midrange between the specifically descriptive and the generally conclusive. Readers have to be willing to navigate the acronyms and statistics, but the cumulative effect is a compelling history of global failures and successes in saving the last natural ecosystems, and saving the last Indigenous peoples. The stories are complex as reality, and as human.

Economic development, national and international politics all come into play. But for all the tragedy there is also growing awareness, and sophistication in finding common ground and developing partnerships. There is also the assertion of principle, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the text of which is included in this book.

Conservation Refugees is informative, enlightening and provocative, highlighting a key but neglected feature of a crucial set of problems of planetary significance.

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