Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Conservation: Indigenous Peoples' Enemy Number 1?

Mother Jones has a fascinating article about the history of America's national park's model, and questions whether it should be applied to the rest of the world -- especially wild places where indigenous peoples still live on the land.

Writing about the opportunity for conservationists to get this balance right in freshly established national parks in Africa's magical Gabon, the author notes:

But there was another, more historically significant opportunity facing Gabon that day, one that Fay merely hinted at in his presentation and Sanderson didn't mention at all. It was the opportunity their own industry, transnational conservation, had in Gabon: to do right by the thousands of tribal people living inside those emerald patches, by allowing them to remain in their homelands and participate directly in the stewardship and management of the new parks. They would then not be passive "stakeholders" relocated to the margins of the park, the typical fate of indigenous peoples who find themselves in conservation "hot spots," but equal players in the complex and challenging process of defending biological diversity.

The goal of such a policy would be the concurrent preservation of nature and culture; Gabon just might come to signify a happy ending of a tense, century-long conflict between global environmentalism and native people, millions of whom have been displaced from traditional homelands in the interest of conservation.

It's a century-long story of violence and abuse that began in Yosemite Valley in the mid 19th century, when the Ahwahneechee band of Miwoks were chased about, caught on, then forcefully expelled from a landscape they had cultivated for about 200 generations. Militias like the vicious Mariposa Battalion were sent into Yosemite to burn acorn caches and rout native people from remote reaches of the Valley. After the militias came the nature romantics who mythologized the vacated valley as the wilderness it never was, then lobbied state and federal governments to create a national park. They got their wish in 1890, and the remaining Indians were removed from the area, with a few allowed to remain temporarily, as menial laborers in a segregated village of 20-by-20-foot shacks.

During my undergraduate work at Cornell, I became engrossed in not only my Natural Resources major, but also American Indian Studies.  I really enjoyed learning about ways of seeing and valuing the world that were very different than the Western worldview I'd been brought up with.  In many cases, I felt that my values were more in line with those of indigenous peoples than those of our materialistic society! 

One day during a holiday gathering at the Akwe:kon house, Journal of Native Americas editor, Jose Barreiro, showed a bunch of us a fascinating pair of maps of Central America.  The first showed Central America's remaining areas of intact rainforest.  The second showed Central America's remaining areas of indigenous-managed land. The two maps matched almost exactly.

What does that say about how we can best protect our remaining wild places and their biodiversity?

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