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The 'Dark Side of Conservation' — NGOs Accused of Trampling Tribal Rights in Push to Protect Environment

A report by indigenous rights group Survival International says that conservation is in some cases destroying tribal communities and endangering the terrain it aims to protect.

by Frederick Tiffin
Nov 20 2014, 12:46pm

Image via Reuters

Conservation is destroying indigenous communities and endangering the very terrain it claims to protect, tribal rights group Survival International (SI) says in a new report.

The recently published Parks Need People says that the creation of 10,000 national parks, encompassing 13 percent of the world's surface area, has led to thousands of indigenous people worldwide being evicted, or living under the threat of eviction, all in the name of conservation.

One such case is that of the Bushmen in Botswana, evicted from their ancestral homeland in the Kalahari to make way for a protected game reserve. They have since been forced into temporary camps and their traditional subsistence hunting — with spears, bows and arrows — was this year banned by the government to the applause of conservation groups. Yet private game ranches remain exempt from the ban and fee-paying big game hunters are actively encouraged. 

Speaking to VICE News, Survival International Spokesperson Alice Bayer said that a new approach was "urgently needed," as the current system is failing to check the environmental crisis.

The report also links funding from conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the German Development Organization to so-called "eco-guards" tasked with guarding these parks accused of forced removal, arbitrary arrests and even torture.

Phil Dickie, head of issues management at WWF, told VICE News there was some evidence that ecosystems are better protected and more ecologically diverse when inhabited by indigenous peoples, but added: "It appears to be a lot more complicated in the real world."

The report adds to a growing rejection within environmental circles of the idea that conservation is best achieved by ridding an environment of all human influence —  a model which it says dates back to the establishment of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks in the United States in the 19th century, for which Native American tribes were forcibly removed from the land.

Research from academic and institutes such as the Centre for International Forestry Research, find that indigenous populations encourage biodiversity and manage the land efficiently, helping curb forest fires, deforestation, poaching and over harvesting.

At the same time, Survival's research touches on the view that "wilderness" is a Western construct rather than an actual state of being. J Baird Callicott, former President of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, currently a professor at the University of North Texas, states in his essay Contemporary "Criticisms of the Received Wilderness Idea" that, "The wilderness idea is associated with outmoded equilibrium ecology and ignores the ecological impact of at least 11,000 years of human inhabitation".

It plays on the idea that if you remove human beings from the ecosystem, you take away a crucial actor, thereby creating an imbalance. COMPAS, an organization which specializes in indigenous communities and environmental issues, says that 80 percent of the world's biodiversity is found on tribal lands.

While the question of how evictions serve conservation remains unresolved, what is not up for debate are the often-devastating effects they can have on indigenous populations. People who have relied on the land for food, fuel and shelter, are placed into the world economy and expected to adapt.

Survival's Bayer told VICE News that "the benefits of mainstream society often do not reach these people." Evictions of indigenous peoples transcend the loss of a home to include a complete shift in their way of life.

The Bushman in Botswana, one of the world's last hunter-gatherer communities, refer to the temporary camps into which they have been moved as "places of death," and rates of alcoholism, depression and AIDs have risen exponentially in their communities. 

Despite winning a legal battle over their eviction from their lands in the Kalahari, the government included their subsistence hunting in a recent nationwide poaching ban, a move the Bushmen say is designed to push them out through starvation. Authorities insist their removal is for conservation purposes only; this year, however, a $4.9 billion diamond mine was opened inside the reserve.

Reports of abuse by authorities are widespread and the US State Department has described Botswana's treatment of the Bushmen as a "principal human rights concern."  However, Survival notes, President Ian Khama has been held up as a model conservationist, sitting on the board of Conservation International and now playing a key public role in a global anti-poaching campaign by the coalition United for Wildlife, whose president is Britain's Prince William. 

One Bushman, Tsuoo Tshiamo, told Survival International how he was physically removed from the reserve by rangers. "They shackled my hands and ankles together before cuffing me to a Land Cruiser bull bar. They drove for a kilometer like that. I was in agony."

Survival International also reports abuse by "eco-guards" partially funded by WWF and the German Development Organization in the forested region of south-east Cameroon.

Eco-guards have allegedly intimidated the indigenous Baka and Mbendjele peoples, razing entire villages to the ground and using heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent.

One Baka resident told Survival: "The ecoguards beat us from sunrise to sunset all over my body. It was at the WWF base and we nearly died from their beatings."

When questioned about these allegations, Phil Dickie of WWF told VICE News, "WWF opposes forced relocation of indigenous and other communities for conservation or any other reason... Survival's campaign seems to have forgotten the reality that it is governments that primarily determine the human rights situations within their borders".

Asked about the effectiveness of WWF safeguards, Dickie conceded: "There is more to be done with training, safeguards, response mechanisms and so on. But the Baka are disadvantaged and discriminated against and that is reflected in the way other communities, soldiers, ecoguards, police, courts and so on treat them."

Survival's response was to claim that WWF has known about the allegations for 13 years. "If WWF cannot guarantee that its support is not facilitating serious human rights abuses, then it should withhold this support." 

Follow Frederick Tiffin on Twitter: @FrederickTiffin