A new indigenous rights campaign called “Stop the Con” is trying to prevent the American conservation model of national parks and reserves from being further exported around the world.
The view that any human disturbance is inherently damaging to the environment results in decreased biodiversity and human rights abuses as tribal peoples are pushed off their lands, the rights group says.
“The conservation movement was born in the USA, when tribal people were violently evicted from their ancestral homelands in order to create money-making national parks,” according to Survival International, the group that launched the campaign on Wednesday.
“The legacy created in the United States lives on,” the group added. “The illegal, violent displacement of tribal peoples is being replicated around the world in the name of conservation.”
Survival International says indigenous peoples have been actively managing their landsince time immemorial and should never be forced from their land to preserve a tract of wilderness.
“Tribal people are better than anyone at looking after their own environment,” Survival International says on its campaign website.
Wade Davis, an anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia, told Al Jazeera that the origin of that view of national parks as a place without people grew directly out of the American West.
“The whole settling of America was based on the myth of an empty land and to make it empty the Americans adopted the policies they did towards indigenous people,” Davis said.
Theodore Roosevelt was the “great champion” of national parks, and he famously disdained native people, referring to them as a “pestilence” that must be removed, Davis said.
At Yosemite and Yellowstone, native peoples who had lived there for centuries were evicted so that the areas could become national parks, Survival International said. Davis added that the expulsion of American Indians happened at the founding of the Grand Canyon National Park as well.
In the 1960s, during the decolonization movement, the American national park model started to take hold around the world, because it was widely viewed as being one of the measures of a “real country,” Davis said.
Violent displacement of tribal peoples often followed, Survival International said in a press release.
In 2006, the Bushmen tribes in Botswana were evicted from the country’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the name of conservation, the group said, adding that they had helped reverse the policy.
Then in 2014, a new threat meant the Bushmen were once again forced into eviction camps they call “places of death,” Survival International says on its website. That’s because a decision that year by President Ian Khama imposed a nationwide hunting ban that was celebrated by conservation organizations around the world.
Now, they are being starved off their land by the hunting ban, Survival International says.
Private game hunters were exempt, but not the Bushmen who had hunted sustainably without guns for generations, the group says. The Bushmen are accused of poaching and face arrests, beatings and torture from government security forces.
“Two wildlife scouts tied my hands behind my back and threw me in their Land Rover. While I was lying down, they jumped on my back wearing their boots. My daughter was crying and crying, thinking I was being killed. She had a 10-month-old baby, and the wildlife people threw them both to the ground,” Gakeitsiwe Gaorapelwe, a Bushman, told Survival International.
As an alternative to traditional American preservationist model, Paige West, a professor in the joint anthropology department at Barnard College and Columbia University, said it is possible for Western conservation scientists and indigenous peoples to work together to preserve biodiversity.
"Often, when [Westerners] think about the value of nature, they think about it as apart from human society — a cathedral view, something to be revered and maybe spend time in it hiking or bird watching — but not as something that is intimately and historically related to human beings," West said.
With her research partner, John Aini, West has been working with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea. The tribes identify species or systems they feel are in decline, and West and Aini consult with them about bringing in western, scientific techniques to preserve them.
"It is successful in my experience," West said. "I found that [Western] conservation projects — by failing to understand that indigenous practices actually contribute — end up hurting the chances of those peoples preserving their own biodiversity."