We have produced a new guide to decolonise language in conservation

We at Survival want to make people stop and think about why we use the words we do when writing or talking about environmental issues

By Survival Campaigner Fiore Longo and Research and Advocacy Officer Lola Ramón

Naturalists like John Muir, the ‘Father of National Parks’ (right), promoted the idea of wilderness that should be preserved. The whole idea of ‘wilderness’, in the sense of a pristine nature, untouched by humans, is a colonial myth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Naturalists like John Muir, the ‘Father of National Parks’ (right), promoted the idea of wilderness that should be preserved. The whole idea of ‘wilderness’, in the sense of a pristine nature, untouched by humans, is a colonial myth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The mainstream conservation model today is the same as it’s been since colonial times: ‘Fortress Conservation’ — the creation of militarised Protected Areas accessible mainly to the wealthy on the lands of indigenous peoples. Such peoples’ lands and lives are being destroyed by this approach, but it’s where most of the Western funding for nature protection is going.

Why? Because the myths that sustain this model of conservation are reproduced in school texts, media, wildlife documentaries, non-profit adverts, and so on. The images we’ve seen since our childhood about ‘nature’, and the words we use to describe it, shape our way of thinking, our policies, and our actions.

We tend to assume these words and images are the reality, as if they were neutral, objective or ‘scientific’. But they’re not. Conservation has a dark history, and it’s rooted in racism, colonialism, white supremacy, social injustice, land theft, ‘extractivism’ and violence.

Today, the main conservation organisations (like WWF and WCS) not only haven’t questioned this past, but perpetuate it. Conservation is an industry, a business, often ‘partnering with’ (ie taking money from) big polluting companies, and turning nature into something to consume, mostly by the wealthy.

This is part of a process of commodification of nature in which it is ‘valued’, traded and can be profited from. But our ‘nature’ is other people’s homes. It is the basis of their way of life, the place of their ancestors, the provider of most things that sustain them.

It’s essential to think about the words and concepts we use when writing or talking about environmental issues, because the violence and land grabs faced by millions of indigenous and other local people in the name of conservation stem in large part from these concepts.

That’s why Survival International, the organisation that supports tribal and indigenous peoples, has produced a new Guide to decolonise language in conservation. It confronts many familiar terms, and explains the hidden histories behind others. Here are a few examples:

What’s the difference between ‘bushmeat’ and ‘game’?

Still from Survival’s video about the Guide.

‘Bushmeat’, the meat of wild animals, is both a main source of protein for, and central to the identity of, many people around the world. The use of the word in conservation has a particularly racist tone.

For example, when hunted meat is served in restaurants in Europe it’s called ‘game’ and is considered prestigious. But when consumed by Africans or Asians it’s usually referred to as ‘bushmeat’, a word that invariably carries negative connotations and implies that its capture involved ‘poaching’.

Many Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt wild animals to feed their families. This racist and negative connotation is extended to the term ‘wet markets’, used in reference to the sale and consumption of meat from wild species in southeast Asia and China. This term is never used to describe the consumption or sale of meat from wild species in the West.

Why do we think of ‘wilderness’ as a ‘natural’ landscape empty of people, when in fact almost all such places have been inhabited, shaped and managed by people for millennia?

Popular culture often depicts African landscapes extending far into the distance, with no sign of human beings, villages or cattle. It deletes black people from Africa.

It’s often wrongly claimed that indigenous lands are ‘wildernesses’. The world’s most famous natural environments like Yellowstone, the Amazon and the Serengeti are the ancestral homelands of millions of indigenous people who have shaped them, been dependent on them, nurtured and protected them, for millennia.

The whole idea of ‘wilderness’, in the sense of a pristine nature, untouched by humans, is a colonial myth — lands were portrayed as empty, so they could be taken. This is akin to the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, which British invaders used to justify the colonisation of Australia, on the false grounds that the land was empty of people.

The idea of ‘wilderness’ has its roots in the US in the late 19th century, whereby the agency of Native Americans in creating diverse landscapes over millennia was expunged, to be replaced with the idea that ‘nature’ (and God) had formed these lands which white colonists were now charged with protecting.

This Western idea is racist and attempts to hide the role of indigenous peoples in nurturing and stewarding their own territories, the most biodiverse regions of the world.

‘Wilderness’ portrays the land only as ‘nature’, rather than a lived and managed landscape in which people play a fundamental part. Conservationists often describe forests as pristine so they can carry on with the creation of Protected Areas without the consent of local people, claiming nobody is living there.

Why do all national parks in the UK, and many in Europe, have people living in them, but in Africa and much of Asia it’s not allowed?

Contrasting views of national parks — in many European countries like Italy, people are welcome in conservation areas. However, in much of the world, tribal people are being evicted from their ancestral land.

Not all Protected Areas are the same. A Protected Area in Kenya is very different from one in France.

In Europe, for example, no national park could be established without taking into account local people’s needs, usually through extensive consultation and political processes, and with legal redress and compensation where problems arise.

There are typically very few restrictions on entering or living in such Protected Areas. Usually, their governance and management involve engagement with community interests at a strategic level.

In Africa and Asia, however, almost no parks have ever involved proper consultation with communities (see ‘consultation’). Protected Areas of this type are usually managed by government agencies and Western conservation non-profits.

Communities rarely have any role in governing them. The parks are typically run on a ‘Fortress Conservation’ model: local and Indigenous people are abused, persecuted and evicted using force, coercion or bribery.

These kinds of parks almost always exclude or restrict human activities, including everything Indigenous people do to feed their families, like hunting, growing crops, gathering, and fishing.

National parks in Europe must typically bring some benefit to local inhabitants, whereas in Africa and Asia, such parks are intended to protect against local and indigenous people.

We at Survival want to make people stop and think about why we use the words we do when writing or talking about environmental issues.

Too many Indigenous people are still being persecuted by a conservation model that’s changed very little from its colonial past — from the countless Adivasis evicted from their forests when they’re turned into tiger reserves, to the Maasai in Tanzania thrown off their land to make way for game reserves and trophy hunting.

We must not continue to treat the original custodians of the land as a ‘nuisance’ to be ‘dealt with’, instead of as experts in local biodiversity and key partners in conservation.

It’s time for a new approach that has tribal peoples and their rights at its heart. After all, they were expert conservationists long before the word ‘conservation’ was invented.

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Survival International

Survival International is the global movement for tribal peoples. We help them defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.