What could be wrong with saving a rain forest? Quite a bit, say a number of anthropologists who have become increasingly critical of what they call ”green imperialism.” Portraying environmentalists as latter-day missionaries of a new universal truth, many see third-world conservation as a form of neocolonialism, the latest attempt by wealthy Westerners to move into poor tropical countries and tell the local residents what they should and should not do with their land.
”Environmentalists are trying to save landscapes from the people who live in them,” said Simone Dreyfus, a French anthropologist who contributed to a recent volume called ”Nature Sauvage, Nature Sauvee” (”Wild Nature, Saved Nature”). ”Many of them seem to care more about animals and plants than about people. Too often, efforts to save the environment are being imposed from the outside and not from the inside.”
Though the term ”biodiversity” was coined as recently as the 1970’s, it caught on so quickly that by the 1980’s preserving species had become an important part of American foreign policy. The State Department, the World Bank and other purveyors of aid often made the creation of national parks a condition of receiving it. The policy has paid off: environmentalists have succeeded in protecting an area alogether the size of China, the United States and Canada.
But these efforts have come at considerable human cost, the critical anthropologists say. Approximately 70 percent of the protected areas are inhabited by Homo sapiens as well as other species. Between 1986 and 1996, about three million people were forced to move as a result of both development and conservation projects, according to World Bank statistics.
The brunt has generally been borne by extremely poor indigenous people. ”I’d like to see what would happen if a delegation from Madagascar arrived in New Jersey and told people they couldn’t use their cars to drive to work,” said Maurice Bloch, who teaches at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and has worked in Madagascar for more than 30 years.
Although many of the anthropological critics concede that protecting the environment is ultimately in everyone’s interest, they feel that Western environmentalism needs to examine some of its deepest assumptions. The idea of wilderness — of pristine, untouched nature — is not a universal truth but an idea of Western urban civilization, said Philippe Descola, a leading French anthropologist who has worked among Indian groups in Brazil. Virtually everything Westerners regard as ”nature” has been significantly modified by tens of thousands of years of human presence, he said. Indeed, many indigenous peoples do not have a special word for nature and do not see themselves as separate from the environment in which they live.
This seemingly abstract point has had powerful practical consequences for the environmental movement, the anthropologists insist. The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, specifically excluded people from living within its borders even though Shoshone Indians were there at the time. In the first years after the creation of the park in 1871, some 300 Shoshone were killed in conflicts with the Army.
The idea of a park that excluded human habitation was then exported to the third world by various colonial administrations, particularly by the British and French in Africa and Asia. The big game parks in Kenya and what is now Tanzania involved mass expulsion of the Masai people. The French in Madagascar created a series of nature preserves, and in the 1940’s tried to force the people living in the country’s rain forests to leave their villages. When people resisted, some 20,000 were killed in conflicts with the French colonial authorities. Although methods have grown gentler in recent decades, expulsions have continued at some of the big parks in places like Kenya, Botswana, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, said Marcus Colchester of the Rain Forest People’s Program in Britain.
Many ecologists feel that this criticism, while valid, is out of date. ”I think the conservation movement has become much more sophisticated in the last 20 years,” said Don Melnick, a professor of biology at Columbia University and the director of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.
Increasingly, Mr. Melnick insisted, environmentalists have come to see that local cooperation is essential to the success of their own work. At Chitwan National Park in Nepal, he said, the government recently reversed its policy of preventing local residents from entering the forest. ”They designated a certain number of weeks in which people could come in and collect grasses and plants they use for baskets and as building materials, as long as they use traditional and nonmechanized means for doing so,” he said. ”It resulted in a kind of festival of harvesting, and those people became the greatest protectors of the resouces of the park. It became theirs, and they were very vigilant about outsiders going into the park.”
Mr. Colchester agrees that environmental groups have become better about recognizing the rights of local people. But he said that the problem was that, in many places, ”this has yet to translate into change on the ground; national governments have not kept pace with the international guidelines.” Recently, he went on, in defiance of the international organizations that financed the project, the government of Guyana extinguished the rights of local residents in extending the boundaries of Kaietur National Park.
Some environmentalists think this kind of pressure smacks of the same neocolonalism that the anthropologists see in others. ”If the federal government of Brazil decides it’s strategically important to set aside millions of acres for protection, isn’t it neocolonial if groups from outside tell them they shouldn’t?” asked Mr. Melnick.
Indeed, the question of who has final say about land — the people who have traditionally lived on it, the regional and national governments in the surrounding area, or international groups who see the environment as a world heritage — is extremely complex.
Ultimately, both environmentalists and anthropologists agree, at least in theory, that they are working on two sides of the same problem. Conservation groups have estimated that 60 percent of the world’s biodiversity is contained in less than 5 percent of the world’s land mass. At the same time, the indigenous peoples who generally inhabit those tropical biodiversity ”hot spots” account for as much as 60 percent of the world’s 6,000 spoken languages, according to the British ethnolinguist Suzanne Romaine of Oxford University.
”The interests of forest people and the interests of the environmental people are similar,” says Richard H. Grove, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Canberra in Australia and the author of ”Green Imperialism.” He explains: ”The same environmental threats that are wiping out species are wiping out indigeneous cultures as well.”
– July 15, 2000
As published at The New York Times