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The Congenital Disease of the Conservation Movement Has Come Home To Roost

The Congenital Disease of the Conservation Movement Has Come Home To Roost

An oil rig near Cape Town harbour, June 2018. Photo: Clyde Thomas/Unsplash

  • The conservation movement was born out of the outdoor passions of once-colonial and -imperial rich white men who sowed the seeds of an influential doctrine.
  • It alienates historical custodians of biodiversity, regards them as ‘encroachers’ in their own homes, and requires ‘parks’ with impermeable boundaries to be the sites of conservation.
  • This idea was exported to the rest of the world – and wielded by those who rendered Adivasis homeless while the forests and wildlife they had protected began to disappear.
  • While the pursuit of conservation has been self-defeating, the development paradigm of capitalism wreaked its havoc.
  • Corporate interests now sit at the conservation table; their preferences, priorities and pennies are guiding the work of several large conservation organisations.

After over three decades of work attempting to save the environment in different countries I occasionally pause to ask the question: has the conservation project been able to rescue the planet, or are we at least on the path of doing so? The answer is a tragic no.

I had my entry into the nascent conservation movement as a student with my engagement  in the campaign to save the Silent Valley rainforests of Kerala in the last part of the 1970s. That patch of biodiversity-rich forest was saved and turned into a national park. Similarly, a few more sites like this here and there in India and abroad. I have also helped afforest or reforest land in different states of India, a tangible result of my professional work. And over a dozen protected areas in India and abroad added to the conservation network – this includes the Kadalundi-Vallikkunnu Community Reserve of Kerala, one of India’s first set of community reserves, and the Al Rheem  MAB (Man and Biosphere) Reserve of Qatar, apart from the numerous protected areas planning and management exercises that I have undertaken, beginning with the Cibodas MAB reserve of Indonesia.

Nothing of this prompts me to think that we have hope ahead because, the world is on a steady decline in saving the planet from an imperilled  future. The present itself is in an ecological imbroglio. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has recently estimated that over one million species on earth are facing threat. I am an early critic of this body created to obscure the relevance of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); I do not believe that this report is flawless either, still it gives an order of magnitude of the crisis we are in. And the past week’s finding by WWF’s Living Planet report that there has been 69% reduction in the population of over 5000 species of animals across the world that have been over the past five decades. The living world on the earth is shrinking, shrinking irreversibly.

The conservation movement, obviously, stands shattered here although we won’t accept it as we will have to continue our trade. What has been ailing the conservation movement? Well, its disease is congenital. It was born out of the outdoor passion of rich white men who sowed the seeds of a conservation doctrine practiced by the influential international conservation organisations, and subsequently most governments in the global south, which hosts more than 80% of global biodiversity.

This doctrine of conservation alienates the historical custodians of biodiversity and regards them as encroachers in their own forest homes. It is their entertainment pursuit that prompted them to call supposedly conservation areas as ‘national parks’. In establishing the first national park in 1872 in the US, namely the Yellowstone National Park, the US government had massacred over 300 Native Americans and displaced several thousands. They were the people who were part of nature and who counted the animals, birds, butterflies and rivers as their own sisters and brothers.

In the years since this idea of conservation was exported to the rest of the world. It was this idea that made the Adivasis homeless destitute while the forests and wildlife they had protected were progressively disappearing. These were the same people who fought numerous wars against the British in their attempts to resist the colonial invasion of their forests for commercial felling. Many of these wars predate the 1857 war of independence. Casteist Indian élites then continued the conservation and development policies followed by the British.

While the conservation project has been a self defeating pursuit, the development paradigm of capitalism played havoc on nature. Roads, rails, mining, hydel projects, construction industry, commercial agriculture, cattle ranching, tourism- all inflicted heavy damages on forests, rivers, coastal zones, grasslands and every other ecosystem and on the people directly dependent upon them. The power of capital and the might of technology have rendered the earth less habitable for living beings including our own species. The corporate forces have succeeded in shielding their culpability by indoctrinating the unsuspecting environmentalists to say “humans have destroyed nature”, while a huge number of humans don’t even have the capacity or resources to significantly destroy nature. Now the corporations are sitting at the conservation table, proposing how conservation should be done. They are now all over the CBD; their perceptions and priorities, besides funds, guide the work of several huge conservation organizations.

The forthcoming 27th meeting of the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is being sponsored by a few multinational companies, including Coca Cola, while it is the responsibility of the member country governments to fund these meetings. Incidentally, the environmental victims of the Coca Cola company include Plachimada village of Kerala. I was part of the high power committee established by the Kerala government that determined the minimum cost of the environmental injuries caused by the Cola giant in the village at Rs 216 crore, which the company refused to pay. Now we are to believe Coca Cola and its friends are in the game of saving the world from the climate crisis.

In the early 1990s, when we were negotiating the CBD – turning the table on the US, by rejecting their plan to legally recognise biodiversity as part of the global commons and instead identify it as a national sovereign right and therefore limit access to it – there was resistance but we were able to surmount it. I am always happy about my involvement in that as a young negotiator. But now even the CBD is being unmade by the west, but discreetly and silently. So were the negotiations on the UN Conference on Environment and Development (a.k.a. the ‘Earth summit’) in the same period, but some of those hard negotiated provisions of particular interest to the global South are being questioned and reopened for negotiations now.

The triple global crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change and deepening poverty and inequity pose a serious threat to civilisation itself and we may see a reordering of industrial civilization in the near future as a result.

S. Faizi is an ecologist specialising in biodiversity management and international environmental policy, and has been an advisor for G-77 countries in key UN environmental negotiations.

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