Colonial conservation - a 'cycle of impunity'

Longo, Fio

Publisher:  The Resurgence Trust
Date Written:  14/02/2020
Year Published:  2020  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX24064

A UN investigation has suggested that rangers funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have beaten up, abused and murdered people in the forests of Congo. These atrocities were committed in the name of conservation.



When they are beaten by rangers, the Baka use the verb ‘chicotter’, from the Portuguese 'chicote', a heavy leather whip used by French and Portuguese colonialists across Africa to beat the local population.

The term is apt: colonialist mentalities seem alive and well within the conservation movement. According to one Baka man: "They see the Baka as animals, not as people. When they see us they only see Pygmies, thinking that we know nothing and that they can hit us when they want."

As colonialists did before them, conservationists presume they know better than local people, and that their cause justifies anything; physical violence, humiliation, death, apparently in service of some alleged 'greater good'.

They are convinced that tribal peoples' deep understanding of how to protect the environment is inferior to their own, and they dismiss centuries-old indigenous practices that nurture the forest as backwards, primitive and even damaging.

The Baka have in fact developed their own sophisticated codes of conservation in order to nurture, maintain and protect their land. Baka women often divide up parts of the forest to avoid overharvesting wild plants, and families won't stay too long in one forest camp.

The Baka are experts in animal behaviour. They have, for example, over fifteen different words for elephant, depending on the age, sex and temperament. Many believe that their ancestors' spirits walk side-by-side with elephants in the forest.

A member of the tribe says: "The Baka protect nature. We enter the forest to get meat, sweet potatoes, and vegetables to eat, not to sell it. We don't have machines that can cut down trees. We climb on the trees to collect honey but we don't hurt them. The logging companies are taking all the trees away, destroying everything."

Indeed, many protected areas encourage tourism, facilitate trophy hunting, or permit logging, mining or other resource extraction, often in partnership with the big conservation organisations.

In practice, a "protected area" or "national park" turns out to be a place where the original custodians are forbidden from living on their ancestral lands but tourists can come there on holiday; local people are forbidden from hunting for food in places where foreigners hunt for sport; indigenous communities are banned from using resources they depend on to survive but the definition of "sustainable" is conveniently bent to permit logging concessions and industrial mining on "protected" land.

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