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Conservation needs to ditch its “colonial” ways

The world may need protected land to ensure biodiversity, but it cannot come at the cost of local people’s rights.

By India Bourke

Despite hopes of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 feeling slender, as nations rush back to fossil fuels to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, there remains a consensus that keeping global warming under 1.5°C by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the end goal. By contrast, there is no target when it comes to saving nature.

In international talks in Kenya last week ministers from around the world tried to lay the foundations for a global agreement on biodiversity (to be formalised in Canada this December at Cop15, the UN’s annual biodiversity conference rather than its upcoming climate one, Cop27). Little progress was made. The process is at a “crisis point”, tweeted Li Shou from Greenpeace; Cop15, he said, was likely to be “the least well-prepared major environment conference in recent memory”. Why?

Progress on saving nature seems perpetually lacklustre. The world has not fully achieved any of the biodiversity targets it set for itself in 2010, and while initiatives to protect some endangered species have had success (from the Californian condor to the Antarctic blue whale), natural habitats continue to degrade at a shocking rate; the Congo basin’s entire primary forest is expected to disappear by 2100. Meanwhile, debates over how finite land should be used, and where, have become increasingly fraught.

In northern Tanzania, an area roughly the size of Greater London is being cleared of human settlements and livestock to make way for a luxury game reserve run by an Emirati-owned company. The Tanzanian government claims that this newly protected area will benefit both tourism and conservation but, in the process, indigenous Maasai people have reportedly been shot at with live ammunition and tear gas during a forced eviction. Such evictions are a “colonial” move, argue campaigners and academics.

Ever since native Americans were forcibly removed from Yellowstone to establish the world’s first national park in 1872, indigenous people around the world have been separated from their land in the name of protecting nature, said Aby Sène-Harper of Clemson University in the US. Such evictions encourage conflict and strip local people of their rights, yet the push to set aside more and more land for wildlife is only building – be it via national parks, game reserves or other private conservancies.

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Protected areas cover around 16 per cent of the world’s surface, and many would like this to rise to 30 per cent by 2030. Numerous large NGOs, such as the WWF and the Nature Conservancy, as well as more than 90 countries, including the US and UK, have now endorsed this 30 x 30 target as part of the proposed global biodiversity framework. They argue it could help to protect more than 1,000 vertebrate species and counter rising emissions. One recent study claims that the goal could spare around 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year through a combination of avoided emissions (for example, from land saved from agricultural conversion) and carbon sequestration projects (such as the planting of forests).

But whether it is helpful to make the amount of land protected an official measure of conservation success is a subject of heated debate. Setting aside land for tourism and hunting can prevent habitats being converted to farmland by big agribusinesses, and the revenues can be used to pay for anti-poaching protections. They may also be used to compensate locals for human-wildlife conflict and make them more likely to support conservation efforts, according to Dilys Roe of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Others question the usefulness of such a blunt metric, however. Studies have found that many protected areas are too small, poorly connected or badly run to support endangered mammal species. In the cases of game reserves for trophy hunting specifically, animal rights charities such as Humane International and the Born Free Foundation cite research showing that they often provide limited local financial benefits (in Zimbabwe, it was calculated in 2015 that as little as 3 per cent of the income reaches local communities) and that improvements to wildlife health are questionable.

Land set aside for carbon sequestration may also do little to encourage biodiversity (if fast-growing but non-native trees are planted for example) and give little back to the local population. “We had loan sharks, and now we have carbon sharks,” said Grant Fowlds, author of Rewilding Africa and the founder of a community tourism initiative in South Africa, referencing the way that the middle managers in many carbon offsetting schemes harvest most of the profit (as a recent investigation has proved).

Fiore Longo, of the NGO Survival International, claimed “there is no scientific evidence that doubling protected areas will do anything for biodiversity”. Survival International has campaigned to “decolonise conservation” through greater protections for indigenous and local communities in the face of “green grabs” and human rights violations. “The real cause of biodiversity loss is the over-consumption and over-exploitation of sources for profit.”

This isn’t to say that all schemes that set aside land for nature inherently hurt local communities, added Sène-Harper. Many traditional models of “fortress conservation” have, however, also failed the wildlife they claim to protect. In contrast, indigenous communities are responsible for many of the world’s remaining ecologically intact areas, and have played a “vital role” in maintaining their integrity.

Instead of the 30 x 30 target, many campaigners are pushing for Cop15 to officially recognise indigenous and local people’s rights and, importantly, to set out the penalties for those who violate such rights in the name of conservation. “If we continue with conservation in the same way that we’ve been pursuing it since the creation of the first national park, then we’re going to end up with the same kind of violence,” warned Professor Maano Ramutsindela, author of The Violence of Conservation in Africa, with reference to the forced evictions and militarisation of protected land.

As Adrienne Buller writes in The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, the goal of sequestering 30 per cent of the Earth “for nature” obscures the fact that such protections will also benefit humans – in potentially highly unequal ways. Unless an agreement on biodiversity can put sufficient protections in place for people too, then the existing winners of the global economy risk further entrenching their dominance.

[See also: Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?]

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