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A song to the unsung heroes of nature conservation

As part of Climate Action Newcastle’s Nature Conservation blog series, Climate Action Newcastle member Órla Miller shares how what “conservation” means to her has changed since she started learning more about climate justice.

For many people in Western society, global “conservation” conjures images of endangered species that need saving from extinction: elephants being hunted for their tusks, polar bears floating helplessly on melting icebergs, or tigers lying wounded by poachers in the jungle. All images somehow “separate from” but “caused by” humans. The solution? Limiting humans’ interactions with nature to observation, rather than interaction; protection, rather than symbiosis. Natural parks, where nature is “left to flourish”, but also closely monitored by us. This is perfectly understandable; I myself grew up with this idea of conservation, given that it is the main message we are fed through the media and Western global conservation charities. That is at least until I started learning more about environmental justice, and I realised that the very conservation charities I supported could be fuelling human rights violations and that their work could be done (and is being done) more effectively for a fraction of the price.

Of course, protecting biodiversity is an important part of looking after our planet, but we must always ask the question: Who benefits from our idea of conservation and who could be harmed by it?

Imagine an alternative world, where Newcastle is converted into a “Protected Area”. Strangers come into our city one day, claiming to be sent by an organisation based somewhere on the other side of the world. This organisation wants to make our homes a “National Park” to meet their target of making 30% of the world protected areas. They evict you from your home and take your possessions. If you’re lucky, they might have set up a camp for you on the outskirts. Unable to enter Newcastle for work, you have no way of making a living. With nowhere to go, you move to this camp and rely on rations and scraps from the outsiders.

The food they give you is not enough to live on, so you try to go into Newcastle one day to get some bread. You are stopped. “You are not allowed to take any of the food in this shop; we are protecting it for the good of the planet. Get out, you are trespassing.” This seems unfair, but you dare not argue with the men carrying weapons. Your child is running a fever so you decide to head to the pharmacy for some medicine. You are stopped. “You are not allowed to take any of the medicine in this pharmacy; we are protecting it for the good of the planet. Get out, you are trespassing.” This is all very upsetting. You are finding it all too much and decide to head to your place of worship to say a prayer, or visit your parents and grandparents’ resting place, to feel close to family. You are stopped, beaten for trespassing and thrown out of Newcastle, back to your camp.

On the way out you see tourists from another land coming in. They park their truck over your grandparents’ grave and set up the portaloos for the visitors in your place of worship. The outsiders are playing in the park where your children used to play, leaving litter strewn around the toon/streets and trampling over your garden as they let themselves into your home to look around. As you are escorted out of Newcastle, you see that they have torn down Grey’s Monument, the Angel of the North and the Tyne Bridge to take away to use as scrap resources. Without the Geordies home to look after it, Newcastle is loosing its sparkle and the place we once took such care of is slowly becoming a desolate wasteland.

Conservation at its finest.

Sound a bit dramatic? I felt a bit dramatic writing it, but I actually left out all of the violence that is happening in our world. What not everyone realises is that many national parks are actually established over indigenous ancestral land. This means that communities who have been living in harmony with their surroundings for countless generations, sometimes thousands of years, are suddenly evicted and told it is a crime for them to use resources from the area. According to international law, decisions that affect indigenous peoples should only be made with “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”, but unfortunately tribes are usually evicted without notice and often by violent means. Meanwhile, tourists are allowed to enter the area to see the animals within, and control is handed over to people who know nothing about preserving biodiversity.

Going back to our questions, in these instances of conservation, those who benefit are people supporting Western conservation charities so that they can enjoy Planet Earth’s biodiversity, tourists who can afford to visit the parks, and guards paid to show tourists in and keep indigenous peoples out. Those who are harmed by the schemes are indigenous peoples. Planet Earth also takes a big hit, since the best stewards of the land have been replaced by people who don’t know what they’re doing. There is a reason 80% of the world’s biodiversity is in indigenous lands!

All this isn’t to say that conservation is inherently evil. Letting wildlife flourish without exploiting resources or being cruel to animals is essential. But it is not humans that have destroyed nature in so much of the world today, so much as it is the way humans live in our part of the world (where capitalism and overconsumption have lead us to abuse Earth’s resources). Instead of trying to get them out of the way, conservation programmes should be partnering with indigenous peoples to learn from them. There are many success stories of land under indigenous control, such as the Yanomami territory in the Amazon, which is the largest territory under indigenous control in the world. This needs to become the norm, and those of us on the other side of the world should be thanking indigenous peoples, rather than unaware of them.

So, indigenous peoples, thank you for the care and respect you show to nature; thank you for looking after so many important ecosystems in our world and thank you for embodying what conservation means to me.

Órla Miller

Climate Action Newcastle member

To find out more about this topic, Órla suggests reading about Survival International’s “Decolonise Conservation” and “Big Green Lie” campaigns, or if you have some time on your hands taking this free online Environmental Justice course.

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