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Environmentalist Racists

This is a bit of a cop-out for a Blog Against Racism Day post, since the racism it deals with is something that I can easily distance myself from and blame on Them (of course, since Hugo Schwyzer's post basically amounts to criticizing nonwhite women for thinking feminism has a problem with racism, maybe I'm doing OK). Nevertheless, my topic for today -- oppression of indigenous people in the name of conservation -- is a serious and oft-overlooked issue, pointing out (as Schwyzer tried to do) a point of conflict between anti-racism and other elements of the progressive movement.

Historically, indigenous people have had a sort of catch-22 relationship with the nature-human divide. In the initial phase of colonization they were declared to be part of nature, and hence subject to the same type of ruthless exploitation as the soil and trees around them. With the rise of the conservation movement in the early 20th century, indigenous people were accepted as human -- only to have that used as a rationale for removing them from their lands, lest they destroy nature (or even just profane it by their mere presence in the wilderness)*. The latter viewpoint remains strong in the modern environmental movement:

Conservation biologists argue that by allowing native populations to grow, hunt, and gather in protected areas, anthropologists, cultural preservationists, and other supporters of indigenous rights become complicit in the decline of biological diversity. Some, like the Wildlife Conservation Society's outspoken president, Steven Sanderson, believe that the entire global conservation agenda has been "hijacked" by advocates for indigenous peoples, placing wildlife and biodiversity in peril. "Forest peoples and their representatives may speak for the forest," Sanderson has said, "They may speak for their version of the forest; but they do not speak for the forest we want to conserve." WCS, originally the New York Zoological Society, is a BINGO lesser in size and stature than the likes of TNC and CI, but more insistent than its colleagues that indigenous territorial rights, while a valid social issue, should be of no concern to wildlife conservationists.

Sanderson's statement is the height of hubris in two ways, ways which are racist in effect even if not in intent. First, the industrialized countries have crippled nature in their own backyards, and yet the environmental movement asks indigenous people to make the sacrifices to keep the biosphere alive. It's true that some (albeit far less than Sanderson thinks) of the practices of indigenous people are damaging to the environment -- but that damage would be negligible if indigenous territories weren't hemmed in by mines, roads, and industrial agriculture. To put it in the terminology of my previous post, industrial society has weighted indigenous peoples' choice set, and then punishes them for making a survival choice that it doesn't like.

Second, Sanderson's statement about the difference between the indigenous and conservationist versions of the forest is surficially correct, but extremely anti-indigenous in its implications. Indigenous people and the Wildlife Conservation Society do have two different visions of how the forest should be. But what right does Sanderson have to declare the superiority of his own? Perhaps more to the point, since Sanderson has every right to argue for his own perspective, what right does he have to use his comparative financial might, the WCS's media megaphone, and the coercive power of the state to enforce his view? Lands inhabited by indigenous people belong to those indigenous people, and only in the case of egregious damage to others, or with their consent (neither of which pertain in most cases) can outsiders step in.

Indigenous people are people. They have the same basic sort of rights to their environment that any other land owner does -- including the right to define the type of nature that they want, the right to a certain amount of exploitation of it, and the right to participation in environmental management decisions being made at a larger scale. Contra Sanderson, indigenous rights are a crucial concern for wildlife conservationists, because they put a check on conservationists' activities, and because truly recognizing indigenous rights will give conservationists a better foothold to resist the important enemy, the unsustainable industrial system.

If the industrialized countries focus on getting the (unsustainably harvested on land obtained through cronyism) log out of their eye, I think indigenous people can handle monitoring their own eyes for motes.

*Today many indigenous groups and their non-indigenous allies are trying to make indigenous people part of nature again, albeit this time saying it's a good thing -- the "angels in the ecosystem" ideal. I have my anthropological skepticism about how accurate much of the rhetoric is as a representation of traditional (pre-colonial) culture. However, there is nothing wrong with efforts to make one's identity into an "angels in the ecosystem" mold, and indeed it's a clever way for indigenous people practice some syncretism and beat the dominant culture using its own rules.


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