In early May, Ecuador’s National Assembly voted to declare June 23rdDía Nacional de los Páramos, or National Páramo Day. This designation at once recognizes the importance of these high mountain grasslands and underscores the need for improved conservation efforts. Indigenous and rural communities across the highlands have long fought to protect the páramo, but for many years such actions were localized and bereft of resources. The institutions may finally be listening.
While the special observance is of national scope, the páramo’s well-being, now and in the future, is a global concern.
High-altitude páramo moorlands comprise a wetland ecosystem that spans over 30,000 km2 of the northern Andes. Its unique soil structure and plant life play vital roles in the hydrological cycle, providing up to 85-90% of all drinking water in Colombia and Ecuador. The páramo functions by gathering rainfall and cloud moisture, which is then filtered through damp soils and slowly released into streams and rivers. Ultimately, it is a source of the greater Amazon watershed.
An estimated 60% of all páramo flora is endemic, meaning that most of these life forms are not found anywhere else on Earth. Ecuador, by virtue, is one of the world’s most megadiverse countries. Healthy páramo lands thrive on biodiversity and feed South American waterways, thereby supporting the vast forest ecosystems that sustain the planetary web of life as we know it. Indeed, the very ecosystems that are increasingly under existential threat from agricultural and industrial activities.
According to Luis Pachala Poma, the Representative who proposed the legislation, National Páramo Day is a time to celebrate the “cultural, ecological, economic, and historical importance” of this biome. June 23rd was selected because, on that date in 1802, the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his team set out to climb Ecuador’s Chimborazo summit, at the time thought to be the world’s tallest mountain. The trek informed Humboldt’s “Essay on the Geography of Plants” and the accompanying “Chimborazo Map.” Illustrating the connections between climate conditions and plant distribution, the latter emphasized for his audience the dynamic interconnections that link overlapping natural processes. Humboldt studied the extreme meteorological conditions and physical diversity of tropical mountains, together with the multiple adaptations found in their flora and fauna. Embodying these characteristics, the páramo is now an ideal place for studying climate change.
Climate change and the páramo: critically important and critically at risk
The páramo acts as a carbon sink, supremely important in helping to limit global warming. Because páramo lands are found above the tree line, cool and wet climate conditions have allowed their volcanic, water-rich soils to store enormous quantities of organic material. Coupled with tall-growing vegetation, this means the páramo holds more carbon per hectare than tropical lowland forests.
At the same time, global warming is changing the páramo. Two particular impacts of climate change—increasing average temperatures and changing precipitation patterns—disrupt the páramo’s unique vegetation and soil characteristics. The result presents a grave threat to the ongoing existence of these ecosystems.
The wider region where the páramo is found is particularly at risk, for the tropical Andes are warming faster than anywhere outside the Arctic Circle. Glaciers are melting; less rainfall is reaching high-altitude areas; wetland plants in the páramo are dying, among other effects. If National Páramo Day can help draw attention to these changes and lead to greater support for community actions that challenge destructive industrial activities, then the event cannot come soon enough.
Representative Pachala also stated that National Páramo Day will reaffirm the need to conserve, restore, and use Ecuador’s páramo in a “sustainable” way. That idea is still deeply contested.
Ecuador’s economy continues to rely heavily on extractive industries. These industries have devastated Indigenous communities in Amazon regions, damaged biodiverse landscapes, and now, as a result, are facing increasing opposition from the population at large. In a February referendum in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, over 80% of the electorate voted to ban mining in the area, including in the Quimsacocha páramo. Yet mining companies with interests in the region have said they will not respect the referendum results.
While the newly-elected President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, is associated with pro-mining policies and statements, environmental coalitions plan to keep up the pressure to ensure he honors a pre-election pledge to ban open-pit mining. Further political changes since May similarly suggest that Ecuador is on course to revise its relationship with extractive industries. The President of the National Assembly, Guadalupe Llori, is a member of the Indigenous political party (Pachakutik) and has herself faced persecution for participating in protests against oil companies. It remains to be seen whether and how the new legislature transforms Ecuadorian environmental policy.
While policy decisions are debated, those fighting to protect the páramo are among the first to point out that there is no sustainable mining. Many argue that the only “sustainable” future involves a political-economic system that looks beyond mineral extraction and, instead, protects Indigenous rights and the Rights of Nature, as recognized in the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador—the first in the world to do so.
Indigenous leader Marisol Copara has worked to protect the páramo as a source of water not only for humans but also for crops and animals. Describing the páramo as a “source of life,” Olmedo Iza Quinatoa of the Kichwa Indigenous nationality emphasizes the spiritual importance of the páramo, alongside its carbon-storing and water-giving properties, and asks, “What would our life be without water, that is, without the páramo?” The struggle for more equitable futures is ongoing.
In addition to the effects of climate change and mining, Ecuador’s páramo currently faces a number of other threats. These include industrial forestry, unregulated tourism, and land-use change as people are forced to seek grazing and arable lands at higher altitudes.
Robert Hofstede is an environmental consultant based in the capital city of Quito. For decades, Hofstede has collaborated with a network of regional scholars and activists to document biophysical characteristics of the páramo, as well as potential solutions to the changes that are placing this ‘regional biological corridor’ at risk. They note that positive steps have already been taken.
Effective measures introduced so far include water funds to recompense good practice among community initiatives and economic support for small-scale production of high-value products linked to the páramo, like alpaca wool, mortiño blueberries, organic potatoes and tubers. According to Hofstede, such programs need to be upscaled together with both a strengthened policy/regulatory framework and an improved communication/education plan. National Páramo Day can play an important part in these processes, so long as it is provided the visibility and support that these one-of-a-kind landscapes deserve.
Like all environmental campaigns, protecting the páramo is a deeply social and political project. Páramo conservation is a (pluri)national and international concern that involves the protection of biodiversity and Indigenous rights as well as efforts to limit global warming. If National Páramo Day can generate increased political and financial backing for the many local conservation efforts currently underway, it will be a success year round, for all the years to come.
Countries of the Global South are facing a modern form of economic domination from foreign interests. The story of Europeans plundering Black and brown nations to profit from their natural resources is probably a familiar one. But now that nature itself has become commodified through the tourist economy, environmentalism functions as a justification for replicating the same old colonial power dynamics.
Under the banner of conservation, green nonprofits in the United States have begun using the government debt of previously colonized nations as a bargaining chip to force governments to create new nature preserves. Just over two years ago, the U.S.’s richest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, partnered with big European banks to coerce Seychelles, a small island nation 1,000 miles east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean, to issue “blue bonds.” These bonds are a new debt instrument that are supposed to be good for the environment and attract investors who believe Wall Street can be a driver of public good.
Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit.
On October 29, 2018, the World Bank and The Nature Conservancy announced that the government of Seychelles would issue $15 million of blue bonds, “a pioneering financial instrument designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects.” Blue bonds function just like regular bonds. If a government or company wants to borrow money, it issues bonds that are sold in bond markets. The government gets a lump payment upfront and then pays the money with interest over time to the holders of the bonds, which can then be bought and sold on markets just like stocks are. Bonds are considered safe investments because governments rarely default on their debts. What makes blue bonds “blue” is that the issuer of the bond is supposed to use the money on ocean conservation. In the case of Seychelles, the nation issued the bonds to pay off some of its national debt and turn 30 percent of its coral reefs into marine protected areas (MPAs).
The Nature Conservancy says blue bonds are “an audacious plan to save the world’s oceans” and “could unlock $1.6 billion for ocean conservation.” Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit. For example, a Spanish oil and gas company sold green bonds to finance upgrades to their oil refineries, a project of dubious environmental benefit given that it facilitates continued greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the project was sold to investors as a “green” project because it promised to marginally reduce emissions within Spain’s existing oil industry.
While the bulk of media coverage about the blue bonds deal heralded it as a win-win for conservation and Seychelles, nobody seemed to notice that a U.S. nonprofit used a sovereign nation’s foreign debt to leverage the closing of a huge portion of its fishing grounds. We should call the move to deliver conditional aid to Seychelles premised upon reordering its economy what it is: “neocolonialism.” Neocolonialism is the extension of colonial practices through the exertion of economic, political, or cultural pressures to control or influence previously colonized nations.
In the United States, conservation initiatives have targeted small-boat seafood harvesters for decades now. Many of these small-scale harvesters are Indigenous peoples who have fished sustainably for centuries. For instance, in the 1960s, the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot nations had to fight the state of Washington for the right to catch salmon. Washington State’s salmon stocks had been declining since commercial fishing took off after World War II. Tribal communities had been partially blamed for the decline and were beaten and arrested by police for fishing that was guaranteed to them by treaties signed by the state. In the 1980s, environmental activist groups Greenpeace and Seashepherd targeted Indigenous tribes in Alaska and the Soviet Union for the legal harvesting of whales. When environmental groups are looking for easy victories to publicize, nonwhite people and developing nations such as Seychelles, with limited political power, seem to make for easy targets.
For Seychelles, where more than one in six people is employed in the fisheries sector, the potential hamstringing of the country’s second-most important industry could have lasting impacts on the autonomy of small-scale fisheries to determine their livelihoods and futures. It may be that Seychellian fisherfolk and the general public do prefer the creation of MPAs to limit commercial fishing, but there is nothing in the public record to indicate that they were even asked. If the people of Seychelles wanted to create MPAs, the nation already had democratic institutions to work through. Conditioning needed aid on the creation of nature preserves deprives them of their national sovereignty.
Up to its neck in debt
In 2008, Seychelles defaulted on its national debt to foreign banks. The nation owed significant amounts of money to banks in the European Union, largely to its former colonizers France and Britain. Seychelles’ debt had reached unsustainable levels due to two major factors. Firstly, the island nation has been on the losing end of uneven foreign trade in which it imports expensive goods such as oil and yachts while exporting relatively inexpensive natural resources such as tuna for canning. Secondly, Seychelles has been limited in its ability to generate revenue because of overly generous tax breaks offered to foreign investors during its transition to a tourism-based economy and a tax haven. When nations cannot generate revenue through taxation or exports but still must import expensive goods to finance economic development, their governments have little choice but to borrow money from foreign banks.
From the EU’s economic perspective, Seychelles’ problems have resulted not from extractive global capitalism and coercive debt relationships but from overly generous domestic programs that support the second-longest living population in sub-Saharan Africa. This sentiment is illustrated by a statement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that socialism had “eroded the work ethic” of the Seychelles, a statement that is shocking in its obfuscation of uneven debt relations, its McCarthyite redbaiting, and its placement of value on economic growth above the wellbeing of the people of Seychelles.
In 2010, France forgave about five percent of Seychelles’ total debt, but the IMF had other plans for the remainder. In a move straight out of a playbook from Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” the IMF demanded that Seychelles further liberalize its economy and decrease welfare spending in exchange for restructuring its debt payments through 2017. Liberalization typically involves reducing trade barriers, rolling back financial and environmental regulations, slashing public benefits, and privatizing public resources. European countries and the United States have often strong armed developing nations to liberalize their economies in order to enable multi-national corporations to extract value from a nation’s natural resources.
As the debt restructuring deal expired, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) emerged from the nonprofit sector to leverage the debt to limit Seychelles’s fishing industry. TNC’s CEO at the time was Mark Tercek, a former managing director and partner at investment bank Goldman Sachs. Tercek wrote a book called “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” detailing how big business could profit off of environmental conservation. Blue bonds are one instance of the realization of Tercek’s vision of banks and environmental groups profiting off conservation.
The Nature Conservancy: A nonprofit with more money than some nations
In 2001, TNC expanded its focus to include “debt for nature” swaps, where it used a similar scheme in Southeast Asian and Central American forests as in the Seychelles to buy the debt of struggling nations in exchange for the creation of more nature preserves. In the Seychelles deal, TNC worked directly with the World Bank (the IMF’s sister organization) to buy some of the country’s debt in exchange for the creation of 13 new MPAs. TNC gets to claim credit for protecting coral reefs from fisherfolk, but it’s also receiving 3% interest payments on the debt from the Seychellian government.
So, if the environmental and economic benefits are dubious, then one has to wonder whether this deal is really supposed to benefit the Seychellian people. The Nature Conservancy and the big European banks holding their debt could simply have forgiven the Seychelles’ debt, but in the words of colonist Winston Churchill, that would have let a good crisis go to waste. With less debt pressure on its economy, Seychelles would have been more free to use its natural and financial resources how it sees fit.
As the largest environmental nonprofit in the United States, TNC controls large swaths of land and brings in revenue at levels comparable to small nations, in part thanks to interest payments by Seychelles and other nations in the Global South. TNC’s money and its influence give it considerably greater options than other environmental nonprofits to influence the direction of environmental protection. When TNC embraces “market-based solutions,” politicians and other environmental groups begin to see those tactics as appropriate and effective. In other words, TNC’s considerable political and economic clout increases the perceived legitimacy of market-based solutions and directs others to jump onto the bandwagon.
If MPAs don’t protect against climate change or development threats and may not even enhance fishery production, then blue bonds start to look a lot like coercive conservation designed to benefit wealthy outsiders. We also know that real estate development damages coral reefs, so it’s safe to assume that the hotels built during the tourism boom also played a role in the destruction of coral reefs that helped create the justification for issuing blue bonds. Ironically, one of the economic selling points of blue bonds is that protecting the reefs will keep the tourist economy afloat, which could create the demand for more hotels that would further damage the reefs. This creates a feedback loop where conservation may actually put more pressure on the environment, as documented in places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and in several U.S. national parks.
A history of extraction
The World Bank’s description of blue bonds as “pioneering” is telling. The word “pioneer” evokes a history of European colonial expansion, resource extraction, and domination of darker skinned people. For several centuries, Seychelles functioned as a European outpost that used the archipelago’s natural resources to benefit Europeans. It was supposedly uninhabited until it was colonized by the French in the 1700s. As first a French and later a British colony, Seychelles was primarily a source of spices, coconuts, and other agricultural products that were produced on plantations with slave labor. Today, most of its people are creole, or of mixed European and African descent.
The original colonization of Seychelles occurred during the heyday of triangular trade, which was an early economic model of globalization in the 17th and 18th centuries. European and North American slavers extracted people from Africa for the slave market and sent them to the colonies in the so-called New World. The colonists used this forced labor to process the vast natural resources of North America and send value-added products back to Europe where they would command a higher price. European slavers could then trade these manufactured products in Africa for more slaves. The entire system was financed by European banks. It was in this context that Seychelles was colonized. The same model of resource-based extraction and plunder of Africa continues to this day through coercive conservation.
In 1971, Seychelles was still under direct colonial control. The British constructed an international airport and tourism quickly replaced agriculture and fishing as the number one industry. Hotels sprouted all over the archipelago and soon dominated the local economy. In 1976, a socialist-led independence movement gained popular support, and (with the blessing of the United States government which was building a military base on one of the islands at the time), Seychelles finally broke free politically from the United Kingdom.
The blue bonds model may not be limited to the Seychelles for long. TNC continues to tout the benefits of blue bonds and marine reserves, but blue bonds could also play an increasing role in the climate and oceans policy of the next President of the United States. Heather Zichal, who was the vice president of corporate affairs for The Nature Conservancy when the blue bonds were first issued, advised the Biden campaign on environmental policy. She was also briefly the executive director of Blue Prosperity Coalition, an organization dedicated to limiting fishing to 30 percent of the oceans.
The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism.
Now that Biden is President, Zichal has been hired to head a new renewable energy lobbying firm that will seek to use her connections to the new administration to push for more support for wind and solar. Zichal’s career is a perfect example of the “revolving door” of politics, where high level government officials can leave administrative work for prominent positions in the corporate nonprofit/consulting world while also serving on the board of some of the world’s worst polluters.
The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism. A corporate approach to environmentalism that perpetuates systems of domination is not just flawed; it is doomed to fail in the long term because it continues to empower the very forces that view “nature” as something that can be used up until it’s no longer profitable.
TNC is certainly not the only nonprofit that helps prop up a global economic system grounded in extraction, but it is one of the system’s largest nonprofit beneficiaries of money and land donations. And while a number of gifted scientists and advocates make up the rank and file of their 3,500 employees, the organization as a whole suffers from a lack of vision.
Unfortunately there are two major problems with TNC and a large portion of the environmental movement:
Many people within it are unable or unwilling to recognize that unfettered extraction of environmental resources is intrinsic to capitalism.
Many environmentalists still hold Malthusian notions that human beings are incapable of coexisting with nature.
TNC and similar groups’ missions to protect nature in its “wild” state is itself a problematic notion rooted in indigenous erasure. Prior to the rise of European colonization and triangular trade, hundreds of nations of people lived on the American continent. They lived, hunted, farmed, fished, and built things from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia.
When we set up a society that says some places are for people and some places are for “nature,” we reinforce the idea that it’s okay to trash the places that are for people. It also justifies the expulsion of the people from spaces set aside for “nature”, and the denial of relatedness and kinship between the two. Instead, we need to recognize that humans and our habitats are inherently a part of nature and rebuild our systems accordingly.
If the people at TNC and other environmental nonprofits are truly interested in living in harmony with nature, they would have to radically transform their own organizations to focus on disrupting an economic system that relies on exploiting natural resources. After all, it was the global imbalance of power and extractive model that originally generated Seychelles’ dependency on foreign tourists, foreign exports, and foreign fishing interests.
But until TNC and the World Bank reckon with capitalism itself, blue bonds will just help reinforce the unequal global order that makes Seychelles reliant on foreign aid and debt. Whether the bonds are blue or green, neocolonialism with an environmental justification is still just neocolonialism.
Kendall Dix works on climate policy and lives on a farm outside of Charlottesville, VA.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Unfortunately, we were forced to skip our newsletter last month due to low capacity and poor health — but we’ll make it up this time by bringing you two months’ worth of readings to mull over and learn from! As this year’s World Mental Health Day fell on the 10th of October, we decided to include a section dedicated to political analyses and the social determinants of mental health. We also compiled a list on the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly highlighted what we can learn from non-Western countries and philosophies. As usual, you will find plenty of material on Indigenous struggles, degrowth, cities and radical municipalism, food politics, and the dangerous rise of eco-fascism; as well as alternative perspectives on conservation, sci-fi, and fire ecology.
A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!
A historic victory in Bolivia. Fireworks exploded across the night sky in the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Sunday evening, October 18th, as the projected results came through showing a near-landslide victory for the left-wing Movimiento al socialismo (MAS) and its presidential candidate, Luis Arce, in the country’s national elections.
Barcelona’s radical response to Covid-19. While governments around the world have allowed inequality to increase during Covid-19, Barcelona’s left-wing municipality has fought back – introducing measures to support workers, women, migrants and the environment.
Our planet is dying, and conservation as we know it isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making things worse. Long imagined as a bulwark against ecological destruction, players in the mainstream conservation movement—think big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and their corporate partners—have actually been complicit in that destruction by propping up a fundamentally unsustainable capitalist system and the nature-culture dichotomy it’s built upon.
According to Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, sociology professors at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conservation has long been due for a wholesale update—and today, it’s getting not just one but two: “new conservation” and “neoprotectionism.” But in their tightly-argued book, The Conservation Revolution (Verso, February 2020) Büscher and Fletcher make the case that both of these emerging, radical movements contain “untenable contradictions” and that neither can save the planet or humanity from catastrophe. In their place, they propose a new conservation framework of their own, one that complements the variety of ongoing “hope movements” imagining ecologically-sound and democratic alternatives to capitalism.
In the course of just over 200 pages, Büscher and Fletcher build up to this modest proposal swiftly yet methodically, combining history and theory to contextualize and, ultimately, critique their colleagues in the so-called “Anthropocene conservation debate” in a way that is both rigorous and accessible. While their own “convivial conservation” framework, by their own admission, needs further development, it is nonetheless an important addition to revolutionary thought in political ecology.
Their analysis begins with a critical but frequently overlooked fact: Conservation has been linked to capitalism from the very beginning. In 17th and 18th century Britain, they explain, elites “conserved” collectively-used lands by forcing rural people off them. That expulsion conveniently created a labor force for the rapidly industrializing economy. Ever since, capitalism and conservation have shared much of the same ideological DNA. Take the nature-culture dichotomy—the idea that nature is somehow external to humans. Capitalists have long used that idea to justify treating nature as an object to be manipulated in the pursuit of endless economic growth. Conservation organizations, meanwhile, have spread the same notion as they wall off humans from areas artificially transformed into “untouched” wilderness.
And while conservation has long aided and abetted capitalism—through ecotourism, for example—conservation can now be said to have fully integrated into the machine. By putting a price on nature through market-based instruments such as payments for environmental services, organizations like the Natural Capital Coalition see conservation itself as a force for growing the economy.
Like those mainstream conservationists, many of the contemporary thinkers Büscher and Fletcher deem “new conservationists” have no trouble with capitalism. But they depart with their mainstream counterparts in one significant way: They don’t aim to separate nature from humans. Instead, thinkers like science journalist Emma Marris see the planet as a “rambunctious garden,” one that humans must fully inhabit with the rest of nature and manage through sustainable economic activity. As environmental scientist Peter Kareiva puts it: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” While Büscher and Fletcher see the movement’s rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy and focus on poverty alleviation as positive steps, they argue convincingly that the new conservationist alignment with—or, in some cases, ambivalence toward—capitalism undermines its goal of ecological and social harmony. Capitalism, they say, creates poverty, and its rapacious appetite for growth simply cannot last on a finite planet.
Many neoprotectionists, Büscher and Fletcher argue, understand that essential fact, which is why their brand of conservation is at least nominally anti-capitalist. But unlike new conservationists, who reject the nature-culture dichotomy, neoprotectionists double down on it, campaigning for huge swaths of the globe to be made off limits to human beings. Perhaps the most well-known neoprotectionist—and a notable exception to the movement’s generally anti-capitalist stance— is the biologist E.O. Wilson, who calls for fencing off half the planet to “safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” Putting hard boundaries between humans and nature, Büscher and Fletcher note, has, in fact, “saved important tracts of nature from previous waves of capitalist development,” but it has also routinely failed in the past due to corruption and weak enforcement. Enacting a similar scheme on an even grander scale, they argue, would not just require unprecedented militarization, but also likely plunge billions into poverty—making it immediately “socially, politically and culturally” illegitimate.
So what does a feasible, equitable, and sustainable conservation look like? According to Büscher and Fletcher, it should combine the best elements of the two radical conservation movements by rejecting both capitalism and the nature-culture dichotomy. Their proposed “convivial conservation” promotes a dialectical relationship between humans and non-humans while working in “conjunction, connection, and spirit with the many proposed alternatives” to capitalism, including ecosocialism and doughnut economics. Under such a system,for instance, natural areas would be “promoted” for “long-lasting, engaging and open-ended” human use rather than protected from humans altogether. It would also feature a new form of community-based conservation, which would repudiate neoliberal market mechanisms and instead prioritize democratic decision-making, social justice, and the needs of non-human nature. Büscher and Fletcher float a host of other ideas, including a “conservation basic income” and reparations, as potential components of convivial conservation.
What Büscher and Fletcher are proposing is a revolutionary upheaval of the status quo, but they are by no means polemicists. At times, “The Conservation Revolution” is practically genteel. After unequivocally rejecting mainstream conservation as “part of the very problem it addresses,” for example, the authors are quick to dismiss the idea that “there is nothing good in mainstream conservation or that all people working on and in mainstream conservation are somehow ‘bad.’” They approach their differences with those in the conservationist community , meanwhile, knowing that their colleagues are generally “imbued with a great sense of crisis and responsibility” and live a “tense and pressurized” existence. That may be true, but at a time when ecosystems face imminent collapse and humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, such a tone can come across as oddly unhurried.
Convivial conservation is, the authors admit, “an exercise with many loose ends,” and indeed the “nascent” proposal only takes up about a quarter of an already slim book. At times, the program can seem not merely unfinished, but contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious in the authors’ list of “concrete actions” for achieving convivial conservation, which bend toward the technocratic. Why, for instance, bother proposing “convivial conservation departments” at conservation NGOs, when, as the authors themselves assert, many of those NGOs continue to work hand-in-hand with corporations? And if a sane conservation must be, first and foremost, rooted in overthrowing capitalism, why look to “new blockchain technologies” and “grants from international donors and individual patrons” to fund the movement?
Convivial conservation may not be a silver bullet, and The Conservation Revolution may not be the last book one needs to read to help imagine a life-sustaining future. But if we’re lucky, the world to come will look more like the one Büscher and Fletcher describe than not.
Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and editor. He tweets at @teicherj
Hirta lies approximately 44 miles from the island of Leverburgh. On the clearest of days, it is visible as a dark smudge on the horizon. If you are a passenger aboard one of the several large cruise ships that stop over each year and deposit up to three hundred bodies on its shores, then you’ll be lucky enough to experience a seamless and convenient visit to one of the most mythologized islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides.
For everyone else, the journey requires determination—and money. Boats leave from Leverburgh or Skye daily, but book up months in advance, and fifty percent of journeys are cancelled on the day due to unfavourable weather conditions. Overnight visitors must take all their own supplies. There is no shop, no phone reception, no wifi.
The common characteristic of those who end up on Hirta—the largest island in the St. Kilda archipelago, and the only one that permits human visitors—is that they really want to be there. Everyone has their own reasons for visiting: a fascination with remote islands, a desire to witness the one million migratory seabirds that stop by during breeding season, or a drive to master Conachair—the highest peak—and gaze over the precipice of the tallest sea-cliff in Britain. But for most, the allure of St. Kilda lies in that strange thing known as ‘disaster tourism’: the drive to visit sites that still bear the scars of past tragedies, preserved as a testament to their historic importance.
In its simplest form, the story goes like this:
A human population lives for one thousand years, perhaps longer, in complete isolation on a remote island. Their sustenance comes almost entirely from the seabirds, which they catch in great numbers from the cliffs, and store in small stone buildings called cleits.
Then in 1697, an ‘explorer’ called Martin Martin visits, and writes about a forgotten isle that perfectly embodies the Victorian obsession with the Romantic Sublime: the kind of simultaneous awe and fear reserved for thirteen-hundred-foot cliffs, great expanses of water, and mist-filled bowls of land unbroken by even a single tree. Over the course of the following centuries, the Victorians start to come to St. Kilda, in larger and larger numbers.
A priest visits, and preaches the islanders out of their heathen ways. He preaches them out of their windowless stone houses, insulated with lichen and low-lying to escape the worst of the wind, and into new square buildings with real glass. Several winters pass and all the glass is broken. The islanders grow sick. They catch diseases. They are almost entirely wiped out. But they hang on. They keep hanging on for several centuries, until 1930, when the last poverty-stricken survivors are evacuated.
Humans never again return to live permanently on St. Kilda. And so, history stops.
The story is tragic. But the exact nature of the tragedy remains intentionally obscure. Is it the tragedy of globalization? Of tourism? Of the fact that people lived here for so long with so little? The question of whether or not the islanders wanted to evacuate in 1930 is cautiously circumnavigated. The last of the native St. Kildans, Rachel Johnson, passed away last year after having spent most of her life on the mainland. The underlying sentiment in her obituaries is that the secrets of St. Kilda died with her.
The NTS are well aware of the potency of this: a story in which the protagonists are forever lost, set against the backdrop of a desolate landscape peppered with ruined cleits and winged shapes flying in circles against the white sky. The tourist experience is carefully shaped to play off its atmospheric mournfulness. One of the panels in the St. Kilda museum, entitled ‘deserted island’, describes the scene of Village Bay, the small cove where boats pull in and from which the large majority of tourists do not stray:
This row of houses with ruined buildings and storehouses is part of a cultural landscape which evokes the lives of the isolated community that lived here.
These ‘evoked’ lives can never be anything other than past tense and ghostly. Like the white chalk outline of a body on the pavement, the physical landscape of St. Kilda becomes a space defined by loss. And in the same way that a pedestrian would not simply walk over such a chalk outline, the landscape is governed by rules and boundary-lines. The expected reverence is formalized. Tourists are given a ‘dos and don’ts’ talk by the island warden upon arrival. They are forbidden from walking over the ruins, and if so much as a stone falls out of place, its position must be photographed and logged before the island’s resident archaeologist or NTS volunteer can put it back into its place.
The story that drew me to St. Kilda was not that of the demise of the islanders—at least not entirely. But I was by no means immune to the pull of disaster. It was the final term of my Masters degree in Science and Technology Studies, and I had grown a little restless reading about wilderness from a desk in the British Library. I came across an article on the catastrophic decline of the kittiwakes on St. Kilda, a type of seabird so-named for its characteristic call [kitti-WAKE, kitti-WAKE]. The most recent NTS seabird report reveals that kittiwake productivity has declined by 99.2% since 1994. Last year, a single chick hatched, and subsequently died. The current consensus is that this is due to a combination of overfishing and the global rise of sea-temperatures, which is forcing sandeels—the main food-source of many St. Kilda’s seabird species—to seek cooler waters.
Having no formal scientific training or any experience with quantitative data, I decided that my Masters dissertation would look at perceptions of seabird disappearance. I packed a bag full of ‘survival’ gear (waterproof matches, voice recorder, whisky, chocolate), booked my spot on the boat, sent a few over-enthusiastic emails to NTS staff members, and set off. I received a text from my housemate as I boarded the train to Glasgow: ‘Good luck saving the seabirds. Don’t fall off any cliffs’.
As I dozed my way through the four-legged trip (train, plane, bus, boat) from London to St. Kilda, I tried to convince myself that ‘saving the seabirds’ was at least in part what I was going to do. As a kid I had been adamant that I’d be a ‘nature conservationist’ when I grew up. I don’t think I knew exactly what this meant, and always pronounced it wrong. It was one of those things that I picked up and latched on to because it sounded unquestionably fulfilling.
Disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.
But as I grew older, the word became murky and slightly meaningless to me. Interchanged frequently with ‘preservation’, it seemed to suggest that only ‘original’ (pre-industrial) nature was ‘real’ nature. What, then, were the parks and beaches where I spent many happy days during my childhood, those semi-wild places where toilet blocks accumulated new graffiti each year, where shark-nets were put up and taken down, where bushfires burnt through entire stretches of forest that grew back in strange new tufts that looked extra-terrestrial?
The concept of change occupies a strange place in nature conservation discourses. The idea of flux and variation has always been central to ecological sciences, but the need to counteract claims that violent human-induced changes to environments over short periods of time are ‘only natural’ has meant that true ‘wilderness’ has come to be associated with values of stability and a-historicity. As the number of areas that occupy this definition dwindles rapidly, ‘wilderness’ becomes increasingly inaccessible and illusory.
As a Unesco world heritage site with dual (natural and cultural) listing, St. Kilda is a bit of a showroom for definitions of conservation. The division is geographical as well as semantic. Archaeological conservation efforts focus on the ruined village in Village Bay, the sheltered cove where boats pull in. Natural conservation happens ‘out there’, on the rocky outcrops and steep edges of hills that fall upwards in every direction.
Just like the idea of ‘wilderness’ itself, the slow extinction of kittiwakes and other seabirds that come to St. Kilda to breed becomes a ghostly half-reality. But unlike the disappearance-in-history preserved by archaeological remains, disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.
The first days I spent walking around Hirta, I saw death everywhere. I found shattered eggshells on rocks. I found the skeleton of a gull picked clean by a larger bird, its wings splayed out on the grass on either side of its exposed breastbone. I walked along the beach and found the deflated body of a seal, and that of a gannet, a splash of white feathers against the rock, intact apart from its missing eye. These dead things did not trouble me. I remembered collecting starfish and seahorses from the beach when I was a child, and leaving them in the sun until all the liquid had dried out of them and they smelled only very faintly. I regarded them with fascination—they were signs of life as much as they were of death.
And then, on the second day into my visit, I hiked up to the top of Conachair and came unexpectedly across a propeller protruding from the hillside, an uncomfortable contortion of scrap metal flecked with an angry rash of rust. I’d heard this story: in 1943, twelve men from New Zealand flew out at night and didn’t expect to find a four-hundred-and-thirty metre mountain in the middle of the Atlantic. The differences between human and animal death and extinction suddenly appeared to me deeply questionable. It seemed strange to me that animal death could be so bodily, so a-temporal and a-historic, and human death so shrouded in the unsayable, the unseeable, so immaterial and yet so steeped in history.
It is easier for humans to understand expanses of time and space when they are packaged up into a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Museums serve the purpose of drawing up these boundaries, identifying cut-off points and sealing the past in a hermetic bubble that can be carefully curated and preserved. I do not question that this is valuable work, but when a museum is also a living, breathing island, the semantics of ‘preservation’ seem misguided. The conversations around species decline need less emphasis on endings, and more emphasis on the messy present.
On the third day of my stay on St. Kilda, the weather took a turn for the worse and the tourist boats stopped coming. I had presumed that this would be the point at which the real sense of loneliness and melancholy would set in. Now, undisturbed by the bright colours of weatherproof jackets on the hillside, I figured I’d be able to take in the grey-blues and greens of the treeless landscape in all its dreary, ghostly glory.
But the dreariness never came. Life continued. The local boat operators radioed in weather reports, the military helicopter flew in periodically, looking a little like a seabird when its black shape first appeared in the distance, the volunteers carried on documenting misplaced stones, and the wild sheep carried on knocking them off again.
As if time had been turned inside out, my sense of neatly demarcated historical disaster gave way to a kind of joy that was intensely confusing. Walls literally chirped at me as I walked past—I began to see seabirds nesting in the storehouses of their former predators, making their houses in the quarry in the hillside. Slowly, the central absence of the St. Kildans—that chalk line on the pavement—was starting to fade. It became instead a kind of presence, one of the many voices in an impossibly complex orchestra in which things did not displace one another, but instead flowed into the same big mess.
As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island.
One practicality of choosing an island for a museum is that the spatial boundaries seem to reinforce the idea of temporal boundaries. As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island. They did this not only through their vertiginous flight in and out of my field of vision, but also through their response as a population to things that do not—as I was reminded by several staff—fit into the remit of the NTS: climate change, overfishing. One day, two gannets, entangled in a bit of plastic—like a bad omen from a distant land in a fairytale—drifted into the bay and were saved. The outside world seeped into the island-sphere, just as history seeped into the present. The archipelago was doing its best to shake off the impact of the world ‘out there’—the messy present—but of course, no such distinction had really ever existed. The real tragedy of St. Kilda is in its connectedness. But this is also cause for celebration.
St. Kilda is a vitally important asset to the Outer Hebrides, which struggle under the growing trend of depopulation and rely heavily on tourism during the summer months. Tourism to St. Kilda is the NTS’ single biggest source of income. But the old trick of disaster tourism which, in this case, puts the place to death rather than bringing the past to life—does nothing to counteract the story of Hebridean communities collapsing one by one.
The ‘real’ St. Kilda, the one in which tour-operators, military staff, researchers and tourists share space with a whole array of species whose numbers are continuously fluctuating in response to a huge variety of factors, was more interesting to me than the uninhabited island that speaks only of what has been lost. The problem with the word ‘conservation’ is that it implies endings and permanence. This kind of framing is actively misleading in a place where stories of depopulation and species decline are unfolding now, in the unstable present.
But if not ‘conservation’, then what? Perhaps the most useful substitute is simply this: attention. Attention means immersion, responsiveness, sticking with the ebbs and flows. It is what is required of any good reader or listener of stories. It is also what is required of a good tourist.
All photos by Lauren Collee
Lauren Collee is a free-lance writer and researcher based in London. She is interested in social imaginings of the natural world, and ways in which they are shaped by language.
Sita Maji of the Santhal tribe sits in front of her temporary house in Munda, Mayurnbanj district of Odisha, India. She lives with her two children, one and three years old, along with her husband and her old mother. In the hot May weather of 45 degrees, this small house is the only escape for her family of five—70 km away from her ancestral village in Kabathgai, from where she was forcefully relocated by the Forest Department on May 28 2016.
Kabathgai was a village located in the core area of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest and most recognized tiger reserves in the East Indian state of Odisha. While the home of many tigers, Simlipal has also been home to numerous tribal communities such as Santhal, Kolho, and Khadia, which have inhabited these lands for centuries.
The red silk cotton trees of semul flowers, which give the name to the Simlipal National Park, have been the house, the shadow, and companionship to tribal people like Sita. But today to respond to the need for environment conservation, in Simlipal, as well as in many other Tiger Reserves of India, many villages have been relocated outside the forest area, because they are considered a threat to the wildlife and the conservation of the tigers. No longer considered the protectors of the forest, they have been targeted by the government and the wildlife “experts” as encroachers.
The relocation of Kathbagai village has been planned after the notification of the new Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. The critical tiger habitats (CTHs), also known as core areas of tiger reserves, are identified under the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, based on scientific evidence that “such areas are required to be kept as inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation.” The term “inviolate” has mostly been interpreted as “free of human presence”. However, in many parks all over India, the demarcation of CTHs coincides with areas inhabited by numerous human settlements.
The Santhal village of Kabathgai fell under the demarcation of the new core tiger area in Simlipal, announced in December 2007. For this reason Sita’s family was relocated, as her family was considered dangerous for the wildlife conservation and for the protection of the tigers.
With a yellow bright sari, and a tired expression, Sita is resting after a morning of hard work of building up her new houses in the relocated Munda place. She tells me how difficult their life has been since the relocation: “Out of the forest everything needs to be purchased from the market, and after the relocation the forest department helped us with only 1 kg rice per person for the first 3 months. The food available here is of bad quality and we are suffering from bad health issues”. Sita explains about the conditions at the site of relocation, but her eyes glimpse only when she tells about her forest, remembering those days when their children could play freely on the ground, and the women used to rest under the big shading trees.
The relocated site is still a temporary camp, where a row of mud houses has been covered by plastic black tents that function both as shade and protection for the rain. Firewood and kitchen utensils are spread throughout the house’s lane where cooking, sleeping and washing clothes take place in the same narrow area. Electricity is still not available and a water pump and one temporary toilet have been considered to be enough for the entire community of 47 families.
“Here it is very hot. Without any trees, rivers and lands we feel lost! We are not used of living in such an environment and in the hot summer, we are suffering from lots of sicknesses and many people have been already carried to the hospital because of dehydration” says Sita Maji.
For two months the entire community have been working to build up their houses of about 10×8 feet per family, under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), a National scheme aiming at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas.
After the construction is finished they will need to take some other wage labour from outside in order to survive.
The tribal people: puppet of the legal regime
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006 is the legal instrument that recognises the rights of Sita to inhabit the forest area and to carry on her traditional activities.
The FRA is a milestone act with the aim of restoring the traditional and customary rights of the tribal and the forest dwellers’ communities that have historically been denied and exploited by the colonial forest governance. Prior to the FRA, entire communities living inside protected areas were denied entitlements on their forest land, and always threatened by eviction due to being considered illegal in their own territory. Other forest entitlements such as grazing, fishing, collecting of minor forest products (MFPs) were also denied. Thus the FRA is a piece of legislation that gives hope to all the forest dwellers in India.
Sita’s family have struggled for many years to obtain the piece of paper that could allow them to live in peace, cultivate the land, carrying on their activities in the forest and finally enjoy the legal rights which they have previously been denied. After a long struggle, Sita’s community got their community title in 2015, but they were forced to relocate just after. “We fought for our land and for our children, but the pressure put on us by the forest department was unbearable, and we had to come out to find a bit of peace,” says Sita remembering the day they got pushed out of their forest.
“People living in the Kabataghai village in the core tiger zone were forced continuously to relocate by the forest department. Department also sent middle-men to lure village residents into accepting the compensation package, lying that it is a one-time opportunity” says Sanghamitra, a member of Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy, a group of activists from across India advocating the FRA. She has been working closely with the Tribespeople living in the core zone of Simlipal.
According to the FRA, the people can be relocated by the Critical Tiger Habitat only if non-coexistence with wildlife have been proved through scientific studies, and only after the voluntary and written consent of the gram sabha (the elder’s council). The people of Kobathgai were never keen to be relocated. In the middle of the winter, Sita’s family had to leave their ancestral land. The entire colony was moved with trucks to this desolate piece of land close to the main city of Jashipur. “In that same day our houses were turned apart, our cropped land destroyed by elephant and our community villages took over by the authorities,” explains Sita, remembering that day which is still very fresh in her memory.
When the District Collector of Mayurbhanj, who is responsible for the relocation of the people, was asked if the relocation was forced he absolutely argued that all relocation have been voluntary. But is continuous harassment, destruction of crops, and physical and mental torture considered normal behavior by the Forest Department, who instead should have cooperated with the villagers and recognized their granted rights as per FRA.
With a package of 10 lakh rupees (US$15,000) and a false promise of land, the Kabathgai community had no option but relocation.
The rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act are now expired, according to the District Collector, and people are not anymore able to go back to their ancestral land, pursue their traditional activities, and to collect the MFPs for their livelihood. Landless and helpless, the people of Kabathgai are yet to realize how to survive out of the forest. The men seem to show more strength and hope about a new modern life, while the women are feeling the frustration and the fear of a life not corresponding to their needs.
An ongoing struggle
Sita’s community is not the only one which has been forcefully evicted by the forest department disregarding FRA 2006. In the same Simlipal Tiger Reserve, since 20094 villages, 3 from the core tiger area and 1 from the buffer zone, have been already moved out of the forest. Conflicts between state forest departments and Indigenous people are being reported across the protected areas of the country. According to a report on displacement due to conservation published by the environmentalist A. Kothari, in the last 30 years a number between 100,000 to 300,000 people have been displaced in the name of conservation.
InKanha Tiger Reserve more than 700 families of the Baiga tribe have been displaced since 1970. InNagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve a number of 3,400 families got displaced without any proper compensation and relocation; inKaziranga in the state Assam a 2015 high court order has ordered the eviction of more than 2,000 forest dwellers inhabiting the area, among which many are Mising tribal people, Adivasis and Bengali minorities.
The Forest Rights Act continues to be ignored by the authorities which carry on with illegal evictions in the name of conservation.
A recent circular issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government body that looks after the managing of the tiger reserves for the conservation of the big cat, ordered that ‘no forest rights under FRA should be anymore granted inside the CTH’. This means the annulment of rights for forest dwellers like Sita, whose traditional livelihoods are dependent on their ability to collect MFPs.
The order could indeed seriously aggravate the situation on the ground. Tribespeople who have been fighting for their rights in the forest even after the FRA being in place are now compelled to come together to fight against the NTCA’s order.
The conflict arising in the name of biodiversity conservation has been increasing in India as well as in many other part of the world. In the name of conservation today many communities are getting relocated and deprived of their means of survival without properly ensuring them any livelihood option and without any engagement in the real meaning of conservation.
Today conservation is just another name used as a justification for territorialism.
The positive connotation given to conservation is being used to hide the negative words of dispossession, land acquisition, and denial of rights. It is under this name that Sita’s family was relocated from her village, last year during the monsoons without proper shelter or facilities, and with only the support of a few kilos of rice. “We could not sleep at night and the children were constantly crying. We are now working day and night in the hot weather to finish the construction of the house before the new monsoon season starts, but after this who knows what our destiny will be,’ argues Sita.
While pronouncing these words she turns towards the empty space, and then looking at me she says: “We were before the protectors of the forest, now they turn us into its enemy!”
All photos by Eleonora Fanari
Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.