Conservation for the rich, poverty for the poor?
Monday 12 October 2009 Derek Walll
Conservation can too easily become an excuse for the rich to assault the poor. I live in Winkfield, Berkshire, where the great socialist historian EP Thompson conducted a special study published in his book Whigs And Hunters.
He chronicled how the so-called 1723 Black Act was used to prevent local people from hunting in the Windsor Forest. Killing deer or even harming trees could lead to severe penalties including death for ordinary people. But the rich and the powerful were free to enjoy the royal forest and to kill local wildlife.
Fast forward to 2009 and the process continues. There is a modern-day brand of "conservation" which is more about preserving the landscape for an elite than serving nature.
In 1992 the Tanzanian government secretly leased several thousand square miles of the Loliondo game reserve to a company from the United Arab Emirates. Local communities have been pressured into leaving the reserve and, in July, a campaign of repression began against those who remained.
This summer, eight villages which included 150 permanent homes have been burnt out, thousands of cattle have been lost and nearly 2,000 people made homeless. The repression has been carried out by police acting on the orders of the Tanzanian government.
According to Survival International there has been at least one case of rape against a local women and those who continue to protest against eviction are being arrested and held without trial.
The local people are nomadic pastoralists, Maasai people. They live from their cattle and believe it a blasphemy to grow crops - ironically the Maasai have long learnt to live with local wildlife and view hunting for pleasure or profit as a crime.
Climate change is making it more difficult for them to live according to their traditions but they have been adapting. But repression is more difficult to adapt to than environmental change.
The Maasai believe that the corporate hunters will soon destroy the local wildlife and depart for new killing fields when they have exhausted Loliondo. The Maasai have accused the corporation which controls their land of using a number of unorthodox hunting techniques such as constructing artificial water holes in the dry season. Animals are attracted by the water and can then be slaughtered in large numbers by the hunters. Big cats such as leopards, cheetahs and lions have been captured and flown out to the United Arab Emirates, they say.
NGOs in Tanzania have protested vigorously against the evictions. On August 27, 25 Tanzanian groups including the Legal and Human Rights Centre and Lawyers' Environmental Action Team presented their government with a protest letter calling for an end to land seizures by foreign companies and for justice for the Maasai.
In response Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Shamsi Mwangung condemned the NGOs and claimed that no Tanzanian citizens had been evicted. She suggested that the villagers were Kenyans who had illegally entered the country and dismissed claims of human rights abuse.
It is true that climate change and the nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai have led to border crossing between the two countries, but the evicted villages have been long established in Loliondo.
While Morning Star readers should undoubtedly write to the Tanzanian embassy to protest against the situation there, this is just one specific, nasty example of a much wider trend.
Conservation should not be about conserving the environment for the pleasure of an elite but should be about serving the needs of humanity and the rest of nature.
Too often it is assumed that people must be moved to make way for the environment, yet the idea of untainted wildernesses that is celebrated by some conservationists is quite false.
Human beings have influenced the entire surface of our planet. Even the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest are inhabited by human beings. It is especially ironic that the notion of wilderness is used when conserving for the pleasure of an elite who intend to exploit it.
There are many ways to wreck nature for short-term gain. But there are also ways of co-existing with nature that promote diversity and ecological stability.
Questions of ecology inevitably touch on questions of power, democracy and participation. Environmentalism that refuses to deal with politics is an environmentalism that will fail to maintain ecology.
Ignoring power means working on the side of the powerful against the interests of the majority. Now who was it who once said that history is the history of class struggle?