How Conservation Attempts to Erase the Memories of Exclusion: The Past

Ashika Thomas

Conservation efforts have been hailed as the need of the hour to save the planet. While these efforts are rampant, their positive effects are short-lived and their negative effects are studied upon relentlessly. Hopefully, this article will contribute towards understanding conservation in the context of exclusion. While talking about conservation and exclusion, it is fruitful to think about the following questions: Who is responsible for conserving nature? And why are only certain parts of nature being conserved? In the process of trying to answer the above questions, we find that only a handful of people are “officially” considered to be stakeholders in the conservation process thus excluding many others who might be directly dependent on nature for sustenance. Such excluded groups usually include minorities or those in the lower rungs of the social ladder. 

We find that only those parts of nature serving a larger purpose—the development and fulfillment of the human race—are considered worthy of conservation. Forests providing resources and animals for hunting fall under this category. Surprisingly, any aspect of nature which can represent the might and power of a country was also given a name and conserved as “national heritage sites”. Any part of nature not worthy is considered a “wasteland” or as “wilderness”. We also find that only those groups willing to sacrifice their sustenance for “development” are mentioned in the literature talking about these issues. 

Exclusion in conservation projects is not a recent phenomenon. Any conversation surrounding nature conservation always touches upon the topic of who can use it and who cannot. Even in eighteenth century China, when local interests fared against long term interests of the state, it was the latter that found precedence, which in this case, was to exploit a lake. In almost all cases where there was an exclusion of interests of one of the stakeholders, it was usually the interest of the locals. In her essay “Wild Pigs and Kings”, Ann Gold finds that the interest of the Rajas to hunt pigs trumped the interest of the locals to protect their harvest from the pigs who would trample it. The pigs here were being conserved from farmers to be hunted by the royals. In other words, they were “conserved” to fulfill the royals’ wishes. In the end, both the Ghatiyali farmers and royals wanted to kill the pigs but one had the “right” to do it. 

When talking about the exclusion of minorities, the case of South Africa also comes to mind. Carruthers in her essay “Tracking in Game Trails”, highlights the power which comes with being a stakeholder in environment conservation “because nature protection is considered to be a “white” concern, even though the protected area estate is managed by black Africans. This view holds sway because black Africans do not generally visit national parks for recreation, while whites do”. This suggests that conservation has been long thought of as a white people’s burden, which only they must solve (without consultation with others). 

This exclusion of minorities had another facet in the disregard towards minority narratives in the history of environmental conservation. Even when they are mentioned, it is only to complement the larger narrative of the success or failure of human conquest through “conservation”. In “A Place for Stories”, William Cronon observes that almost all the narratives of the Great plains start from the moment the conquest of the Indian lands begins, “The precontact history of the Indians is not part of this story.” He also notices that the most popular narrative of the conquest of Great Plains by Fredrick Turner, asserted that the native Indians gave up their freedom for the progress of America and that this was inevitable in the path to “democratic nationhood”. Changing the perspective of the narrative from the intruder to the natives will reveal a tragic story of the Indians, which sounds very different from the ongoing narrative of progress and prosperity. Ignorance of minority stories in environmental history is a major form of exclusion in conservation. 

Another aspect to exclusion in conservation projects which often goes unnoticed is the exclusion of local history while planning and implementing said conservation projects. Details about local resources and the lives of locals are ignored and the plan is made to fit a general case and not the specific case of the area. This can again be seen in Cronon’s essay about the Dust Bowl, the continuous dust storms which destroyed agriculture in the 1930s in the Great plains: “The Dust Bowl had occurred because people had been telling themselves the wrong story and had tried to inscribe that story—the frontier—on a landscape incapable of supporting it.” Cronon also mentions Bonnifield’s who found that “when the Dust Bowl hit, it was the people who lived there, not government scientists,who invented new land use practices that solved earlier problems.”The planners imposed the idea of a “planned society” without considering the features of the region. Moreover, he says that the planners wanted to remove farmers from their lands, not to conserve the environment but to reduce the wheat harvest. The conservation plans were made without consideration of the lives of local. Carruthers writes, “Conservation managers use history—or rather stories about the past—simplistically, in order to bolster policy but also, one suspects, because they are somewhat afraid of historical analysis, ignorant of historical context, wary of professional historians, and unsure of how best to combine the humanities and conservation science.” For this reason, more work should be forthcoming on analyzing the origins and pathways of environmental injustice, on the kind of science that supported it, and on the political systems that framed it”. There is a need for local, social and political narratives to be included in the conservation discourse. 

All parts of nature are not equally given attention to. Some parts like forests, lakes and certain wildlife are heavily protected—by the state or private entities—who go as far as having armed guards safeguard it. The significance of such aspects of nature relates to the meaning given to it by certain groups. For example, for Carl Akeley, the infamous American taxidermist, big strong animals like the gorilla represented a matched opponent for humans and hence a worthy animal to hunt. Who gives this meaning? Those with power and with knowledge—“Power relations are brought into sharp relief in the history…They played out in natural, urban, and agricultural environments with consequences that are everywhere evident.” 

From our analysis, it seems clear that exclusion does not happen within groups having the same status or power in society. The phenomenon of inclusion and exclusion, no matter in what context, suggests a power dynamic in effect. Incidentally, the ones who decide who is excluded have changed overtime from Rajas and powerful estate owners to the governments and its officials. 

The ones who face the brunt of this power relation won’t have a history to tell like that of the settlers in the Great Plains. Like the Indian chief in Cronon’s essay, Plenty Coups said “…And then nothing happened.” And this is coming from the head of a group who sided with those with power (in this case the United States) but still was left worse off after the whole ordeal. Just as a natural calamity affects some more adversely than others, conservation projects leave those who had little to begin with in a worse position than before. Hence, even the after effects of the act of conservation are exclusionary. 

In what we have seen so far, there were cases of exclusion due to conflict of interests between various groups. Exclusion also takes place in the re-telling of environmental history which is detrimental when making new environmental policies. Exclusion also happens because of a power imbalance which comes with having “knowledge’. According to the Foucauldian term “power/knowledge”, having “knowledge” gives more control and hence more power. The minorities in the above cases are thought to have less understanding of the concept of nature or “knowledge” than people of higher stature and are hence excluded from conservation and development. The inclusion of local groups in environmental protection projects has increased over the past years but the issue of exclusion of minority narratives will be harder to mitigate as long as only those with “knowledge” get to define historical narratives. 

Last, when talking about conservation it is important to differentiate it from preservation. Conservation refers to control over nature as a resource for long term needs which includes modifying nature to fit resource needs; ‘preserving’ refers to keeping nature intact in the form that it exists. While preserving also might have resource based intentions, less modification takes place. Maybe the need of the hour is to preserve our nature rather than controlling it.

Ashika Thomas is a third-year student who is pursuing an Economics major and an Environmental Science minor at Ashoka University.

Image credits: https://apnep.nc.gov/blog/2017/10/16/dust-came-soil-conservation

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