The Colonial Truth About Wildlife Conservation

The issue with politics and conservation is just that – the creation of politics and conservation. It is this abstractness and distance of the terms from one another that renders its ability to address any grassroots change, tactically insufficient.

Politics is seen as something that happens to conservation – the politics of environmental ethics – then positions politics as a separate entity that operates outside of conservation, rather than the force creating it. This distance of politics and preservation is also extended into the distorted placement of “third world” and “developing” communities outside of environmental ethics.

Touring through the colonial legacies of conservation, their reproduction in current environment narratives, and the movements that have risen in response to these power dynamics, the issue remains two-fold.

By uncomplicating the dynamic relationship between human and nature, conservation fails to observe that the environment is not an independent force, but is maintained and degraded by and through its relationship with its communities. These reconciliation narratives between human-nature are then demanded for any future reform that works towards culturally dismantling colonial narratives, rather than perpetuating and reproducing them.

The history of conservation, like its development predecessors is rooted in colonial and slave-trade legacies which places environment and wildlife concerns, over the lives of its surrounding communities. It is these discourses that enable the reproduction of core behaviours demanded by these colonial narratives: displacement and dispossession.

The colonial model with the intention to conserve wildlife was made possible through the creation of parks, wildlife reserves, and zoos. Seemingly noble, conservation was done in this of separation and differentiating between humans and land, between communities and animals, between peoples and their culture.

This separation forces a power hierarchy upon these communities that repeatedly places wildlife over the lives of human entities – destroying any point of reconciliation between human-nature inside a colonial model that forces their exploitation.

This “product of violence” (Munster 2016, 442) is eloquently elucidated in Milking the Rhino, in which, for the Maasai community in Il Ngwesi, Kenya, and Humba in the Marienfluss area of Namibia, current conservation practices have been rooted in the displacement and dispossession of their colonial histories.

This has been done through physical displacement of Indigenous communities to create conservation areas, and subsequent boundaries between humans and nature; as well as the livestock herding limits by their “independent” governments who are still much shaped by their former colonizers.

In Southern India, Kenya, and Namibia, while conservation efforts attempt to alienate themselves and cut ties with their colonial histories, in doing so, they carry on behaviours of their development predecessors which ignore the geopolitical histories that affect one’s ability to engage in conservation, our even, desire to.

With the politics of conservation reproducing the colonial narrative, in doing so it also displaces intersections between race, gender, and class in its analysis and implementation. The lack of political and socio contextual analysis, as well as the homogenizing of conservation discourses, begins to go against local populations, rather than for them.

Wildlife preservation works towards predicting a universal relationship between human and nature, which is not only infeasible, but operates with disregard to racialized and gendered differences. An example would be Intra-Miskito struggles in Belen, particularly the gendered effects for Miskito women under the practice of conservation.

In this capacity, conservation efforts such as the Catastro y Regularizacion, allow for disproportional benefits for men over women in wage-labour productivity, which is made possible because of its social and political context of male dominance (Mollett 2010, 370).

It is this exact local dynamic which creates strain and unwilling exploitation, such as “patriarchal bargains” argued by Mollett, in which the intersections of dominance excludes marginalized groups from being able to engage in its benefits, and instead forces them to make up for their lack of inclusion, rather than conservation policies including them in the first place (Mollett 2010, 370).

Likewise, in Milking the Rhino, the Maasai community in Kenya, during their colonial and post-independence periods, were forced a strict quota on community animal hunting. This quota, while “conservationally effective”, ignored the intimate relationship between Maasai and animal meat, and thus failed to reconcile human-nature dynamics.

In current lens, recent movements have attempted to reconcile this relationship, and have begun to ensure conservation through sustainability rather than isolation. This has led to lenient hunting quotas, which give communities the meat necessary to sustain their lifestyles, but also maintain wildlife preservation through sustainable use and appreciation.

Similar to the case of Belen and Kenya, relationships between humans and elephants in Southern India are becoming a more intimate dynamic, in which, “mutual trust, affective relations, and codependence are essential for [humans and animals] successful interspecies labour collaboration.” (Munster 2016, 442).

Unlike colonial ideology, which proposed conservation as happening through isolation, and without communities being actively involved, recent local movements have showcased how these narratives remain flawed by instead examining the intimate relationships between animals and humans, and the enriching aspect that both parties foster when collaborating rather than exploiting.

Through examining the reproduction of colonial narratives into current dynamics and the intersections of its dominance in gendered and racialized discourses, as well as examining recent movements and their use of bottom-up representation in development discourse rather than homogenizing notions, it is clear that reconciliation between humans and nature is not only possible, but necessary.

In Southern India, “workers and elephants ‘become together’” (Munster 2016, 442), and in Kenya and Namibia, land-human relationship is empowering those living with wildlife, to live with wildlife.

While historically in “developing” areas, “conservation efforts focused primarily on protecting nonhuman entities”, they now are focusing on the human aspect, but in doing so “impose burdens on the poor which fail to safeguard prized animals, plants, or ecosystems” (Wapner & Matthew 2009, 217). However, the reconciliation of the two per Wapner and Matthew, is through the reconciliation of moral and the environment. In doing so, the focus becomes on protecting the whole human-nature dynamic, rather than one or the other.

Drawing on a page from Foucault’s book, the creation of these discourses, in which conservation is conveniently placed outside of local community participation, is an exercise and creation of power, and their dismantling is then a dismantling of that power narrative (Foucault & Gordon, 1980).

In a post colonial world, this reconciliation is the way power between colonized-colonizers and between humans-nature, can be put back into the hands of the communities who have been subjected by its control.

Ultimately, placing Indigenous communities out of conversation when addressing environmental ethics, allows conservation to maintain its moral ambiguities and disengage from the complicated relationship between humans and nature.

Colonial legacies are reproduced in the politics of conservation and the intersections of its dominance. Therefore, even while local communities are experiencing a merge between nature-human in a postcolonial world, their reconciliation is but an unimportant consequence of the homogenizing strategy of conservation – the one that values wildlife over its former colonies.

It then begs into question – conservation for whom? For what? And why? If we can answer these questions, we begin to dismantle their harsh realities, and hopefully in doing so, we place humans back in the human-nature dynamic.