Ashley Dawson and Naomi Paik, editors of Alternatives to the Anthropocene, an issue of Radical History Review (145), share their top five books on decolonizing conservation.
1. The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene
Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher (Verso, 2020)
Büscher and Fletcher’s book traces the controversy over two apparently opposed modes of wildlife conservation: “new” or “Anthropocene” conservation versus a “neo-Protectionist” or “new back-to-the-barriers” movement. The latter trend is essentially a reassertion of the long-dominant approach of the conservation movement, which began with the establishment of national parks such as Yosemite in the US and expanded to include a global network of parks that currently cover roughly 17 percent of the planet. These protected spaces are treated like fortresses, pristine wild areas to be cordoned off while capitalism expands unchecked around the rest of the planet, chewing up nature in the process. This model of fortress conservation was grounded in a nature-culture binary that legitimated the violent eviction of people inhabiting areas to be conserved. In recent decades, this binary thinking came under attack from proponents of the “new” or “Anthropocene” conservation, who argued that ecosystems always change and that humans must figure out how live on and manage the earth. Proponents of this approach embraced activists’ criticisms of the exclusionary impact of traditional “fortress” conservation. But their response was to suggest that the most effective way to protect nature was to give it monetary value. This position, Büscher and Fletcher argue, was essentially a genuflection before the worship of the “free” market that gained ascendency in recent decades. The result is an embrace of measures like environmental services and natural capital valuation that accommodate conservation to capitalism. Neo-protectionists have responded by doubling down on the fortress conservation approach, arguing for setting aside of as much as half the earth to “nature.” In place of these opposed (and evidently failing) camps, Büscher and Fletcher propose an approach they call “convivial conservation.” This approach, they argue, is grounded in political ecology’s critique of both the nature-culture dichotomy and growth-centric capitalism. Convivial conservation stands in solidarity with local, Indigenous movements seeking to restore nature and reinvent what Büscher and Fletcher call convivial forms of conservation that connect humans with the rest of nature. For Büscher and Fletcher, convivial conservation necessitates a shift in how we govern nature, from one based on the negative impacts of the conservation industry’s top-down, technocratic approach to one that frames biodiversity as a global commons rooted in direct-democratic decision making centered on people living with (endangered) biodiversity. Supporting a global biodiversity commons includes a call for reparations for those displaced by past conservation efforts, and the returning of land to local communities as well as the establishment of co-ownership and co-management models based on respecting Indigenous People and their rights to nature. The Conservation Revolution articulates an important challenge to neocolonial and capitalist modes of conservation today, and sets out a model that can engage and empower the people who have long stewarded biodiversity.
2. Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples
Mark Dowie (Boston: MIT Press, 2009)
From its early efforts in the 19th century to its massive expansion over the past century, conservation and the creation of create protected areas for biodiversity have dispossessed and expelled Indigenous communities from their lands all over the world, becoming a vector of Indigenous removal on par with extractive industries. As protected areas have expanded globally for more than a century, cordoning off more and more land most of which is long inhabited by Indigenous communities, they have expelled an estimated tens of millions of “conservation refugees,” removed from their homes and means of survival based on their relationships to the land. In this analysis, conservation is colonialism.
Mark Dowie examines this history of conflict between conservation and Indigenous peoples and yet argues that these two groups are the most capable of preserving biodiversity. Their collaboration is crucial for the future of the planet. To meet this challenge of collaboration, Dowie confronts the history and mechanics of conservation as colonialism, identifying structural and conceptual conflicts that consistently devalue Indigenous lives and epistemologies. The chapters alternate between offering analyses of the core issues undergirding this conflict and concrete examples that illustrate those concepts. For example, the African Parks Foundation (AFP), a “big, international nonprofit” (BINGO) based in the Netherlands and financially floated by extractive and retail giants like Walmart, seeks to privatize and manage African national parks, which, in its vision, should never include the people who live there. It has thus looked away as the national governments it works with send their cops and soldiers to forcible evict conservation refugees to camps beyond park boundaries. Such deflection of responsibility for evictions is common among BINGOs, which command the conservation movement, receiving 70% of global funding while collaborating, not with Indigenous communities who receive almost zero funding, but with national governments, international banks and financial institutions (like the WTO), international agencies, large foundations, and corporations, including extractive industrial companies. This mainstream, well-funded approach to conservation is rooted in a colonial, anthropocentric approach to nature as a resource, which helps secure funding, but does little to ensure the flourishing of biodiversity. As Dowie highlights, once states and their conservationist collaborators expel Indigenous people from a protected area, new settlers and extractivists move in. The sheer presence of Indigenous communities protects those habitats. The proof is the symbiotic coexistence of Indigenous people and their lands for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Their “kincentric” view of nature as the source of life interwoven with humanity contests colonial views of nature as a place, separate from humans but subject to human control. Dowie highlights the rise of global Indigenous organizing for their sovereignty and for environmental justice, which has “literally changed the way the world regards property, the commons, and human rights” and created new models for Indigenous stewardship of protected areas. While bridging the divides between conservationists and Indigenous communities will require more than importing “traditional ecological knowledge” into colonial epistemologies, but a deep restructuring of nature-human relationships, conservationists must awaken to the truth that protecting biodiversity requires Indigenous stewardship and a stalwart commitment to preserving cultural diversity.
3. As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019)
The #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock, obstructing the Dakota Access Pipeline that would poison the land and water of the Great Sioux Reservation, brought together more than three hundred tribal nations, as well as non-Indigenous organizers for environmental and social justice. It set a new precedent for Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration. Dina Gilio-Whitaker begins from the Standing Rock water protector movement to examine the fraught relationship and potential, necessary solidarity between Indigenous decolonial movements and environmental justice movements. She emphasizes how the settler colonialism that created a genocidal structure against Indigenous people also inflicted environmental injustice. Indian history is environmental history and justice for Indigenous people is environmental justice. However, mainstream approaches to environmental justice, including analyses of environmental racism, ignore settler colonial conditions at the root of environmental destruction while simultaneously enabling Indigenous erasure. Tracing the interlocking oppression of Indigenous people and violation of the environment, Gilio-Whitaker examines westward expansion and industrialization, Indigenous enslavement, relegation to reservations, termination policies, extractive industries that have poisoned land and people, dam-building projects that flooded entire ecosystems and habitats, and other development projects. For Native people, environmental injustice emerges from the dispossession and environmental deprivation that removed them from the land, the source of their culture, food, and spirituality. And yet U.S. environmental and conservation movements trace their roots to settler colonial concepts of Manifest Destiny and “virgin lands” of pristine wilderness, leading to the model of national parks that create conservation refugees, originating in the formation of Yosemite Park and exported globally as “America’s greatest idea.” Environmental justice will require confronting this history and rooting their movements in Indigenous modes of justice. Gilio-Whitaker raises multiple examples of the collaborations among environmental and Indigenous justice movements, including the “Cowboy Indian Alliance,” composed of white settler ranchers and Indigenous communities in South Dakota, defeated the Keystone XL Pipeline. Indigenous spiritual relationships to land have also provided a key legal tool to challenge development projects that would trammel over sacred sites and destroy environments. Friction and challenges rooted in the divergent world views and approaches to nature continue to afflict these collaborations, as seen in when conservation initiatives whose success required claims to Indigenous sacred sites then get recast as benefits for “the homogenized masses that comprise the American public.” The book concludes by examining other points of potential solidarity and organizing and legal tools through which that solidarity that be forged, like formally recognizing the rights of nature and alternative land arrangements that would return more land to Indigenous stewardship. These collaborations essential for the future of the planet require a decolonial approach to environmental justice, which would “restore right relationship to all involved,” including colonizer and colonized and the land, air, and water we share.
4. Security and Conservation: The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade
Rosaleen Duffy (Yale University Press, 2022)
News of the Sixth Extinction has generated a sense of deep urgency about halting the annihilation of threatened species. This urgency leads conservationists to conclude that wildlife poaching and trafficking must be stopped before it is too late. Given the prospect of extinction, it is all too easy to conclude that the ends – saving species – justify the means, including the use of deadly force. In Security and Conservation, Rosaleen Duffy examines the turn towards militarized modes of interdiction that is an increasingly common approach in conservation. Proponents of militarized conservation argue that it is a necessary and even heroic quest to save threatened species. Supporters of this approach, including NGOs, international donors, and national governments, depict critics of the militarization of conservation as naïve or even as opponents of conservation. Yet the militarization of conservation must be subjected to critical scrutiny, and alternative approaches based on more holistic and longer-term thinking need consideration and support. Duffy’s book shows how militarization focuses on the symptoms not the root causes of poaching. Security and Conservation reminds readers of the colonial history whereby some forms of hunting were defined as poaching, a term that effectively marginalizes consideration of how poverty, inequality, historical grievances, and the continuing effects of colonial and racial discourses shape understandings of the circumstances that lead to the killing of wildlife. Duffy’s work highlights the material effects of discursive constructions of poaching. For instance, in the popular documentary film Virunga, park rangers are depicted as heroes engaged in a battle with unscrupulous poachers, and viewers are asked to donate money to become part of “Virunga’s epic fight.” Yet, as Duffy shows, such militarized responses can often ratchet up tensions, leading to enmity and even counter-violence as local communities are subjected to surveillance and often deadly exclusion from protected areas. Ranger training is shifted away from holistic conservation and ecological management towards narrow paramilitary and counter-insurgency tactics, and the distinction between conservation and other forms of armed violence can blur. Duffy challenges the widespread claims that poaching is a key funding source for terrorist networks, and points to the fact that both state and private-sector actors can benefit from oppressive militarization of conservation in what amounts to “accumulation by securitization.” Studies suggest that demand reduction strategies and sustainable livelihood approaches are more effective at tackling poaching than enhanced policing and enforcement alone, Duffy argues. Given the increasing attention focused on the Sixth Extinction, Duffy’s book is an important critical voice challenging the spread of militarized violence around the world.
5. Decolonize Conservation!
Fiore Longo and Ashley Dawson, editors (Common Notions Press, 2023)
The need to save world’s biodiversity from extinction is generating increasingly ambitious conservation proposals. For instance, the recent embrace at the UN biodiversity conference of the 30×30 goal of putting 30 percent of the earth’s surface behind fences by 2030 is an indication of the potential globe-straddling impact of conservation policies. But conservation at what cost, and for whom? The testimonies, analysis, and histories gathered in this volume document the resistance of individuals, ethnic groups, and a transnational movement more broadly against neocolonial conservation and the corporate greenwashing that is increasingly intertwined with the work of big conservation organizations. The voices of frontline activists heard in Decolonize Conservation! testify to the violent exclusions perpetuated by dominant models of fortress conservation. These dispossessing policies are not a thing of the (colonial) past. As the climate crisis intensifies, dominant conservation policies are only going to become more of a site of conflict, as governments and corporations look to conservation to offset and greenwash the spiraling contradictions of the capitalist, colonialist world system. Against such fortress conservation and neoliberal policies such as “nature-based services” that are its analogue, activists in the volume propose giving genuine sovereignty to the Indigenous People and local communities who have successfully stewarded the planet’s biodiversity for centuries. Decolonizing conservation is one of today’s most important—if relatively under-acknowledged—environmental struggles, a fight for land back and reparations inextricably intertwined with the global movement for climate justice.
Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the Graduate Center / City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. Recently published books of his focus on key topics in the Environmental Humanities, and include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). Dawson is the author of a forthcoming book entitled Environmentalism from Below (Haymarket).
A. Naomi Paik is the author of Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the 21st Century (University of California Press, 2020) and Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (UNC Press, 2016; winner, Best Book in History, AAAS 2018; runner-up, John Hope Franklin prize for best book in American Studies, ASA, 2017), as well as articles, opinion pieces, and interviews in a range of academic and public-facing venues. She is developing a project, “Sanctuary for All,” that calls for the most capacious conception of sanctuary, one that brings together migrant and environmental justice. She is co-chair of the Radical History Review editorial collective and has co-edited four special issues of the journal—“Militarism and Capitalism (Winter 2019), “Radical Histories of Sanctuary” (Fall 2019), “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination” (Spring 2020), and “Alternatives to the Anthropocene” with Ashley Dawson (Winter 2023). Collaborating with Gerry Cadava and Cat Ramirez, she coedits the “Borderlands” section of Public Books. She is an associate professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a member of the Migration Scholars Collaborative.
TOP FIVE is a new blog feature where authors, editors, guest editors, and other interesting people associated with Duke University Press are invited to share a list of influences and interests.
Alternatives to the Anthropocene
An issue of: Radical History Review
Issue Editors: Ashley Dawson and A. Naomi Paik
Contributors to this special issue examine the heterogeneous imaginaries and social movements struggling against the social and environmental destruction of the Anthropocene—the geological era of climate change driven by a humankind envisioned as homogeneous. Recuperating the alternative worlds, orientations, and subaltern environmental movements that constitute radical historical alternatives to the Anthropocene, the authors conceptualize these alternatives as seeds of ecological insurrection, that sometimes lie dormant for years but are always ready to rise up again when the time is right. At a moment when elites have intransigently refused to decarbonize society, the contributors urge readers to look back to histories of revolt in order to broaden the repertoire of militant tactics available to face the environmental emergency.
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