Courtesy Survival International
Survival International has issued a challenge aimed at the destruction of tribes and their lands in the name of “conservation.”

Endangered Species v. Endangered Peoples: The Conservation Con

Steve Russell

Britain’s Sunday Times ran an article by Norman Lewis in 1969 titled, with stark simplicity, “Genocide.” Lewis told the story of the destruction being wreaked upon Brazilian tribal peoples long after the Portuguese colonists began the process. The Portuguese had been assigned the part of South America that became Brazil by the Pope while the Spanish brought death and devastation to the Incan Empire in South America and the Aztec Empire in North America. Brazil, Lewis showed, was continuing the colonial swath of destruction in spite of not being ruled from Lisbon since 1822 from Brazil’s perspective or 1825 from Portugal’s.

The Sunday Times reportage led to volunteers coming together for the purpose of defending tribal peoples, an effort that culminated in an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) called Survival International, which has morphed from a handful of outraged volunteers to 40 staff and interns in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris and San Francisco. Those offices, the organization believes, are located where the modern threats to tribal peoples originate.

What threats?

Survival International lists violence, land theft, racism, forced “development,” resource theft and slavery. When the Spanish and Portuguese colonists did these things for gold, that was easy to condemn, as are other blatant cases of deadly greed. Lately, though, a threat has come cloaked in the best of claimed intentions. A big part of that story begins in the United States.

August 25 marks the 99th birthday of the National Park Service, without which the United States would be much poorer. It’s painful to imagine what the natural wonders of this country would look like today if left to the tender mercies of unchecked capitalism. The good news is that we have the National Parks, underfunded as they are, and they will all be offering free admission on August 25 to mark their 99th anniversary. Enjoy your visit, but understand there is a dark side to the history of conservation that continues to play out today.

Indians struggle to get the descendants of the European colonists to remember and recognize that this land was occupied when their ancestors arrived. We could have a discussion about disease or warfare or sharp dealings to explain how the papers in the courthouses came to “prove” colonists own the land but that discussion cannot proceed without the common understanding that the land was not empty.

RELATED: Science Blows Up Big Lies: Pre-Columbian Peoples Skilled Farmers, and Many Millions Killed by Invasion

The idea that these lands were already occupied brings a corollary. Is it reasonable to think that the places we now consider to be the crown jewels of North America—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Big Bend, Mammoth Cave, Painted Desert, Hot Springs, Everglades, and many others—escaped the notice of tribal peoples before the European colonists were kind enough to point them out?

All were known and many were sacred sites to enough different peoples that no one tribe claimed the right to exclude others, what we know now as “ownership.”  Archeological evidence proves humans lived in the Yosemite Valley for almost 3,000 years and discovered it long before that. Miwoks and Paiutes were residents when the colonists came to evict them with the Mariposa Battalion, part of the horrific genocide of California Indians.

Later national parks and monuments were actually organized around evidence of prior human habitation: Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Voyageurs, Casa Grande, Walnut Canyon, Puʻukoholā Heiau, Nez Perce, Effigy Mounds, Aztec Ruins. Virgin Islands National Park contains Taino ruins that date from when the Caribbean Indians discovered Columbus. Later, the National Park Service became responsible for sites sacred to tribal peoples in the here and now: Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, Hawaii Volcanoes, Canyon de Chelley, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau.

I’ve always thought, in the hilarious misnomer of Aztec Ruins National Monument, that the colonists are so certain that all Indians are alike nobody gets too exercised about mistaking ancestral Puebloan peoples for offshoots of the Aztec Empire. There’s something emblematic in memorializing colonial mistakes instead of indigenous accomplishments.

Speaking of indigenous accomplishments, were the colonists necessary to the preservation of these places? They often had to clear out Indian residences to make room for recreation areas. How was it that the places now set aside were in such good condition when people were living there?

I’m not holding my breath for the national parks to be returned to their indigenous owners, but the issue Survival International is raising is that the process of evicting indigenous stewards in the name of conservation has been exported worldwide. They call their educational effort “Stop the Con” in recognition of the need to take the “con” out of conservation used as an excuse to dispossess tribal peoples from lands they have cared for as the lands have cared for them.

RELATED: National Park Service Does Face-Plant With New Rule on Gathering Plants

Can such things be happening still in the 21st century? You bet.

To fight it, Survival International does not organize on the tribal ground. Tribes don’t need organizing, by definition. They need living space.

Survival International is running a boycott of the Central Kalahari Game Preserve in Botswana, for example, because Botswana is locking up Bushmen for subsistence hunting.

The Baiga people of India are being run off their land to establish tiger preserves. Think about that. Tribal peoples and tigers have shared the land for how long?

In Cameroon, Survival International has documented torture and harassment of the Baka people by “anti-poaching squads” they claim are paid by the World Wildlife Fund. The Baka are being removed from the land where they have always subsisted and co-existed with other native life in the name of forming “national parks.”

In Brazil, the threatened tribal peoples are the principal obstacles to destroying what is left of the Amazonian rain forests. There are plenty of reasons to protect the rainforest—climate change being only the newest and most trendy—but the least expensive way to protect the rainforest is to protect the Yanomami Indians who live in the rainforest and have for generations managed not to destroy it.

Cif Green, writing in The Guardian, calls the divide over concern for tribal peoples perceived by city dwellers to be in the way of “conservation” a raging “battle for the soul of the environmental movement.” Viewed from a historical perspective, putting endangered animals and plants in competition with Indigenous Peoples living on the land is absurd.

The complaint of the tribal peoples who are being shoved aside on all continents is that cut off from their traditional lands, their culture dies. If they are cut off by their own actions in polluting or overhunting, their culture is no less dead. What are the chances tribal peoples would have an interest in fouling their own nests like the white people do?

Corporate money—for profit and nonprofit corporate money—is mostly on the side of shoving tribal peoples out of the way, whether the stated purpose is factory faming, mining, logging, or simply raising new cities. Still, Survival International sometimes wins big for the life of a small tribe, such as the Awa of Brazil.

Those who think the earth needs protecting from tribal peoples living on it should reflect on our shared history here in North America. Who extinguished the passenger pigeon and almost extinguished the bison? Who destroyed the tall grass prairie? Who is drying up the Everglades? Who caused the erosion of the Mississippi Delta?

Maybe conservationists in the United States are getting the message. The National Park Service has played a major role in saving the bison and is now working on a tribal national park on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It’s not a serious question whether the Oglala can be trusted with the stewardship they had before the colonists arrived. Had that stewardship not been interrupted, there would be no need to “reestablish” the American bison. You can see the roots of indigenous stewardship in the words of Oglala Luther Standing Bear:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild”. Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was it “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

If the U.S. had exported Standing Bear’s values instead of ethnic cleansing to make national parks, Survival International could concentrate on reining in factory farms and mines and logging operations and would not have to spend time debunking the conservation con.

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