National Parks: America’s Best Idea or Con Trick?

Stephen Corry

This year Yosemite celebrates its 125th anniversary. Next year sees 100 years of the National Park Service. Will Native Americans be celebrating “America’s best idea?” Probably not. The thousands of tribal people in Asia and Africa destroyed in its name certainly won’t be.

In 1929, an elderly Awahneechee woman, Totuya, was taken on a tour of her former homeland, 40 years after it had been transformed into the Yosemite National Park. She gazed disapprovingly at where her people had once lived, declaring it, “Too dirty, too bushy.” The land her people, her ancestors, had cared for over thousands of years had, she felt, been wrecked in a generation.

For 150 years, conservation has been kicking indigenous peoples off their homelands, rebranding them as “wildernesses,” and claiming that it will do a better job of “preserving” them than the peoples who had lived there for generations. But it didn’t! Because it didn’t even look at how the land was already successfully managed, conservation was set up to fail in its own aims. When it then changed the landscape – usually to make money from tourists – it left these supposedly “protected” areas newly scarred by roads and hotels, and marred by unrestrained undergrowth stifling much of the biodiversity. In a nutshell, conservation hurt both people and the environment.

This is still going on. Throughout Africa and Asia, tribal homelands are still being designated as conservation zones today, with the people kicked out, and routinely attacked if they’re even suspected of trying to sneak back in. All these land grabs and human rights violations are shored up by public donations to conservation organizations.

In Cameroon, for example, park guards supplied and paid by WWF routinely beat and torture Baka “Pygmies” if they’re even suspected of “poaching” – meaning, trying to feed their families – when the real poachers are often working with the complicity of the authorities, including the guards themselves. WWF knows this but tries to evade its responsibility for how its cash is spent by declaring that the guards are employed by the government, not WWF. That’s just not good enough.

On the wider level, ecotourist activity in Africa accustoms once shy animals to close proximity to humans. This pleases the hordes with their cameras, but also makes the creatures much easier targets for hunters – including senior WWF officers and trustees, who deem “sport” hunting vital for conservation! Poor tribal hunters are banned and beaten, rich trophy hunters – invariably white – are warmly welcomed.

The problem started with the northern European conviction that they, “the Aryans,” were a superior “race,” a view “scientifically” endorsed by Darwin. His bigoted views about American Indians were published in 1859, just a few years before the national park movement began to take root in Yosemite and Yellowstone – places where of course the Indians had already been, or were about to be, pushed out.

In the United States, this belief in racist eugenics was widely accepted for a century. As well as seeding the ideas that led to conservation, it underpinned immigration controls, trying to keep southern and eastern Europeans, and Mexicans, out of the country. It also led to the widespread compulsory sterilization of “undesirables,” legal until recently (but which may in fact still occur). And it was the reason behind the outlawing of “inter-racial” marriage until as late as 1967.

Eugenics was supposedly about saving the world by preserving the “purity” of the one, northern European, “race” which it absurdly thought responsible for all humankind’s advances. The other side of that belief was that “overpopulation” (which really meant “too many poor people,” who were no longer “needed” as mechanization increasingly replaced human labor) was seen as the most important threat to the world’s future.

Although many in the environmental movement remain unaware of its background, there is a direct historical link between eugenics and the American invention of “preserving wilderness.” That fiction was invented by rich hunters so they could pursue the manly sport of trophy hunting. It involved getting rid of all those who hunted merely to eat and use the skins, with Native Americans the principal targets: They were of course forced out of where they’d lived for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

The most important huntsman turned conservationist was New Yorker, Madison Grant. His book “proved” his race’s unique superiority and was extolled by Adolf Hitler as his “bible.” Grant, a friend of President Teddy Roosevelt, founded, led or supported most of the environmental organizations of the early 20th century, including many which remain active today.

Most of the liberal intelligentsia in the pre-Word War II United States were convinced by eugenics. The Holocaust eventually exposed where such madness led, and when its depravity was displayed in 1945, it forced racist eugenic beliefs underground, and the whitewash started.

This was the background to the secular ideology of “environmentalism” which re-emerged in the 1960s, directly inheriting its national parks model from decades earlier.

Today conservation organizations pretend they’ve moved on, but most haven’t. Conservation is crying out for reform. Basically, instead of stealing their land and persecuting them, it needs to start listening, respectfully, to local people who have a far better knowledge of their environment than anyone else. Instead of kicking them out, it needs to ask them, “How can we, with our vast resources, help you to protect your land from any urbanization or industrialization which you don’t want?”

Such a reformed, humanitarian conservation, let’s call it “indigenism,” requires firstly discarding the fiction of “wilderness.” This untouched, “pure” state simply doesn’t exist. Aside from Antarctica, glacial mountain ranges, and the crags and cliffs impossible for humans to reach, research increasingly points to the entire planet being significantly altered by human habitation over thousands of years. Our own ancestors, some of them leaving their African homeland to colonize the rest of the world around 60,000 years ago, accelerated the pace of change. They thrived through their intelligence, adapting and shaping the countless different places they came across, enabling them to eat and drink practically everywhere.

People carried seeds and plants around the world, altering and domesticating both them and their animals through selective breeding, hunting and herding. This altered the landscape, often radically, as did the deliberate use of fire to clear land and undergrowth. All this was invisible to the European colonial invaders, and much – perhaps most – of it still is. It’s only in the last few years, for example, that the realization has dawned that even places as “obviously” natural as Amazonia are nothing of the kind. The rainforest has in reality long been shaped by human hand.

The popular environmental movement, on the other hand, remains largely in homage to a “wilderness” which exists only its own beliefs. It sees a “garden of Eden” in which man is the sinner and “Nature” (capitalized like “God”) always sinned against. It is fundamentally anti-humanitarian and quite prepared to violate human rights for the “greater good” of saving the world. The Yellowstone and Yosemite model – where local people aren’t allowed in – is still used around the world today and is still destroying tribal peoples. This conservation is built on a con trick which it continually perpetuates, and it’s time to support those environmentalists who want to replace it with a humanitarian model, based on indigenism, one which actually works.

Stephen Corry is a British anthropologist and indigenous rights activist, better known as the Director of the non-governmental organisation Survival International. He was asked to lead the organisation in 1984, where he took it from a situation of near bankruptcy to becoming one of the world's leading organisations in its field. He was also the chairman of the Free Tibet Campaign for many years, since 1993, and remains on its board.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page