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Monthly Undermining Task, August 2010: Crash The Mainstream Environmentalists’ Party | 350.org

They (350.org) refuse to countenance the idea that industrial civilization is the problem – every action leads to the Senate, even requests to non-US “members” lead to the Senate. They are like a stuck record – a really dated record, like Alice Cooper trying to down with the kids when he spends most of his time playing golf. Bill McKibben may once have bitten the heads off proverbial bats, but now he’s just trying to get a clean shot down the fairway with all his mainstream buddies waiting in the clubhouse.

Not a day goes by when the words of the representative of some Environmental Group or other isn’t contacted by a newspaper or television station asking for comment on the story of the day, whatever will happen to sell the most papers or garner the most viewers. Without fail the comments offered are words of the most ineffectual sort, gently admonishing this or that company or politician, and offering the kind of advice that would sit comfortably in the pages of any corporate enviro-speak manual. Only today, a representative of Greenpeace Netherlands referred to the export of thousands of tonnes of electronic waste using the execrable phrase: “The fundamental problem with electronics is that it’s designed in a very bad way.”

Not, “The fundamental problem with electronics is that it is a symbol of an ecocidal consumer culture”, perhaps adding, “and the tide of toxic waste won’t end until that consumer culture comes to an end.” You won’t hear that from Greenpeace, or any other mainstream environmental group.

Not a week goes by without some campaign or other being launched to prevent environmental destruction, or make efforts to put right that destruction. The vast, vast majority of these campaigns are based upon the same “logic” as the vast, vast majority of people who make comments to newspapers or television stations: this is the system we have, so we have no choice but to make it behave itself as best it can. That, of course, is bullshit.

As I have written time and time again, it is an utterly pointless task trying to make Industrial Civilization sustainable or “environmentally friendly”, because the nature of civilization is to destroy, to take what it wants to achieve its aims and only stop when it runs out of energy, people or space. It only stops when it collapses – it never stops of its own accord.

The mainstream environmental movement has never got this, and never will, because its very existence depends on the support of a large number of people both for income and staffing. It also depends on the good will of the system itself, that permits it to protest peacefully, speak freely and generally operate within the Law of the Land. There is an invisible line that separates the words and deeds of the mainstream from the words and deeds of the “extremist”; that same line separates that which is pointless, ineffective action from that which will actually achieve the kind of change humanity requires in order to survive.

This line is never crossed.

If you want to see this entire movement in microcosm, look no further than 350.org and the work they do which has come, in recent months, to define environmental symbolism. I have written about them before, but was moved to write again by the following email that purports to originate from the desk of Will Bates, one of their key campaigners:

Dear Friends,

On the morning of April 21, 2009, as people rallied in thousands in the city of Cochabamba, a young woman walked to the center of the conference, took a deep breath, and improvised a 350 banner, joining a new worldwide call for climate action.

She had worked the previous day to try and convince her friends at 350 to join her, but in the mainstream NGO community, taking REAL action on climate change is a risk that few larger NGOs are willing to take. This was one the smallest actions that day, but one of the most powerful.

And she didn’t stop there. Determined to make a difference, she overcame even more challenges at Cochabamba by calling for no NGO to undermine 300ppm in the plenary sessions and calling for action on behalf of millions of people in Bolivia and around the world.

Unfortunately, not all representatives of 350.org shared her bravery and failed to fight for a fair, ambitious and binding international people’s agreement steering us towards safety below 300ppm.

So she, the activist, with other activists, went back to work.

I spoke to the woman on the phone last week, and she relayed the news that she’s found a group of activists who were inspired by her actions, and together they’re planning to keep calling for support of the people’s agreement out of Bolivia. Temperatures must not exceed 1C and we must get back down to 300ppm.

But we’re not waiting until October to Get To Work–we’re starting now. Ambitious climate action takes a bit of planning–that’s why we’re coordinating a week of local “Climate MeetUps” at the end of August calling for 300ppm. The meetups will be short and casual meetings we can use to make big plans for the coming year.

Think of it as a synchronized, global planning meeting. At your Climate MeetUp in August, you’ll be supporting real activists around the world in unveiling the new 300.org campaign — a Global Work Party supporting the position finalized in Bolivia:

“On a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, the submission calls for developed countries to “take the lead and strive towards returning greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to well below 300 ppm (parts per million) CO2eq with a view to returning concentrations to levels as close as possible to pre-industrial levels in the longer-term, and to limit the average global temperatures to a maximum level of 1degree Celsius with a view to returning temperatures to levels as close as possible to pre-industrial levels in the longer-term.”

The Global Work Party, supporting our new campaign for 300ppm will be a chance for all of us to show what leadership really looks like — together, we’ll get to work creating climate solutions from the ground up and demand our politicians do the same.

Thank you for making us see the light,

Will Bates on behalf of the entire 350.org/300.org team.
_____________
350.org is an international grassroots campaign funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. It aims to build and protect their brand at all costs. It mobilizes a global climate non-movement united by a common call to protect the current economic system. By not sharing the real climate science with citizens and supporters, and by protecting the status quo, we will ensure that the world’s most vulnerable will not succeed in establishing bold and equitable solutions to the climate crisis. 350.org is what we like to call “ The most powerful brand in the world”.

What is 350? 350 is the wrong number that we tell supporters is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Scientists measure carbon dioxide in “parts per million” (ppm), so 350ppm is not the number humanity needs to get below as soon as possible to avoid runaway climate change. To get there, we need to get back to pre-industrial levels of 278. However – 278 is a different kind of PPM- this is a number which would only be possible by embracing a new economic system based on people, not profits as we build a zero carbon society. Unfortunately, this model representative of social equality is not a model that compromised, well funded mainstream NGOs embrace.

I have no way of verifying whether Will Bates wrote this or not, but if so it would be an extraordinary turnaround by an organisation that was originally set up using a grant originating from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a bit of guilt-shedding “philanthropy” funded from a long history of global oil, construction and banking interests.

Actually, looking at the 350.org website, I see no evidence of this turnaround as yet, and am not the slightest bit surprised because any organisation that would take its seed-money from the same fund that founded the conservative free-market thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute is not likely to bite the hand (or rather system) that feeds it.

The upshot of this is that nothing 350.org – or for that matter WWF, Conservation International, The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and any other mainstream environmental group you wish to name – do, is going to upset the system from which that group gets its money and its support.

One sees occasional glimpses of light, but just as soon as something chances to suggest a genuine desire for real change from the mainstream, the heavy fist of popular support comes crashing down. No wonder all anyone is ever asked to do on behalf of these Groups (often called NGOs) is make a symbolic gesture.

When you take part in a protest that does not directly threaten the thing you are protesting against, you are simply sublimating any anger you might have into whatever symbolic acts you have been led to believe will lead to change.

This process of sublimation is repeated in all facets of Industrial Civilization, from the Government Consultation and the Parliamentary Process through to apparently useful tools as Judicial Review and industrial Whistleblowing; all chances of real change are prevented by an array of gaping holes, channelling our anger into “constructive” activities. Because we followed the recommended course of action – the peaceful alternative – we feel sated and content that right has been done, even when nothing has been achieved.

About 3 years ago, talking to a friend, I had what I thought was a pretty good idea: I would take it upon myself to show the environmental mainstream up for what it is; show to people that groups like WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are a big part of the problem, not part of the solution. It occured to me that simple exposure of these double-standards might be enough to change the public’s perception of “environmentalism”.

Of course I didn’t realise at the time that I might be falling into the same trap as everyone else in my position, and that simple exposure would not be nearly enough. True, if you tell someone something enough times then they will begin to believe it is true, but all the while these groups have big incomes (often from corporate funding) with which to publicise their work then the small voices that say, “but this won’t change things,” will be constantly drowned out by the mainstream desire to stay within the confines of the ecocidal industrial system.

I say again: it is an utterly pointless task trying to make Industrial Civilization sustainable or “environmentally friendly”. The big environmental groups don’t get this and they never will.

What is needed – if you are willing to do this with me – are a range of different tactics that will inject a hefty note of dissonance into the pitiful messages of “change” that the mainstream perpetuates. I will give you an example: let’s suppose that the email above was a fake; produced, in fact, by someone who wanted to show the truth behind the nice, civilised press releases that 350.org churn out. It would not take a huge effort to alter an existing email, then forward it on – thus masking the original email header – as a piece of “news”. How many false press releases would need to be circulating before people started asking questions of the originators of those messages?

I consider this to be low risk, for how can such an act be libellous if it contains more truth than the original message – the one that said that small reductions in carbon dioxide over decades are sufficient; the one that said that writing to or petitioning politicians would change things; the one that said we can continue having a growing economy and also protect the biosphere? That’s three lies that are commonly written, or at least implied in huge number of press releases. How can your amended version be libellous if it contains more truth than the original message?

Plus, who would want to admit that they had been lying in the first place?

As the Environmental Groups pat each other on the back – notice how they hardly ever criticise each other, that would be like criticising yourself – tell each other what a great job they are doing, and pouring another glass of celebratory fizz, they might not spot who is sneaking in the door, switching the music off and turning on the bright lights of reality.

Low Risk

Ok, there’s a small chance you might get lynched, but what about starting at a real party, like the one Greenpeace is holding near to Heathrow Airport on Saturday 28th August. Here, you can have my personal invitation if you want. There are all sorts of events like this, celebrating pyrrhic victories, such as the cancellation of a third runway west of London (is this really a “local” party, considering WWF, Greenpeace and RSPB are involved?), at the same time as as airport expansion pushes ahead in Edinburgh, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and to the east of London. Plus what about campaign launches, updates and anniversaries – there are so many to choose from all over the world.

Perhaps the most subversive thing you can do at these events is to ask questions of as many people as you can; questions like, “What will/did this achieve?” “Why are you doing this?” “Why do you think it will work?” “What’s the point if the system stays the same?” and so on. Creating uncertainty is the key here for, certainly at every meeting I’ve ever been to, the attendees are in search of answers, but rarely ever question the ones they are given. For instance, events to organise marches – as though marches ever achieve anything – are always framed in such a way that the march will happen anyway, and it is just the detail that is being discussed. Ask the questions – challenge the received “wisdom” that marches change anything: create uncertainty. Then leave.

I want to make it clear, I have plenty of time for the research work and dissemination of information that many groups do, even WWF produce some excellent papers. What I have a problem with is what happens when we know this: what do we do? We do what we are told, because we have been led to believe change will happen…and it never does.

Local and national radio stations are ripe areas for undermining the mainstream message of inaction. Care is, of course, necessary here because you don’t want to be undermining the fact that environmental destruction is taking place; but right from the off, the message that a representative of Greenpeace or Sierra Club will give is that humans are causing the damage – not civilization, not the industrial system, but humans. In many cases a news story based phone-in will welcome a representative of an environmental group, and you can be that representative. As the show starts, call the station, let them know that you represent whichever Group is relevant to the story (all the better if the story is about the group itself!), give a false name if you like, and then go on the show.

Remember, what you are getting across is essentially what the group is afraid of saying: that there is no point appealing to politicians and businesses, there is no point marching, signing petitions, holding candlelit vigils; all of this is just grist to the mill. No, your Group is going to change its tactics and denounce the entire industrial system because the industrial system is the problem. You will refuse to work with politicians and business, and embrace communities; give the say back to the people, not tell them what actions to take from some head office. In short, you are telling the world that you have failed and something entirely different is needed.

(On a specific note, and one that really rankles with me, if you can go on as a spokesperson for PETA, then mention that you are no longer going to use sexist, misogynist campaigns that focus on bare female bodies – that ought to stir a few pots.)

Even lower risk, there is always the option of sending a letter to a newspaper, magazine or journal playing the “representative” card. Most publications don’t follow up on letters, so you can use the published addresses of the mainstream group you are choosing to (I was about to use the word “defame”, but in the circumstances I reckon you are simply showing them the light, as it were) undermine. Friends of the Earth have conveniently produced a guide to getting your letter printed – just remember the salient points that civilization is what is destroying the planet, and no amount of pandering to the system is going to change things; and away you go!

Medium Risk

This article cannot hope to cover more than a tiny number of the possible actions, so please take some time to read this list for more ideas – and send me some more if you have them. But now it is time to move on to a few higher-risk actions, that aren’t for the faint-hearted, but which could really undermine the mainstream message.

One such type of action – a logical step on from pretending to to work for mainstream groups – is actually working for them, then turning the cards. It’s dead easy to volunteer to work at a Group and get involved in small scale public-facing activities like street stalls and leafleting – in my experience, though, because such activities are so ineffective, it is likely that simply telling the public the truth about campaigns (i.e. they are just making people think the Groups are on the case, when they are not) will be even more ineffective. The real undermining as a volunteer is to be done in group meetings or at conferences – which you will need to work at to get invited to – when you will have the opportunity to strike at the heart of the “activist” community, and lead a few people to a better place. The risk comes if you get a chance to speak on behalf of a local branch – and will therefore make quite a few people upset – and then tell the truth about the way the group is operating. If you want to really speak on behalf of the Group itself at conferences etc., with bona fide credentials, then you will almost certainly need to already be working for that group: trust takes a long time to build up. Once in a position of trust, though, the opportunities for telling both the people inside the Group and the public in general the truth about mainstream “activism” are considerable. If you want to hang around for a while, then you might be best concentrating on subtle messages or “accidental” slip-ups in press releases and speeches; but if you are already sick and tired of working for the Man, in the guise of an NGO, then you can be as blatant as you like.

You may only have one shot at this before being unceremoniously dumped, and be unlikely to ever work for such a Group in the future; but then why would you want to work in the environmental mainstream if you consider them to be acting hypocritically? Then again, your bona fide newpaper article, or radio / television interview could completely change how the environmental mainstream is viewed by both the corporate and political world (“One of us”) and those people who really want a future for humanity (“Not one of us”).

Many mainstream Groups work with, and get money from, corporations. The largest groups like WWF, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy take money from large companies as a matter of course, and there is no doubt at all that such a relationship has a deeply adverse effect on the modus operandi of the groups themselves. Johann Hari puts it like this:

The green groups defend their behavior by saying they are improving the behavior of the corporations. But…the pressure often flows the other way: the addiction to corporate cash has changed the green groups at their core. As MacDonald says, “Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.”

It has taken two decades for this corrupting relationship to become the norm among the big green organizations. Imagine this happening in any other sphere, and it becomes clear how surreal it is. It is as though Amnesty International’s human rights reports came sponsored by a coalition of the Burmese junta, Dick Cheney and Robert Mugabe. For environmental groups to take funding from the very people who are destroying the environment is preposterous – yet it is now taken for granted.

I went through a period of masquerading as corporations in order to find out what steps NGOs would be prepared to take in order to get finances with which to continue their operations. What I found was often revealing and disturbing. Up to now I have not linked directly to a phone call that I made to The Woodland Trust, but feel it is time to demonstrate how easy it is – by nature of the cosy relationship with corporations – to get such information from hypocritical NGOs. The recording can be found here:

http://www.archive.org/details/WoodlandTrustAcceptDubiousCorporateSponsorship

There is something exhilarating about getting such blatant admissions from what is apparently a “green” group; and if you are able to carry out such subterfuge from the comfort of your telephone (the techniques are described here) then I can assure you, you will remain hooked. If you are not willing to publish your findings to the wider world, then you can always send the recordings to me and I will publish them on your behalf, with as much negative publicity for the Group as I can muster.

Finally, you might have noticed that a number of activities listed in “100 ways” go beyond what most of the Mainstream Groups are willing to do; but that doesn’t mean these actions cannot be carried out “on behalf of” such Groups. We are talking about the kind of things they would not condone themselves, such as barracading shopping malls, or send out radio or TV blocking signals during advertising breaks – to undermine the consumer society. If you can leave a relevant “signature” in the course of your action, then two advantages come into play: first, you are less likely to be found out (it won’t incriminate the group as there won’t be sufficient evidence) and, second, it will force the group to admit they wouldn’t do such a thing, thus undermining their own credentials as activists*. The risk of this area of activism depends on the action being carried out, and is only limited by your own imagination.

I suppose it is fortunate that there are no truly high risk undermining actions that can be taken against mainstream environmental groups – assuming that you are not dealing with psychopathic supporters – but in the event that the combined efforts of Underminers does lead to the downfall of such organisations as wish to see the burgeoning power of corporations and their political puppets continue; to anyone still in awe of the Sierra Clubs and WWFs of the world this is a hugely risky strategy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about bloody time millions of genuinely caring people stopped being relentlessly asked to carry out pointless tasks on behalf of these groups: it’s about time we decided for ourselves what real change looks like.

*Make sure the action is effective, not just symbolic: hard-core activism that does not have a useful outcome is no better than softly-softly symbolic action.

http://thesietch.org/mysietch/keith/2010/08/09/monthly-undermining-task-august-2010-crash-the-mainstream-environmentalists-party/

VIDEO | Green is the Color of Money

Conservation Refugees

When protecting nature means kicking people out

by Mark Dowie

Published in the November/December 2005 issue of Orion magazine

Photograph by Joy Tessman/National Geographic, used with permission

A LOW FOG ENVELOPS THE STEEP and remote valleys of southwestern Uganda most mornings, as birds found only in this small corner of the continent rise in chorus and the great apes drink from clear streams. Days in the dense montane forest are quiet and steamy. Nights are an exaltation of insects and primate howling. For thousands of years the Batwa people thrived in this soundscape, in such close harmony with the forest that early-twentieth-century wildlife biologists who studied the flora and fauna of the region barely noticed their existence. They were, as one naturalist noted, “part of the fauna.”

In the 1930s, Ugandan leaders were persuaded by international conservationists that this area was threatened by loggers, miners, and other extractive interests. In response, three forest reserves were created—the Mgahinga, the Echuya, and the Bwindi—all of which overlapped with the Batwa’s ancestral territory. For sixty years these reserves simply existed on paper, which kept them off-limits to extractors. And the Batwa stayed on, living as they had for generations, in reciprocity with the diverse biota that first drew conservationists to the region.

!Kung San, Botswana
Photograph | Peter Johnson, Corbis

However, when the reserves were formally designated as national parks in 1991 and a bureaucracy was created and funded by the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility to manage them, a rumor was in circulation that the Batwa were hunting and eating silverback gorillas, which by that time were widely recognized as a threatened species and also, increasingly, as a featured attraction for ecotourists from Europe and America. Gorillas were being disturbed and even poached, the Batwa admitted, but by Bahutu, Batutsi, Bantu, and other tribes who invaded the forest from outside villages. The Batwa, who felt a strong kinship with the great apes, adamantly denied killing them. Nonetheless, under pressure from traditional Western conservationists, who had come to believe that wilderness and human community were incompatible, the Batwa were forcibly expelled from their homeland.

These forests are so dense that the Batwa lost perspective when they first came out. Some even stepped in front of moving vehicles. Now they are living in shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of the parks, without running water or sanitation. In one more generation their forest-based culture—songs, rituals, traditions, and stories—will be gone.

It’s no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention.

Wai Wai, Guyana
Photograph | John Martin / Conservation International

In early 2004 a United Nations meeting was convened in New York for the ninth year in a row to push for passage of a resolution protecting the territorial and human rights of indigenous peoples. The UN draft declaration states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option to return.” During the meeting an indigenous delegate who did not identify herself rose to state that while extractive industries were still a serious threat to their welfare and cultural integrity, their new and biggest enemy was “conservation.”

Later that spring, at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the “activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands.” These rhetorical jabs have shaken the international conservation community, as have a subsequent spate of critical articles and studies, two of them conducted by the Ford Foundation, calling big conservation to task for its historical mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

“We are enemies of conservation,” declared Maasai leader Martin Saning’o, standing before a session of the November 2004 World Conservation Congress sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai, who have over the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn’t always felt that way. In fact, Saning’o reminded his audience, “…we were the original conservationists.” The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic cattlemen have traditionally protected their range: “Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems.” Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty.

“We don’t want to be like you,” Saning’o told a room of shocked white faces. “We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us.”

Although he might not have realized it, Saning’o was speaking for a growing worldwide movement of indigenous peoples who think of themselves as conservation refugees. Not to be confused with ecological refugees—people forced to abandon their homelands as a result of unbearable heat, drought, desertification, flooding, disease, or other consequences of climate chaos—conservation refugees are removed from their lands involuntarily, either forcibly or through a variety of less coercive measures. The gentler, more benign methods are sometimes called “soft eviction” or “voluntary resettlement,” though the latter is contestable. Soft or hard, the main complaint heard in the makeshift villages bordering parks and at meetings like the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok is that relocation often occurs with the tacit approval or benign neglect of one of the five big international nongovernmental conservation organizations, or as they have been nicknamed by indigenous leaders, the BINGOs. Indigenous peoples are often left out of the process entirely.

Curious about this brand of conservation that puts the rights of nature before the rights of people, I set out last autumn to meet the issue face to face. I visited with tribal members on three continents who were grappling with the consequences of Western conservation and found an alarming similarity among the stories I heard.

Hmong, Thailand
Photograph | Jeremy Horner / Corbis

KHON NOI, MATRIARCH OF A REMOTE mountain village, huddles next to an open-pit stove in the loose, brightly colored clothes that identify her as Karen, the most populous of six tribes found in the lush, mountainous reaches of far northern Thailand. Her village of sixty-five families has been in the same wide valley for over two hundred years. She chews betel, spitting its bright red juice into the fire, and speaks softly through black teeth. She tells me I can use her name, as long as I don’t identify her village.

“The government has no idea who I am,” she says. “The only person in the village they know by name is the ‘headman’ they appointed to represent us in government negotiations. They were here last week, in military uniforms, to tell us we could no longer practice rotational agriculture in this valley. If they knew that someone here was saying bad things about them they would come back again and move us out.”

In a recent outburst of environmental enthusiasm stimulated by generous financial offerings from the Global Environment Facility, the Thai government has been creating national parks as fast as the Royal Forest Department can map them. Ten years ago there was barely a park to be found in Thailand, and because those few that existed were unmarked “paper parks,” few Thais even knew they were there. Now there are 114 land parks and 24 marine parks on the map. Almost twenty-five thousand square kilometers, most of which are occupied by hill and fishing tribes, are now managed by the forest department as protected areas.

“Men in uniform just appeared one day, out of nowhere, showing their guns,” Kohn Noi recalls, “and telling us that we were now living in a national park. That was the first we knew of it. Our own guns were confiscated . . . no more hunting, no more trapping, no more snaring, and no more “slash and burn.” That’s what they call our agriculture. We call it crop rotation and we’ve been doing it in this valley for over two hundred years. Soon we will be forced to sell rice to pay for greens and legumes we are no longer allowed to grow here. Hunting we can live without, as we raise chickens, pigs, and buffalo. But rotational farming is our way of life.”

A week before our conversation, and a short flight south of Noi’s village, six thousand conservationists were attending the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok. At that conference and elsewhere, big conservation has denied that they are party to the evictions while generating reams of promotional material about their affection for, and close relationships with, indigenous peoples. “We recognize that indigenous people have perhaps the deepest understanding of the Earth’s living resources,” says Conservation International chairman and CEO Peter Seligman, adding that, “we firmly believe that indigenous people must have ownership, control and title of their lands.” Such messages are carefully projected toward major funders of conservation, which in response to the aforementioned Ford Foundation reports and other press have become increasingly sensitive to indigenous peoples and their struggles for cultural survival.

Financial support for international conservation has in recent years expanded well beyond the individuals and family foundations that seeded the movement to include very large foundations like Ford, MacArthur, and Gordon and Betty Moore, as well as the World Bank, its Global Environment Facility, foreign governments, USAID, a host of bilateral and multilateral banks, and transnational corporations. During the 1990s USAID alone pumped almost $300 million into the international conservation movement, which it had come to regard as a vital adjunct to economic prosperity. The five largest conservation organizations, CI, TNC, and WWF among them, absorbed over 70 percent of that expenditure. Indigenous communities received none of it. The Moore Foundation made a singular ten-year commitment of nearly $280 million, the largest environmental grant in history, to just one organization—Conservation International. And all of the BINGOs have become increasingly corporate in recent years, both in orientation and affiliation. The Nature Conservancy now boasts almost two thousand corporate sponsors, while Conservation International has received about $9 million from its two hundred fifty corporate “partners.”

Maasai, Tanzania
Photograph | Tim Graham / Getty Images

With that kind of financial and political leverage, as well as chapters in almost every country of the world, millions of loyal members, and nine-figure budgets, CI, WWF, and TNC have undertaken a hugely expanded global push to increase the number of so-called protected areas (PAs)—parks, reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and corridors created to preserve biological diversity. In 1962, there were some 1,000 official PAs worldwide. Today there are 108,000, with more being added every day. The total area of land now under conservation protection worldwide has doubled since 1990, when the World Parks Commission set a goal of protecting 10 percent of the planet’s surface. That goal has been exceeded, with over 12 percent of all land, a total area of 11.75 million square miles, now protected. That’s an area greater than the entire land mass of Africa.

During the 1990s the African nation of Chad increased the amount of national land under protection from 0.1 to 9.1 percent. All of that land had been previously inhabited by what are now an estimated six hundred thousand conservation refugees. No other country besides India, which officially admits to 1.6 million, is even counting this growing new class of refugees. World estimates offered by the UN, IUCN, and a few anthropologists range from 5 million to tens of millions. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied displacements in Africa, is certain the number on that continent alone exceeds 14 million.

The true worldwide figure, if it were ever known, would depend upon the semantics of words like “eviction,” “displacement,” and “refugee,” over which parties on all sides of the issue argue endlessly. The larger point is that conservation refugees exist on every continent but Antarctica, and by most accounts live far more difficult lives than they once did, banished from lands they thrived on for hundreds, even thousands of years.

John Muir, a forefather of the American conservation movement, argued that “wilderness” should be cleared of all inhabitants and set aside to satisfy the urbane human’s need for recreation and spiritual renewal. It was a sentiment that became national policy with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” One should not be surprised to find hardy residues of these sentiments among traditional conservation groups. The preference for “virgin” wilderness has lingered on in a movement that has tended to value all nature but human nature, and refused to recognize the positive wildness in human beings.

Expulsions continue around the world to this day. The Indian government, which evicted one hundred thousand adivasis (rural peoples) in Assam between April and July of 2002, estimates that 2 or 3 million more will be displaced over the next decade. The policy is largely in response to a 1993 lawsuit brought by WWF, which demanded that the government increase PAs by 8 percent, mostly in order to protect tiger habitat. A more immediate threat involves the impending removal of several Mayan communities from the Montes Azules region of Chiapas, Mexico, a process begun in the mid-1970s with the intent to preserve virgin tropical forest, which could still quite easily spark a civil war. Conservation International is deeply immersed in that controversy, as are a host of extractive industries.

Tribal people, who tend to think and plan in generations, rather than weeks, months, and years, are still waiting to be paid the consideration promised. Of course the UN draft declaration is the prize because it must be ratified by so many nations. The declaration has failed to pass so far mainly because powerful leaders such as Tony Blair and George Bush threaten to veto it, arguing that there is not and should never be such a thing as collective human rights.

Sadly, the human rights and global conservation communities remain at serious odds over the question of displacement, each side blaming the other for the particular crisis they perceive. Conservation biologists argue that by allowing native populations to grow, hunt, and gather in protected areas, anthropologists, cultural preservationists, and other supporters of indigenous rights become complicit in the decline of biological diversity. Some, like the Wildlife Conservation Society’s outspoken president, Steven Sanderson, believe that the entire global conservation agenda has been “hijacked” by advocates for indigenous peoples, placing wildlife and biodiversity in peril. “Forest peoples and their representatives may speak for the forest,” Sanderson has said, “They may speak for their version of the forest; but they do not speak for the forest we want to conserve.” WCS, originally the New York Zoological Society, is a BINGO lesser in size and stature than the likes of TNC and CI, but more insistent than its colleagues that indigenous territorial rights, while a valid social issue, should be of no concern to wildlife conservationists.

Maya, Guatemala
Photograph | AFP / Getty Images

Market-based solutions put forth by human rights groups, which may have been implemented with the best of social and ecological intentions, share a lamentable outcome, barely discernible behind a smoke screen of slick promotion. In almost every case indigenous people are moved into the money economy without the means to participate in it fully. They become permanently indentured as park rangers (never wardens), porters, waiters, harvesters, or, if they manage to learn a European language, ecotour guides. Under this model, “conservation” edges ever closer to “development,” while native communities are assimilated into the lowest ranks of national cultures.

It should be no surprise, then, that tribal peoples regard conservationists as just another colonizer—an extension of the deadening forces of economic and cultural hegemony. Whole societies like the Batwa, the Maasai, the Ashinika of Peru, the Gwi and Gana Bushmen of Botswana, the Karen and Hmong of Southeast Asia, and the Huarani of Ecuador are being transformed from independent and self-sustaining into deeply dependent and poor communities.

WHEN I TRAVELED THROUGHOUT MESOAMERICA and the Andean-Amazon watershed last fall visiting staff members of CI, TNC, WCS, and WWF I was looking for signs that an awakening was on the horizon. The field staff I met were acutely aware that the spirit of exclusion survives in the headquarters of their organizations, alongside a subtle but real prejudice against “unscientific” native wisdom. Dan Campbell, TNC’s director in Belize, conceded, “We have an organization that sometimes tries to employ models that don’t fit the culture of nations where we work.” And Joy Grant, in the same office, said that as a consequence of a protracted disagreement with the indigenous peoples of Belize, local people “are now the key to everything we do.”

“We are arrogant,” was the confession of a CI executive working in South America, who asked me not to identify her. I was heartened by her admission until she went on to suggest that this was merely a minor character flaw. In fact, arrogance was cited by almost all of the nearly one hundred indigenous leaders I met with as a major impediment to constructive communication with big conservation.

If field observations and field workers’ sentiments trickle up to the headquarters of CI and the other BINGOs, there could be a happy ending to this story. There are already positive working models of socially sensitive conservation on every continent, particularly in Australia, Bolivia, Nepal, and Canada, where national laws that protect native land rights leave foreign conservationists no choice but to join hands with indigenous communities and work out creative ways to protect wildlife habitat and sustain biodiversity while allowing indigenous citizens to thrive in their traditional settlements.

In most such cases it is the native people who initiate the creation of a reserve, which is more likely to be called an “indigenous protected area” (IPA) or a “community conservation area” (CCA). IPAs are an invention of Australian aboriginals, many of whom have regained ownership and territorial autonomy under new treaties with the national government, and CCAs are appearing around the world, from Lao fishing villages along the Mekong River to the Mataven Forest in Colombia, where six indigenous tribes live in 152 villages bordering a four-million-acre ecologically intact reserve.

The Kayapo, a nation of Amazonian Indians with whom the Brazilian government and CI have formed a co-operative conservation project, is another such example. Kayapo leaders, renowned for their militancy, openly refused to be treated like just another stakeholder in a two-way deal between a national government and a conservation NGO, as is so often the case with co-operative management plans. Throughout negotiations they insisted upon being an equal player at the table, with equal rights and land sovereignty. As a consequence, the Xingu National Park, the continent’s first Indian-owned park, was created to protect the lifeways of the Kayapo and other indigenous Amazonians who are determined to remain within the park’s boundaries.

In many locations, once a CCA is established and territorial rights are assured, the founding community invites a BINGO to send its ecologists and wildlife biologists to share in the task of protecting biodiversity by combining Western scientific methodology with indigenous ecological knowledge. And on occasion they will ask for help negotiating with reluctant governments. For example, the Guarani Izoceños people in Bolivia invited the Wildlife Conservation Society to mediate a comanagement agreement with their government, which today allows the tribe to manage and own part of the new Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park.

Nez Perce, Idaho, US
Photograph | Joel Sartore / National Geographic

TOO MUCH HOPE SHOULD PROBABLY NOT be placed in a handful of successful co-management models, however. The unrestrained corporate lust for energy, hardwood, medicines, and strategic metals is still a considerable threat to indigenous communities, arguably a larger threat than conservation. But the lines between the two are being blurred. Particularly problematic is the fact that international conservation organizations remain comfortable working in close quarters with some of the most aggressive global resource prospectors, such as Boise Cascade, Chevron-Texaco, Mitsubishi, Conoco-Phillips, International Paper, Rio Tinto Mining, Shell, and Weyerhauser, all of whom are members of a CI-created entity called the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. Of course if the BINGOs were to renounce their corporate partners, they would forfeit millions of dollars in revenue and access to global power without which they sincerely believe they could not be effective.

And there are some respected and influential conservation biologists who still strongly support top-down, centralized “fortress” conservation. Duke University’s John Terborgh, for example, author of the classic Requiem for Nature, believes that co-management projects and CCAs are a huge mistake. “My feeling is that a park should be a park, and it shouldn’t have any resident people in it,” he says. He bases his argument on three decades of research in Peru’s Manu National Park, where native Machiguenga Indians fish and hunt animals with traditional weapons. Terborgh is concerned that they will acquire motorboats, guns, and chainsaws used by their fellow tribesmen outside the park, and that biodiversity will suffer. Then there’s paleontologist Richard Leakey, who at the 2003 World Parks Congress in South Africa set off a firestorm of protest by denying the very existence of indigenous peoples in Kenya, his homeland, and arguing that “the global interest in biodiversity might sometimes trump the rights of local people.”

Yet many conservationists are beginning to realize that most of the areas they have sought to protect are rich in biodiversity precisely because the people who were living there had come to understand the value and mechanisms of biological diversity. Some will even admit that wrecking the lives of 10 million or more poor, powerless people has been an enormous mistake—not only a moral, social, philosophical, and economic mistake, but an ecological one as well. Others have learned from experience that national parks and protected areas surrounded by angry, hungry people who describe themselves as “enemies of conservation” are generally doomed to fail.

More and more conservationists seem to be wondering how, after setting aside a “protected” land mass the size of Africa, global biodiversity continues to decline. Might there be something terribly wrong with this plan—particularly after the Convention on Biological Diversity has documented the astounding fact that in Africa, where so many parks and reserves have been created and where indigenous evictions run highest, 90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas? If we want to preserve biodiversity in the far reaches of the globe, places that are in many cases still occupied by indigenous people living in ways that are ecologically sustainable, history is showing us that the dumbest thing we can do is kick them out.

http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/161/

Conservation Refugees

The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples

Mark Dowie

Table of Contents and Sample Chapters

Since 1900, more than 108,000 officially protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely at the urging of five international conservation organizations. About half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. Millions who had been living sustainably on their land for generations were displaced in the interests of conservation. In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie tells this story.

This is a “good guy vs. good guy” story, Dowie writes; the indigenous peoples’ movement and conservation organizations have a vital common goal—to protect biological diversity—and could work effectively and powerfully together to protect the planet and preserve species and ecosystem diversity. Yet for more than a hundred years, these two forces have been at odds. The result: thousands of unmanageable protected areas and native peoples reduced to poaching and trespassing on their ancestral lands or “assimilated” but permanently indentured on the lowest rungs of the economy.

Dowie begins with the story of Yosemite National Park, which by the turn of the twentieth century established a template for bitter encounters between native peoples and conservation. He then describes the experiences of other groups, ranging from the Ogiek and Maasai of eastern Africa and the Pygmies of Central Africa to the Karen of Thailand and the Adevasis of India. He also discusses such issues as differing definitions of “nature” and “wilderness,” the influence of the “BINGOs” (Big International NGOs, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy), the need for Western scientists to respect and honor traditional lifeways, and the need for native peoples to blend their traditional knowledge with the knowledge of modern ecology. When conservationists and native peoples acknowledge the interdependence of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, Dowie writes, they can together create a new and much more effective paradigm for conservation.

About the Author

Award-winning journalist Mark Dowie is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, American Foundations: An Investigative History (both published by the MIT Press), and four other books.

Reviews

“A beautiful balance of critique and sympathy.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Unlike a fine wine, Mark Dowie has not mellowed with age. This book proves it.”
John Passacantando, former Executive Director, Greenpeace USA

“Mark Dowie is, pound for pound, one of the best investigative journalists around.”
Studs Terkel, author of Working

“As a journalist, Mark Dowie has always been a few steps ahead of the pack, and with Conservation Refugees he’s once again staked out a difficult and fascinating terrain: the indigenous peoples that, all the way back to the founding of Yosemite, have been invisible or worse to the conservation movement. A vision of wilderness that makes no place for people has long held sway in environmental circles, but there are signs it is coming to an end—and not a moment too soon. Dowie’s book advances the critical work of developing a new, more encompassing vision of nature, which makes it one of the most important contributions to conservation in many years.”–Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food

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http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11679

http://books.google.com.au/books?id=T9OVqyhVyy4C&lpg=PP1&ots=5ntSohsYfR&dq=mark%20dowie%20conservation%20refugees&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Controversial deal between US-based conservation NGOs and polluting industry slammed

By Chris Lang, 28th May 2009

Photo by AMagill on flickr.com

Last week, an organisation called Avoided Deforestation Partners launched what they blandly describe as “an agreement on policies aimed at protecting the world’s tropical forests”. Under this agreement, “companies would be eligible to receive credit for reducing climate pollution by financing conservation of tropical forests”. It is a loophole allowing industry to write a cheque and continue to pollute. This is another nightmare vision of REDD, similar to that recently proposed by the Australian government. Another similarity with Australia is the support received from what is at first glance a surprising source: big international conservation NGOs.

REDD-Monitor received the following anonymous contribution about the agreement. We reproduce it in full in the hope of generating further discussion about this liaison between conservation NGOs and polluting industry.
The following organisations signed the agreement: American Electric Power, Conservation International, Duke Energy, Environmental Defense Fund, El Paso Corporation, National Wildlife Federation, Marriott International, Mercy Corps, Natural Resources Defense Council, PG&E Corporation, Sierra Club, Starbucks Coffee Company, The Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, The Walt Disney Company, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Woods Hole Research Center.

The agreement is available here.

When, in years to come, the history is written of how humanity came to lose the battle against climate change, May 20th 2009 will go down as the day that the tide decisively turned against planetary survival. For this was the day that those with the influence and power who could have taken a stand of moral principle, and who could have demanded the kind of action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US, decided not to. Instead, they offered some of the biggest, filthiest planetary polluters an ‘easy out’, by lobbying the US Congress jointly with them, that US carbon emissions should be offset against oversees credits for ‘avoided deforestation’.

Surprisingly, it was not the professional lobbyists, union leaders or government officials who demonstrated the loss of their moral compasses on May 20th. It was the big international conservation organisations who, we have all been led to believe, are supposedly looking after the planet’s wild places. In a statement issued alongside fossil fuel-burning power giants such as American Electric Power, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the conservationists – including The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defence Fund, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society – called for unlimited access for ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon credits in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (also known as the Waxman/Markey bill)- thereby potentially allowing major polluters not to make significant reductions in their own emissions for many years to come. In this, they were largely reaffirming what was already included in this desperately weak piece of draft legislation.

The interests of the big US international conservation NGOs (let’s call them BINGOS) and large corporations have been converging for some years. The BINGOs have realised that the fat profits of mining, utility and financial services companies are a ready source of income for their fast expanding empires. The corporations have realised that the compliant BINGOs are potentially their best green public relations’ agencies, if paid the right amounts of money. The BINGO’s spiralling budgets have grown ever more dependent on hand-outs from the private sector, and the Boards of all the main US conservation groups are now stuffed with corporate executives.

In fairness, the statement does recognise that the rights of indigenous peoples need to be respected in REDD programmes. However, the day before the BINGO-polluter love-note was announced, the chief scientist of one of the BINGO signatories – Peter Kareiva, of the Nature Conservancy – confirmed what many indigenous people and environmentalists already knew: that “the traditional protected areas strategy has all too often trampled on people’s rights”. Kareiva also said that “The key question is to what extent have we – and by “we,” I mean the big conservation NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and WWF – mended our ways so that we no longer disrespect the rights of indigenous people in pursuit of our missions.” The fact that Kareiva still has to ask the question is telling in itself, in that the BINGOs have been told for many years that their anti-people approach is unacceptable and probably ultimately ineffective. TNC’s chief scientist rightly concluded that the entire protected areas strategy “warrants a critical re-examination”.

Kareiva also asked the question “Should the conservation movement be proud of the 108,000 protected areas around the world it has thus far helped establish?” Many indigenous people know the answer to that question, and it is why they remain deeply concerned and sceptical about grand international plans by conservation organisations to ‘protect’ their forests in order to supposedly prevent climate change.

Do the math, and it’s not hard to see why the BINGOs have finally sold their souls to the devil. Around 150 million hectares of tropical forests is in protected areas worldwide, much of it under the control or management of international conservation groups. Each hectare of forest contains around 100-200 tons of carbon, and each ton of carbon could be worth around $10 at the moment (and potentially much more in the future). The BINGOs know that they have a big stake in an asset potentially worth $150 billion and upwards.

But there would have to be a buyer for this asset to actually be worth anything. Step in the big fossil fuel-burning power utilities, which, like most US businesses, have been cosseted and protected from global environmental realities by eight years of the Bush administration. If there is an easy way to avoid changing their business model, of avoiding the installation of more efficient technology, or of losing market segment to renewable energy producers, they will surely take it. Avoided deforestation offsets on a grand scale – brokered by their chums in the conservation groups – would be just the ticket.

But as US environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of Earth have pointed out, this is a sure route to climatic ruin. The terms of the Waxman/Markey bill as it stands – and as demanded by the BINGO-polluter axis – would allow the polluters to carry on polluting and will “lock in a new generation of dirty coal-fired power plants.”

These groups – organisations that, unlike the BINGOS, have not allowed themselves to grow bloated and complacent feasting at the teats of mammon – point out that “the American Clean Energy and Security Act sets targets for reducing pollution that are far weaker than science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. They are further undermined by massive loopholes that could allow the most polluting industries to avoid real emission reductions until 2027.” That is, they can largely be offset against ‘carbon credits’ bought from overseas projects, such as for putative ‘avoided deforestation’ schemes.

How has this potentially catastrophic turn of events come about? The decision-making process for the Waxman/Markey bill which will perpetuate the US’s addiction to fossil fuels was, we are told by the environmental groups “co-opted by oil and coal lobbyists”. Were the environmentalists slightly less polite, they might have added “and their trough-snouting apologists in the conservation BINGOs”.

And as we all know, where the US leads, the rest of the world tends to follow. If the Waxman/Markey bill becomes law, it is likely to set a precedent that negotiators at the Copenhagen climate summit in December will look to for inspiration.

So the May 20th statement is not just an act of egregious short-sighted greed and duplicity by the supposed conservationists; it is little more than an act of global environmental treachery. One of the coordinators of the joint statement, Jeff Horowitz of ‘Avoided Deforestation Partners’, describing the statement as a ‘landmark’, said “When environmentalists and major corporate leaders can agree, real change has come”. He is right, real change has indeed come, and it is a landmark: it marks the point that the conservation BINGOs finally abandoned any last pretence to be acting in the interests of the planet.

The gravy train may well be headed the way of the BINGOs, but the cost could be dangerous climate change that will eventually wipe out many wildlife habitats, including tropical forests. But when the good ship Mother Earth does start sinking, at least we’ll now know who should be the first to be thrown overboard.

http://www.redd-monitor.org/2009/05/28/controversial-deal-between-us-based-conservation-ngos-and-polluting-industry-slammed/

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