Keep Off The Grasslands | Mark Dowie On Conservation Refugees

WKOG Editor: We especially like the fact that Dowie distinguishes between member-funded and corporate-funded  NGOs. We also enjoyed the irony that the person who alerted Dowie to the indigenous peoples predicament was Rebecca Adamson, who, in turn, has capitalized on the indigenous rights paradigm to become a corporate broker.” [Further reading on More on Adams:  The Corporate Buy-In]

Video | These people have names…

Nakuru Lemiruni sends a message to those responsible for evicting the Samburu tribe from their land. The Samburu of Kisargei, in Kenya’s Laikipia district, were brutally evicted from the lands they call home in 2010 after the land was sold to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). AWF, using funds from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), says it bought the land on the understanding that no-one lived there. When the Samburu protested and took the matter to the courts the land was hurriedly ‘gifted’ to the government. Police chose a Friday “market day” for their attack, when the men were away and only women, elders, and children were in their homes. Fanning out across the 17,000- acre Eland Downs Ranch, police burned the Samburu families’ homes to the ground, along with all their possessions. Identified in the Kenyan press as “squatters,” the evicted Samburu families petitioned a regional court to recognize their ancestral claims to the land where they lived and grazed their cattle The suit has been filed by the Samburu against the African Wildlife Foundation and the former President. They need money and public support to win.


The Sun Magazine

Issue 452 | August 2013

by Joel Whitney

Journalist Mark Dowie was speaking at an environmental conference in Ottawa, Canada, in 2004 when he was approached by Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee and the founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide. She began telling him how conservationists were mistreating indigenous tribes around the world. Intrigued, Dowie decided to look into the subject and write about it.

He traveled for four years to remote parts of the globe, and what he found troubled him. Everywhere he went, native people were being kicked off their ancestral lands to make way for national parks or protected wilderness areas. Dowie wrote a book and titled it Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. He estimates that over the past one hundred years there have been 20 million such refugees worldwide.

He also discovered that the large conservation organizations were partnering with corporations that wanted to build oil wells or gas pipelines or mine for minerals on these lands. Originally conservationists were opposed to drilling and mining, but, Dowie says, the lines between the conservation giants and the corporate giants are being blurred: “International conservation organizations remain comfortable working in close quarters with some of the most aggressive global resource prospectors.” These extractive projects are far more environmentally destructive than the presence of indigenous people, he says. In fact, it’s indigenous traditions that have protected these biologically rich lands, often for millennia.

Dowie was born in Toronto, Canada, and spent his formative years in Wyoming. He calls himself a “Wyoming cowboy,” and his son and ex-wife still own a ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Dowie worked for Mother Jones magazine from 1975 to 1985, first as general manager, then as publisher, and finally as editor. In addition to Conservation Refugees, he is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century and American Foundations: An Investigative History. During his nearly forty years in journalism, he has won nineteen awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and contributed to the Times of London, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation. He is currently a contributing editor at Orion and has taught environmental reporting and foreign correspondence at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

I visited Dowie at his home on Tomales Bay in Inverness, California, to discuss the fate of the conservation refugees. Inverness sits on the eastern shore of Point Reyes Peninsula, a protected national seashore. Dowie lives there with his wife — the artist Wendy Schwartz — and their yellow lab, Gracie, who welcomed me with a volley of barks as I crossed the yard on my first visit.

Dowie invited me to follow him through the reeds to his shore-side observatory, a small structure on stilts in the inlet. Six foot three and bowlegged, he stooped a little as he guided me past the poison oak. At seventy-four Dowie is silver haired, broad shouldered, and quietly assertive. When questioned, he answers quickly and without meandering. When challenged, he smiles as if appreciative of the chance to clarify his meaning. He emphasizes that the conflict between native peoples and conservationists is not a story of good guys versus bad guys but “good guys versus good guys.”


Whitney: Your book starts close to home with the story of Yosemite National Park.

Dowie: The creation of Yosemite was a long process that began with its “discovery” by white European Americans. Native Americans, of course, were already there. John Muir, forefather of the American conservation movement, is often cited as the park’s founder. He wrote and spoke lyrically about the spiritual renewal urbanites experienced when they entered places like Yosemite Valley — which he defined as a “wilderness” despite its long-standing human population.

If you’ve ever been in Yosemite Valley, you know that it is absolutely stunning. So when the European settlers found this place, they thought it should be preserved. Then they discovered that the valley was occupied by a mixed band of Miwoks, Mono Paiutes, and Ahwahnechee who migrated in and out of the valley by the seasons; it’s a pretty inhospitable place in the winter. The natives cultivated the valley, but not in the way we think of cultivation, with fences and tilling and crops planted in rows. They planted trees and harvested game and fish and grew semiwild crops.

So although Muir and the other wilderness romantics who fell in love with the place saw it as wild, it was actually a cultured environment. Nevertheless they decided to run these Native American tribes out, believing there was no place in wilderness for human beings — particularly human beings they found repulsive. These were people who ate grubs and insects and who dusted themselves with mud to cover the scent of their bodies so they could hunt — a common practice among indigenous tribes. Muir described them as “dirty diggers.” But he was not behind the actual military removal of the natives.

Whitney: Who was?

Dowie: The governor of California at the time, Peter Burnett, had made it a policy to eliminate all Native Americans in the state — literally to kill them all. Battalions created by local sheriffs would go into places where they lived and wipe them out. There were several attempts made by the Mariposa Battalion to kill the native people of Yosemite, but they failed because the Ahwahnechee were clever and knew where to hide in canyons that were unfamiliar to the battalions. The natives managed to stay in the park so long that eventually the National Park Service accepted a certain number of them as residents, but they were treated as indentured servants by the park rangers and forced to live in a segregated camp, with eight people to a house the size of a small trailer. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Park Service got the last Native American out of Yosemite. Meanwhile that model of land without people became the dominant model for conservation in the world.

Whitney: Where did this sense of wilderness as a place without people originate?

Dowie: It was brought here from Europe by people like Muir, who romanticized wilderness even where it didn’t exist. It was reinforced and popularized by artists: painters like Albert Bierstadt and photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams would spend hours with a camera trained on a particular scene that he wanted to shoot, waiting for it to be clear of native people before he clicked the shutter. He created the impression that Yosemite Valley was and always had been unoccupied.

Muir saw wilderness as akin to a cathedral where weary urban people could go and rest and regenerate their souls. But he thought that nobody should be residing there, or cultivating the land, or killing the animals or the fish. He had no problem, however, with Europeans hiking in, camping, and hiking back out. And that policy is reflected in the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as an “untrammeled” place where people may enter but not stay.

Whitney: How many parks and protected wilderness areas are there now around the planet?

Dowie: By my count there are about 108,000 worldwide, covering an area equal to the total landmass of Africa.

Whitney: How did the U.S. model of national parks travel to other countries?

Dowie: I don’t think Americans actually intended to export the concept at first. My sense is that British tourists visited the U.S. and saw these parks. And then, wherever they came across a similar amount of wild land and charismatic wildlife — mostly in Africa and India — they formed organizations to do what had been done here.

Since then, however, the U.S. has spawned huge organizations that spread conservation around the globe. The four biggest conservation organizations in the world are American: the African Wildlife Foundation — which is headquartered in Washington, DC — the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International. The World Wildlife Fund was started by Europeans, but its largest chapter is now in the U.S.

Whitney: You’ve accused the American Left of supporting these organizations’ inhumane conservation practices.

Dowie: The Left supports the environmental movement, which essentially started out as a conservation initiative. The movement has expanded its concerns to pollution and environmental justice and global warming, but the original impulse for environmentalism was to protect wilderness and wildlife. So the Left has embraced some organizations that have, over the last hundred years, tended to favor wildlife over human life. That’s not a humanist position. I would think the Left would take the side of the powerless indigenous people, 20 million of whom have lost their land and their livelihood in the name of conservation.

Whitney: Don’t we need to protect pristine natural places?

Dowie: Sure, but the conservation organizations that are allegedly protecting those places are now forming smarmy alliances with corporations that are doing a lot of environmental damage as they extract resources from protected areas. And of course the Left is aware of that and protests it, but the Left should also be aware of the human displacement that has taken place in the name of conservation — or, rather, a particular conservation strategy I would call “exclusionary conservation” or “fortress conservation.”

I do think conservationists are starting to realize that any land worth conserving — because the biological diversity is high, the soil is fertile, and the original endemic species are still there — exists only because native human populations have been good stewards of it. The trick is to preserve the land and leave the stewards there.

Whitney: So for the most part the Left has been on the side of conservation even when it goes against the rights of indigenous groups?

Dowie: The environmental movement, based as it is in Washington, DC, has assiduously avoided embracing the notion that clean water, clean air, and arable land should be considered human rights. There are people in the movement who believe that, but the leadership does not support the idea.

Keep in mind that, if you look at the boards of Conservation International or the Sierra Club, half of the members are Republicans. They like having a healthy environment too, but they also like big business. That makes the environmental movement different from the labor movement, or the women’s-rights movement, or the lesbian-and-gay-rights movement. I wouldn’t call the environmental movement “conservative,” but it certainly has conservatives in it.

Whitney: Where do conservation organizations get their funding?

Dowie: A lot of them started out just taking small donations from their members, as the Sierra Club still does. Then they turned to larger philanthropic foundations. Then they started receiving government funds. Next came money from international banking organizations such as the World Bank, which created the Global Environmental Fund.

More recently these organizations have started receiving corporate support. That’s where the problem shifts. In order to get corporate donations, they have gone into the “greenwashing” business — making corporations look environmentally friendly by forming partnerships with them. It’s a back-scratching arrangement: the corporations get a green image by supporting conservation projects, and the organization gets to claim that it’s helping reform the practices of extractive industries like oil and mining. And it gets the donations, of course.

Whitney: Can you give a specific example of an extractive corporation partnering with one of the big conservation organizations?

Dowie: In the 1990s Mobil wanted to drill for oil and gas in the Madre de Dios rain forest in southern Peru, down near the Bolivian border. There was a lot of resistance, as there always is to drilling on indigenous lands. Then Conservation International came in and brokered a deal between Mobil and the Peruvian government’s oil-and-gas company, PetroPeru. The agreement said Mobil could drill only in an environmentally sound way; they couldn’t contaminate the land, the way other oil companies had in Ecuador. Mobil agreed and wrote a million-dollar check to Conservation International.

That’s just one of many such deals. If you go to the websites of The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund, they brag about their partnerships with some of the worst offenders, like British Petroleum [BP], claiming that they’re going to teach these corporations the right way to do business. And of course BP will happily provide the organization with a few million dollars, which is chump change to an oil giant. And indigenous people will suffer because their land will be fouled up, even though this is all supposedly being done under the rubric of conservation.

Whitney: You mentioned Ecuador as an example of such fouling of the land. Sixteen million gallons of oil were spilled there, contaminating the local water supply.

Dowie: Yes, the project in Ecuador resulted in a massive lawsuit that went back and forth between courts in the U.S. and Ecuador. The plaintiffs were awarded $19 billion, but the oil companies are still fighting it hard, because if it is upheld, it will set a devastating precedent for them. Similar environmental catastrophes have occurred around the world. The Niger delta in Nigeria is worse than the Cuyahoga — the infamous Ohio river so polluted it would catch fire in the fifties and sixties.

Whitney: How can you fund the preservation of these huge areas of land without having corporations put up big money?

Dowie: Around 75 percent of charitable donations come from people like you and me giving twenty-five or fifty dollars to an organization that we like. So the notion that conservation cannot survive without corporate money is just not true. But big money is easy money. If you go to the Ford Foundation and get a million-dollar grant, you’ve saved yourself a lot of work. The same money and more can be had collectively from people like you and me, however. In 2011, during a recession, individual donations in the U.S. were up 4 percent. So individuals are generous. I think any organization that purports to be grassroots should be getting its money primarily from the public. And, to their credit, a lot of these organizations, such as the Sierra Club, do get the lion’s share of their funding from their rank-and-file membership. But Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy go mostly after the big grant money, and it affects their policies, their values, and their priorities.

Whitney: What happens to “conservation refugees” who are removed from their ancestral lands?

Dowie: They are forced to the perimeter, shoved to the bottom of the local economy. They’re not skilled workers, so what do they do? They go back to the land that they know, maybe to visit the graves of their ancestors but sometimes to cultivate food or to use the hunting grounds where they get their protein. In other words, they go back in and poach. So exclusionary conservation is creating a criminal class, if you will.

The Maasai people in Kenya are so upset about being denied their grazing rights that they’ll go into the Serengeti park and kill lions and throw the bodies into a tourist lodge to protest what’s happened to them. And the conservationists will use this as proof that they have to keep these people out of the parks to protect wildlife.

Whitney: Isn’t big-game hunting still allowed in places like the Serengeti if you’re able to pay top dollar?

Dowie: Well, conservation organizations are fighting that, but these wealthy Saudi hunting clubs will buy up land and stock it with animals that people can come in and kill for huge fees. And they’re kicking back a lot of money from these hunting businesses to the governments, which makes it rough for conservation.

Of course, there was a time when conservation groups were allied with big-game hunters. The World Wildlife Fund was founded by Prince Philip of the United Kingdom and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, both big-game hunters who wanted their hobby preserved. In the early history of the conservation movement, that’s what most of the land was set aside for. Now the camera is used much more frequently than the gun to shoot animals in the Serengeti, which reminds me of a Susan Sontag quote: “When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.”


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