A guide to decolonize language in conservation
This guide, which is not meant to be exhaustive, is a basic resource for anyone who writes or talks about conservation, climate change and nature protection.
Scientific evidence shows that Indigenous people understand and manage their environment better than anyone else: 80% of Earth’s biodiversity can be found in Indigenous territories. The best way to protect biodiversity is therefore to respect the land rights of Indigenous peoples – the best conservationists.
Nevertheless, the mainstream conservation model today is still, just as in colonial times, “Fortress Conservation”: a model that creates militarized Protected Areas accessible only to the wealthy on the lands of Indigenous peoples. This “conservation” is destroying the land and lives of Indigenous peoples. But this is where most of the Western funding for nature protection is going.
Why? Because the myths that sustain this model of conservation are reproduced in school texts, media, wildlife documentaries, NGO adverts, etc. The images we have seen since our childhood about “nature”, and the words we use to describe it, shape our way of thinking, our policies, and our actions.
We tend to assume these words and images are the reality, as if they were neutral, objective or “scientific”. But they are not.
Conservation has a dark history, and it’s rooted in racism, colonialism, white supremacy, social injustice, land theft, extractivism and violence. Today, the main conservation organizations (like WWF and WCS) not only haven’t questioned this past, but keep perpetuating it. Conservation is an industry, a business, often “partnering with” (i.e. taking money from) big polluting companies and turning nature into something to consume, mostly by white and rich people. This is part of a process of commodification of nature in which it is “valued”, traded and can be profited from. But our “nature” is other people’s homes. It is the basis of their way of life, the place of their ancestors, the provider of most things that sustain them.
It is essential to think about the words and concepts we use when writing or talking about environmental issues. The violence and land grabs faced by millions of Indigenous and other local people in the name of conservation stem in large part from these concepts.
It’s time to decolonize conservation!
Defining some basic concepts
- The most common model of conservation in Africa and Asia is known as “Fortress Conservation”. It’s called this because it relies on violence and the exclusion of Indigenous and local people from their lands, which are set aside specifically for the purpose of protecting “nature” (see “nature”). It treats nature as something separate from humans. Through Fortress Conservation, Indigenous peoples and other local communities have been evicted from their ancestral land and are beaten, tortured, killed and abused by armed guards (see “rangers”) if they try to hunt, perform rituals, or collect medicinal plants in those lands. This is justified by conservation agencies on the grounds that “humans” (really meaning local people) are a threat to the environment and any human activity is incompatible with protecting nature. This is despite a wealth of evidence showing that Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the natural world.
Paradoxically, once a national park or wildlife reserve is established, the same conservation or governmental groups who evicted the local people then encourage tourism, facilitate trophy hunting, or permit logging, mining or other resource extraction.
- “Conservation” as practiced today has a dark history. In the 19th century, the United States created the world’s first national parks on lands stolen from Native Americans. The American “fathers" of the conservation movement (like John Muir) considered Indigenous lands empty or “wild” (see “wilderness") and the Indigenous peoples living there both backwards and encroachers. In fact, many US national parks forced out the very peoples who had created these wildlife-rich landscapes into landlessness and poverty. Many prominent conservationists also embraced the most extreme racist theories of their time, like the eugenicist author Madison Grant, one of the founders of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
This model of conservation, based on the theft of land from people considered too “primitive” or “inferior” to take care of it, was exported around the world during the expansion of colonial empires, especially to Africa and Asia. Through the creation of “Protected Areas” (see “Protected Areas”), colonial elites excluded local people from their ancestral lands and the natural resources on which they depended, blaming them and their knowledge (often denigrated as “superstition”) for the environmental destruction the colonials themselves were causing. Wealthy colonial hunters were often central in setting up "game reserves” –banning local people from hunting for food in lands reserved for hunting by the colonial and local elite.
Conservation is still colonialist because many of the unjust laws and policies created during colonial times for “nature protection” are still in place, unchallenged. More importantly, it rests on the same racist misconception that Indigenous people cannot be trusted to look after their own land and the wildlife that lives there, and that this can only be done by Western (or Western-influenced) conservationists and scientists. Its proponents continue to treat the original custodians of the land as a “nuisance” to be “dealt with”, instead of as experts in local biodiversity and key partners in conservation. Fortress Conservation, like colonialism, uses militarized violence (see “rangers”) to impose its own views and control over land.
Leading international conservation organizations that were initiated or patronized by powerful and influential colonial hunters (like Theodore Roosevelt and Prince Philip) continue to advocate a racist approach to conservation. This is reliant on them and their perceived “expertise” (a “we know better” approach), rather than on the communities on whose lands most biodiversity is actually found.
The Conservation Industry
- Conservation is an increasingly significant sector of the economy in many countries. National parks and wildlife reserves are seen as vital generators of tourist and other revenue. Carbon offsetting projects (see “carbon offsetting”) are another important source of income, in which organizations like WWF are increasingly acting as carbon middlemen. WWF has adopted a market-based approach to conservation and has business plans for its major projects. Large conservation NGOs like WWF, WCS and The Nature Conservancy, operate as business enterprises (for example, selling merchandise, promoting tours and holidays or partnering with logging companies) and most of them display typical characteristics of multinational corporations. This was one of the reasons why in 2017 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) accepted Survival’s complaint against WWF for the violent abuse and harassment of Baka people in Cameroon by WWF-funded park rangers – under their Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the OECD judged WWF to be a multinational business.
Terms to revisit
The pairs of terms below are racialized, that means different terms are used depending on whom they are referring to: relatively positive or neutral terms are used for white people and their activities, while negative or pejorative terms are used for Indigenous and Black people. They show how conservation language is rooted in, and continues to perpetuate, colonial and racist beliefs.
Game vs Bushmeat
- “Bushmeat”, the meat of wild animals, is both a main source of protein for, and central to the identity of, many people around the world. The use of the word in conservation has a particularly racist tone. For example, when hunted meat is served in restaurants in Europe it’s called “game” and is considered prestigious. But when consumed by Africans or Asians it’s usually referred to as “bushmeat”, a word that invariably carries negative connotations and implies that its capture involved “poaching” (see “poaching”).
Many Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt wild animals to feed their families. This racist and negative connotation is extended to the term “wet markets”, used in reference to the sale and consumption of meat from wild species in Asia. This term is never used to describe the consumption or sale of meat from wild species in the West.
Hunting vs Poaching
- The term “poaching” has been used to criminalize the hunter-gatherer way of life of many Indigenous peoples and prevent them from being able to hunt to feed their families and live sustainably on their ancestral lands. Wealthy tourists (the majority of them white), meanwhile, are allowed to kill local wildlife for sport, in exchange for payment, and call this activity “hunting”. In Africa, therefore, the distinction between the acceptable “hunting” and the criminal “poaching” in media and literature is defined by race and economic status. Moreover, when using the word “poaching”, the conservation industry does not differentiate between those who hunt to make a living sustainably and those involved in the illegal wildlife trade who, in many cases, operate with the complicity of park authorities, rangers and high-level officials. Both are called poachers but they have very different realities. This narrative provides an excuse for the militarization of conservation on the ground (see “rangers”). This is despite evidence showing that effort and money put into combating the illegal wildlife trade could be better and more efficiently spent on projects that aim to change buyers’ attitudes, reduce demand and tackle inequality, rather than on militarization.
Exploring vs Encroaching
- Indigenous and local people are often described as encroachers when they enter their ancestral lands, after they have been turned into Protected Areas – to graze cattle, for example. But when paying tourists go on safari in the same land it’s defined as “exploring”’. Conservation spaces are framed as made for tourists, which in many cases is the only human presence tolerated. “Encroachment” should not be used at all in this context because it implies that local and Indigenous people “do not belong” in an area which is their home. It’s a term that is used to rationalize and promote evictions.
Ranchers vs Herders
- Both terms mean people who own livestock, but the word “rancher” is used for white people, while “herder” refers to Black and Indigenous people. In Kenya and South Africa, “ranchers” (mainly white) are generally owners of land which is privatized and subsidized for “conservation”, while “herders” (usually Black or Indigenous people) graze on common land (their land rights are rarely recognized) and it’s often cast in a negative light by conservationists, media, and the authorities. “Ranchers” engage in “intensification” of livestock-rearing, while Black “herders” are responsible for “over-grazing”. Land laws, property rights, and land administrators have continuously marginalized pastoralists and undermined their livelihoods. The lands owned by Black “herders” are therefore “set aside” (taken away) for conservation, whereas the lands owned by white “ranchers” are celebrated for conservation.
“Travelers” vs Nomads
- In East Africa, the word “travelers” is used in a positive sense to describe people – usually white tourists – with the freedom and right to go wherever they want. “Nomad”, on the other hand, is almost always used pejoratively by governments who want to end, and even criminalize the hunter-gatherer and pastoralist ways of life. Labeling such peoples “nomads” implies that they don’t belong to one area and therefore have no rights to it, the opposite of the truth.
Many conservation programs aim to evict hunter-gatherers and pastoralists from Fortress Conservation areas like game reserves, and then sedentarize them – settle them in one place. In this way they are forced into more intensive forms of farming and livestock rearing, and as they no longer have the vital ability to move seasonally depending on the rains, their food security is reduced as well as their economic and climate resilience.
Human-wildlife coexistence vs conflict
- This narrative shows the double standard in conservation projects: in Europe, for example, people can “coexist” with wildlife so there are almost no restrictions on entering or living in Protected Areas. In Africa and Asia, however, the assumption is typically that Indigenous and other local people don’t know how to coexist with wildlife and have to be evicted from their land, and their way of life is criminalized. “Human-wildlife conflict” is often used to describe two apparently opposite facts aimed at justifying conservationists’ views. On one hand it’s a euphemism to hide the fact that the so-called “conflict” is not a natural condition of local people’s life, but a problem produced by the conservationists themselves – for example, when wildlife populations (especially elephants, though also other large mammals) grow out of control due to strict conservation measures and then destroy the farms and livelihoods of local inhabitants, or even kill people. On the other hand, conservationists also talk about “human-wildlife conflict” to refer to events that Indigenous people often consider part of their daily lives, like one of their cows being eaten by a wild animal. This “conflict” is then used to justify the assertion that the people have to leave their land because “nature” is a dangerous place for them (see “nature”).
Clichés and controversial concepts
Below are some examples of problematic and fallacious concepts that, when used superficially or when inadequately defined, are misleading. These concepts require special attention and a precise definition from the author when used.
- Fortress Conservation is typically brutally enforced by military and paramilitary conservation operatives, sometimes in conjunction with the army and police. They are usually the individuals on the ground who evict, abuse and kill Indigenous people when they try to access their ancestral lands (for food, ritual or other purposes). They are referred to deceptively as “Rangers”, “Park Guards” or “Eco-guards”, but they are often heavily armed. In many cases they have exceptional state-sanctioned license to carry out violence, including extra-judicial killings through “shoot on sight” policies which allow them to shoot anyone merely suspected of “poaching” (see “poaching”). Other law enforcement practices which are normally frowned upon - such as arbitrary arrest, torture, harassment, sexual abuse and expropriation, all without proper prosecution, trial or right to redress in the law – are almost universally tolerated when carried out by “rangers”. Even those with appalling human rights records are often lauded as “heroes” and “environmental defenders”. When referring to park rangers, it’s important to give the context and human rights record of the park where they are operating, so that this violence is not covered up.
- What does this mean in the context of the places we are talking about?
Not all Protected Areas are the same. A Protected Area in Kenya is very different from one in France. In Europe, for example, no national park could be established without taking into account local people’s needs, usually through extensive consultation and political processes, and with legal redress and compensation where problems arise. There are typically very few restrictions on entering or living in such Protected Areas. Usually, their governance and management involve engagement with community interests at a strategic level.
In Africa and Asia, however, almost no parks have ever involved proper consultation with communities (see “consultation”). Protected Areas of this type are usually managed by government agencies and Western conservation NGOs. Communities rarely have any role in governing them. The parks are typically run on a “Fortress Conservation” model: local and Indigenous people are abused, persecuted and evicted using force, coercion or bribery.
These kinds of parks almost always exclude or restrict human activities, including everything Indigenous people do to feed their families, like hunting, growing crops, gathering, and fishing. National parks in Europe must typically bring some benefit to local inhabitants, whereas in Africa and Asia, such parks are intended to protect against local and Indigenous people.
Wilderness, pristine/untouched/intact nature
- It’s often wrongly claimed that Indigenous lands are “wildernesses”. The world’s most famous natural environments like Yellowstone, the Amazon and the Serengeti are the ancestral homelands of millions of Indigenous people who have shaped them, been dependent on them, nurtured and protected them, for millennia. The whole idea of “wilderness”, in the sense of a pristine nature, untouched by humans, is a colonial myth – lands were portrayed as empty, so they could be taken. This is akin to the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, which British invaders used to justify the colonization of Australia, on the false grounds that the land was empty of people.
The idea of “wilderness” has its roots in the US in the late 19th century, whereby the agency of Native Americans in creating diverse landscapes over millennia was expunged, to be replaced with the idea that “nature’” (and God) had formed these lands which white colonists were now charged with protecting.
This Western idea is racist and attempts to invisibilize the role of Indigenous peoples in nurturing and stewarding their own territories, the most biodiverse regions of the world. “Wilderness” portrays the land only as “nature”, rather than a lived and managed landscape in which people play a fundamental part. Conservationists often describe forests as pristine so they can carry on with the creation of Protected Areas without the consent of local people, claiming nobody is living there.
- The idea of “nature”, as something which lies outside of and is distinct from humanity, is a crucial concept for the “conservation industry” (see “conservation industry”). Separating people from nature goes against our own experience, as Indigenous peoples have known very well for generations. Indigenous people don’t see themselves as separate from nature: often they view wild animals as members of their own family, and people and nature as one. Many academic papers underscore how “nature” is not an objective thing, but something embedded in and created by culture and perception. One person’s “nature” is another person’s field, farm, garden, or dinner. What many people in the West think of as “nature” is actually often the result of millennia of modification and enrichment of the environment through human activity and land management. Research has shown that very few places on Earth haven’t been heavily shaped by human activity, including those typically described as “wilderness” (see “wilderness”) such as rainforests and the African savannas.
- Net-zero doesn’t actually mean that a company has no emissions and this concept should be clarified when used. This term has been created to mask the fact that polluting companies are continuing to pollute, but that they are also typically buying “carbon offsets” (see “carbon offsets”) from elsewhere.
Increasingly, this involves carbon credits from so-called “Nature-Based Solutions” schemes (see “Nature-Based Solutions”) such as tree planting and “restoration” (see “restoration”).
Carbon offsetting and carbon credits
- The idea of projects based on “offsetting” is that corporations and governments responsible for a certain amount of carbon dioxide emissions can fund projects elsewhere that supposedly “capture” an equivalent amount of carbon or prevent its release. They can do this through buying offsets in carbon markets. The use of these terms gives people the idea that it’s possible to “compensate” for emissions, although there are many scientific and practical problems with this. Moreover, carbon offsetting allows the real polluters to greenwash their image, while doing nothing to reduce their emissions and indeed continuing to pollute.
Currently, there are two primary ways of offsetting carbon. Both are ineffective and dangerous for Indigenous peoples. They also divert money away from actual efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Many of these schemes are now described as “Nature-Based Solutions“ (see “Nature-Based Solutions”).
Projects like REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries), which supposedly protect forests from being deforested, generate carbon credits that corporations and governments can buy to offset their carbon emissions. Indigenous people have repeatedly voiced concerns about REDD+ projects. It puts a price on their lands and forests which is likely to result in even more land grabs. A large proportion of the forests in REDD+ schemes are territories of Indigenous or other local people. These projects undermine their ways of life, as they lose control over their land.
Another way to “capture” significant amounts of carbon is by planting trees. But many offset projects sow monoculture plantations of just a few fast-growing tree crops, like eucalyptus and acacia, to make money. In fact, most such plantations are harvested in a few years to make products like paper and charcoal, which quickly returns all the captured carbon back to the atmosphere. Moreover, many of the new plantations are more prone to fires and, in any case, they would need to grow for decades before they start absorbing much carbon. Perhaps most importantly, replacing other ecosystems, like grasslands, with tree planting schemes destroys the existing biodiversity (see “reforestation-afforestation”) and devastates the livelihoods of Indigenous and local people who rely on the area’s natural resources.
Nature-Based Solutions (NBS)
- This concept does not have a shared universal definition and its meaning should be spelled out before it is used. It has come to mean the use of mechanisms such as planting trees, restoring habitats and preserving forests to absorb atmospheric CO2, and adapt to the effects of climate change. The concept was originally developed around 2010 by international conservation groups and was intended to show that the Protected Areas they were managing had the potential to play a commercially valuable role in storing carbon. It is now mostly being used to rebrand the controversial and failed concept of REDD+ and to greenwash the equally failing scam called “carbon offsetting” (see “carbon offsetting”).
Many of the claims about the potential for NBS to mitigate climate change are not backed by scientific evidence and are based on flawed and fraudulent papers. NBS projects do not tackle the real causes of climate change – emissions from fossil fuels and the exploitation of natural resources for profit led by the Global North. Moreover, its use rarely contains an explanation as to where these NBS projects are to be carried out and what the consequences will be for the people on the ground. For example, it has been claimed that NBS can provide more than a third of the solution to climate change by 2030, but planting trees to achieve even half of this total impact would require an area the size of Australia – where is this land, and what will happen to the people already living there? NBS offset schemes are usually carbon colonialism. They will lead to mass evictions, harmful land-use restrictions, land-grabbing and hunger for millions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers, peasants, fisher people and hunter-gatherers, while failing to put a stop to the climate crisis.
Sustainable use of resources
- People using natural resources on a small-scale (e.g. cutting wood for charcoal) have their sustainable livelihoods banned or criminalized because they are wrongly framed as “backwards” and “destructive” for the environment. On the other hand, large-scale multinational logging companies that partner with conservation NGOs, and sometimes operate in and around Protected Areas are described as practicing “sustainable forest management”. They can even be “certified”, for example by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), even though the industry is one of the main drivers of forest destruction. This is because industrial logging, and the “certification” of it, generates huge profits for both multinational logging companies, and conservation NGOs.
- The concept of “overpopulation” is ideological and fundamentally racist, especially when it’s blamed for being one of the major causes of the world’s environmental problems. The term is almost always used in relation to the idea of growing populations of people of color in Africa and Asia (and not of white people). Very often it is used to deflect blame away from those most responsible for the climate and biodiversity crises and to criminalize those who contribute least to them and suffer their consequences more cruelly (Indigenous peoples and other local communities). The real cause of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change is not the increasing number of people in the Global South, but the exploitation of resources for profit and growing overconsumption led by the North. Narratives of the “too many” can have horrific consequences: in several countries, including the US, both Indigenous and Black women have been specifically targeted for forced sterilizations against their will and even without their knowledge. WWF ran birth control programs, including sterilizations, in Asia and Africa through their Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) projects, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and USAID, claiming that “We consider that this approach offers considerable potential for achieving greater conservation results in an innovative way”.
- We often hear the words consultation and participation when it comes to conservation projects that impact Indigenous lands. Consultation and participation are of course important but not enough. International law states that any projects taking place on Indigenous territories must obtain Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) from Indigenous peoples. This means they also have the right to say no to any project involving their lands, including Protected Areas. Projects claiming to have “consulted” the impacted people can still be illegitimate because they lack Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. Each part of FPIC is essential – there are examples of conservation organizations seeking “FPIC” years after a Protected Area is formed, and where guards have been abusing the local people. In such a situation, any consent cannot be viewed as “free” or “prior”. Even where FPIC is obtained, it should be seen not as a once-only process, but an ongoing one – free, prior, informed and continuous consent, where Indigenous communities have the right to change their minds about previous decisions.
- “Voluntary relocation” implies that people have given their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (see “consultation”) to leave their homes, their land and, usually, their way of life, to make room for nature conservation.
This is highly improbable, particularly in the case of communities who have a strong and sacred connection to their ancestral lands. In reality most so-called “voluntary relocations” are forced evictions – where people have been threatened, harassed and bribed into “agreeing” to “relocate”, often without being informed that they have a right to say no. In many cases, Indigenous people “agree” to move because their lives are made impossible by conservationists, violent park rangers and governments: they can’t hunt, they can’t collect forest produce, they can’t build their houses or go to school and they are beaten, abused and imprisoned if they try to do so. There is nothing “voluntary” about this. Promises of land, amenities and compensation are also sometimes made to lure people to leave their homes, but they almost always fail to materialize.
It is important before using these words to look at the context and accurately portray what has happened on the land.
- “Ecological restoration” is becoming an increasingly popular term, especially for programs to generate carbon credits (see “carbon offsetting”) or serve other purposes branded under the “Nature-Based Solutions” umbrella (see “NBS”). Given that most of the Earth’s ecosystems have long been modified by humans, the choice of what condition, and from what era, the ecosystem should be “restored to”, is highly contentious, and arbitrary. However, the important point is that conservationists believe they can and should determine this, over and above whatever ecological conditions local communities have created. It is likely that many grasslands deemed to be degraded will be “restored” through carbon-storing afforestation (see “reforestation-afforestation”), even if there is no recent history of the area being under permanent tree cover.
Whilst there are indeed many ecosystems that have been damaged and can be repaired, the term can also provide yet another excuse for evicting, criminalizing, sedentarizing or otherwise targeting the way of life of Indigenous people and local communities. Herders in particular are demonized for “over-grazing” (see “herders”), even though pastoral herding systems are highly adaptive in order to be sustainable. In addition, those practicing rotational farming in tropical forest areas are accused of “degrading” forest ecosystems. This form of farming, which can be highly sustainable, is almost universally described by conservationists with the pejorative term “slash and burn farming”. The purpose of “restoration” is thus to prevent such activities, and to “restore” the ecosystem to some state which outside interests deem to be its “natural” (i.e. without human) condition. “Restoration” is a term that has injustice embedded within it, because it presumes that whatever exists in situ (the Indigenous people and their livelihoods) are “a problem”.
- There is a tendency to believe that planting trees is always a good idea. But basic questions to ask would be: what kind of trees are we talking about? Where will the trees be planted? Why and by whom?
“Afforestation” means planting trees where historically there haven’t been any, whereas “reforestation” means planting where there have been trees in the past. Often “reforestation” and “afforestation” are used by governments, mining and other destructive industries as a “solution” to help mitigate the harmful impacts of their operations, and as a tool to achieve “Net.zero” carbon emissions (see “net-zero”). In fact, “reforestation” and “afforestation” efforts can be used to justify the destruction of forests and ecosystems in one location, by claiming that they will be “recreated” elsewhere. This is a problem for multiple reasons. First, destruction of a forest in one area can permanently impact the way of life of Indigenous peoples and their unique and sacred relationship with their land. Additionally, an ecosystem that has taken thousands of years of careful stewardship to develop, with its richness of flora and fauna, can’t simply be “recreated” elsewhere. “Reforestation” and “afforestation” can also be used as a “Nature-Based Solution” (see “NBS”), allowing polluting companies to falsely claim that planting a certain amount of trees can help absorb their carbon emissions.
At the same time, the general notion that planting any type of tree in any sort of land is a good idea is strongly rejected by forest and soil experts. “Reforestation” and “afforestation” schemes can be damaging for the biodiversity of an area, as they often consist of monocultures, usually non-native species, that displace native flora and fauna and are nothing like the original ecosystem. This is also the case for savannas and grasslands, which are targeted for “afforestation” projects. “Afforestation” efforts can also be used to justify the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their lands, which are then considered “empty” and suitable for tree plantations.
More resources on colonial conservation.
Visit this page to access all the bibliographic resources separated by their concepts.
You may also be interested in reading the 2023 book "Decolonize Conservation: Global Voices for Indigenous Self-Determination, Land, and a World in Common," which features frontline voices from the worldwide movement to decolonize climate change and revitalize a dying planet. You can purchase it here.
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