National parks against people, America’s best idea?

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By Stephen Corry

This is the fourth article in Director Stephen Corry’s series on conservation. For a full list of all articles, please click here.

A version of this article was published by Counterpunch on February 26, 2016.

As we warm up for the 2016 centenary of the National Park Service it’s interesting to search “national park” in the ubiquitous, though flawed, Wikipedia. It claims there is a single common thread underpinning the definition, “the conservation of wild nature.” But it’s wrong: In fact, there are two entirely contradictory approaches to national parks and protected areas, and one version has nothing to do with “wild.”

Sadly, the other one has. It is based on a flawed concept of “wilderness” and was developed in the United States starting 150 years ago in Yosemite. Since its inception, this model has required the removal of those who live on and from the land. It was this version that was applied in the Belgian Congo in 1925 creating the first national park in Africa, now called Virunga, and that has been the blueprint for many protected areas throughout Africa and Asia. At least five million people have seen their land and livelihoods stolen as a result (upper estimates are in excess of 14 million), entire peoples have been destroyed, and innumerable human rights abuses have been perpetrated in its name. This remains the model widely exported around the world, perhaps because the most powerful conservation organizations are American. The results are both tragic and criminal.

The American national parks are partly governed by the 1964 Wilderness Act, which tries to enshrine the idea, stating, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is… recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It’s not surprising that this sentence has spawned endless debate, for it wouldn’t pass muster these days: The early wildernesses in the United States had in reality long been “trammeled” by Native Americans who had dominated the landscape for millennia, though in ways which have only recently begun to be properly recognized by others.

In fact, European conquerors all over the world were blind to the native peoples’ domination of their territory – partly because they were peering through a racist fog. In some cases the invaders didn’t notice that the locals were even human beings: In English law, for example, Australia was terra nullius, “land of no one,” and the French decreed Cameroon “vacant.” Such blindness hasn’t disappeared: In 2012, WWF admitted that Baka “Pygmy” use of their forests in Cameroon was “invisible” when it had pressed for the tribe’s ancestral homelands to be stolen for national parks some ten years before. (It now pretends it “insisted on a high level of… consent.”)

Anything written about the great American parks constantly parades the wilderness badge like some holy icon. Everyone’s used to it, but it’s still a con trick: They were never wildernesses. The conceit isn’t helped by the fact they now include signed and marked trails with steps, handrails, and steel cables. In addition to the camp sites and environmental centers one might justifiably expect, Yosemite is not averse to swanky hotels, restaurants, big supermarkets and stores, as well as ski lifts and ski lodges – all “trammeling” the landscape. (Today, the eponymous valley at its heart is akin to a theme park: Little surprise to find that Disney is a key partner.)

Perhaps the most debatable aspect of “wilderness” as it’s used today is illustrated in the coinage of an increasingly common verb, “to rewild.” This seems to have originated in the late 1980s with David Foreman, a founder of Earth First! and former Sierra Club director.

There is little controversial or new about imposing sensible restraints on urbanization and industrialization, nor dismantling their redundant, ugly detritus, and restocking areas with disappeared flora and fauna. But Foreman’s rewilding implies much more: He is both follower and a leader of a well-established ideology which wants at least 70% of humanity to disappear, leaving an Earth of two billion souls maximum. Foreman also vigorously opposes immigration. Put simply, his message is deeply anti-humanitarian. Indeed, he claims he wouldn’t mind if there were no people at all, and is open about his misanthropy and “atheistic Calvinism.” This kind of fundamentalist environmentalism is widespread in the United States, but its core tenets would astonish many ordinary people who support conservation efforts around the world.

It is of course also rife with contradictions: Most of its high priests are descended from European immigrants themselves and contribute to population growth (although Foreman, who has no children, is an exception). The more pertinent contradiction, however, is that their concept of “rewilding” calls for people (them) to trammel the landscape to create an image of a past locked in a particular time frame, a construct which may exist as much in the imagination of these “rewilders” as it does in any historical reality. Might that be just another kind of theme park?

When such folk articulate their beliefs, they usually dwell on the spiritual enrichment and refreshment they find in the great outdoors, often insisting they couldn’t live without it. But millions of others (including this writer) share that experience with no less intensity – while at the same time embracing humanity, and opposing hurting other human beings. We are just as passionate about the importance of justice for the vulnerable as we are about “the outdoors.”

Arguing that destroying peoples must not happen in the name of conservation does not imply opposing conservation. On the contrary, false characterizations about a people-less wilderness are what really damage conservation’s reputation, by turning it into the enemy of millions of locals who see it denying their right to life. This is happening around the world and, unless it’s stopped, conservation is likely to be torn up by those clamoring at the gates of their ancestral homelands, gates guarded by the big conservation organizations that lock them out.

This is all made worse by the fact that local subsistence hunters increasingly find themselves the first and easiest targets of armed park guards, themselves often in league with the real poaching syndicates in government! A bill just passed by Congress to encourage the militarization of conservation around the world will make matters worse. Those who see their lands stolen using American firepower may well join the line of people who see the United States as aggressor rather than liberator.

There is, however, an entirely different model of national parks, one where people don’t get shot, where the concept of wilderness is hardly ever mentioned and, crucially, which actually works. It works because the people who live inside the parks are viewed as integral to them, and their long experience of adapting the landscape – and of protecting it from inappropriate development – is recognized as central to the protected areas’ existence and success.

An example is the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park in Nepal which includes the some of the highest and wildest places on Earth (where, incidentally, I had my own Damascene conversion 45 years ago). Even the wealthy, foreign throngs swarming up Everest’s easiest routes disappear for eleven months of the year when the mountain reverts to weather beyond their endurance. Yet UNESCO’s descriptions of the park make no mention of wilderness, instead emphasizing that the thousands of Sherpas who live in it are “major… factors to the (park’s) successful conservation.”

So why are the Sherpas allowed to remain in Sagarmatha when African tribal people are still being kicked out of WWF-supported parks in the Congo Basin. Why are Sherpas allowed to coexist with the snow leopard when thousands of tribespeople today face expulsion from Indian tiger reserves? The eviction approach violates the promises WWF and other big conservation organizations now make through their lip service to Indigenous knowledge. As far as I know, however, no big conservation organization anywhere, has ever opposed the theft of tribal lands.

People live in national parks and other protected areas, including all over Europe and elsewhere. They own their properties and manage their landscape – inside the parks – just as they always have. So I repeat: Why aren’t people allowed to remain on their land in India or Africa?

The answer is shaming for the big conservation organizations still underwriting these crimes: It’s because peoples like the Sherpas would forcibly resist any hint of eviction. Those like the Baka “Pygmies” in Cameroon (kicked out and routinely assaulted by WWF-supported guards) lack the information, wherewithal and organizational strength to resist successfully. They are just too powerless.

Tribal peoples, the best conservationists, are thrown out simply because they can be. Where big conservation’s concerned, forget “wild nature”: Its prevailing ideology is largely a question of might being right. It’s time such aggressive bullying was challenged. Conservation’s too important for all of us to allow the big organizations to continue, literally, calling the shots. Left untrammeled, they are damaging conservation itself.

Stephen Corry has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, since 1972. The not-for-profit has a San Francisco office. Its public campaign to change conservation can be joined here. This is one of a series of articles on the problem.