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The Colonial Fetishization of Nature and how it’s Killing the Planet

Written by Elizabeth Freeman

Everything is in the eye

At the end of the late Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Tanzania from his critically acclaimed Parts Unknown, the chef closes with a jolting question about the natural park he has just visited: “Who gets to live here?” he ponders. “Who or what do we want to see is, for better or worse, going to determine that. Nearly 1.5 billion is spent here every year by people who come wanting to look mostly at beautiful animals. That is an amount that is hard to argue with, and impossible to outrun.”

The ‘we’ he is referring to is wealthy western tourists, and the conflict he alludes to that between native people’s rights of access to live in and off the land, and the big game that draw rich westerners to the same area. The humans have been made to leave before, and it could happen again. If it’s a question of the humans or the protected lions being able to stay in this space, it’s the latter who park authorities will favour, time and again.

This dynamic has a historical precedent with colonial roots, stretching back to the very establishment of parks like this across Africa. It is emblematic of a damaging vision of the natural world and our relationship to it, which in turn has catastrophic consequences in terms of how we handle the climate crisis.

In this modern, industrialised world, there is a belief in a mythical, transcendent ‘nature’ which is always just out of reach: over there, other. It is depicted in nature documentaries, and in the glossy pages of National Geographic, and it needs saving, urgently. Citizens and societies pledge to do what it takes to protect it, not realising that doing so requires a more fundamental reimagining of our behaviours and their place in the world than most governments are ready to concede. It requires recognising that the environment which the West is trying to save is not just ‘out there’ for us to dive in and fix without listening to the voices and concerns of native people who have been connected to it for centuries, and many of whom are already living with the effects of climate breakdown.

In order to understand this fundamentally colonising dynamic of the western relationship to nature, it’s worth looking to the origins of the transformation of vast swathes of the African landscape into Natural Parks during the post-war period.

Scrappy reports were the norm, and statistics would be pulled largely from the air

In a recent book charting the invention of what he calls ‘green colonialism’ (le colonialisme vert) Guillaume Blanc traces how the appeal to a perfect state of nature on the African continent acts as a foil for international organisations to target locals and uproot them from their homes. Colonial attitudes which viewed natives as incapable of taking care of their natural environment lead to the belief that not only should someone else manage the wilderness, but that inhabitants ought to leave the spaces they called home for the good of the natural world. As he writes, ‘In colonial times, there was the burden of the civilising white man, with his racist theories to support the domination of Africans. Since then, it has become the burden of the environmentalist, the western expert, with his theories of environmental decline which legitimise their control of Africa’ (Blanc, 2020, p. 39).

His account traces a pattern that has emerged since the 1960s. Namely, western experts, usually former employees of the colonial machine, now put to use in a new world order, produce reports to the effect that a) the African wilderness is a primordial garden of Eden which exhibits the best of nature on a global scale b) this same garden of Eden is on the cusp of destruction by local farming and smallholding practices and is in need of immediate protection. Alongside the inherent inconsistency of these two claims (how can a landscape both be representative of the last unspoilt swathes of the natural world, and on a cliff edge of environmental degradation?) they are shown by Blanc to be lacking in factual accuracy and rigorous research.

Scrappy reports were the norm, and statistics would be pulled largely from the air. One particularly persistent myth was to the effect that local populations in what would become the Simien park in Ethiopia, whose villages were surrounded by a thin line of trees, had destroyed all the other trees in the area. In reality, these areas were never heavily wooded as the experts liked to claim, and the trees surrounding these villages had generally been planted by the populations themselves as a protective belt around their settlement. And yet the myth persists. Al Gore’s 2006 eco-blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth rehashes a similar statistic that, where Ethiopia was once 40% woodland, this is now just 1%, a figure which Blanc dismisses as ‘pure invention’ (2020, p. 224).

International organisations such as UNESCO and the WWF have repeatedly (and this is a practice that continues even today) used such statistics to justify the eviction of native people from their lands within the natural parks established in the early 1960s. Since large sums of money were often dependent on these evictions taking place, local governments in these newly established states had little choice but to try to comply. Those who are displaced, however, are given few options afterwards, since they can no longer continue to farm their land in designated parks and more often than not report falling into extreme poverty where they were once self-sufficient.

To remove any doubt over the colonial heritage underlying these processes, it is important to note a few things. First, there is the path of environmental destruction that European colonisation of Africa systematically entailed, and which often lead to the coloniser taking said environmental damage as proof that the indigenous people were incapable of looking after their own land. This can be traced back to the rinderpest outbreak in the 1890s, provoked by Italian invasions and leading to the death of over 6 million native mammals and several million humans: the empty landscape that resulted was taken by later European arrivals to be evidence of the need to keep natives off the land in order to preserve it. Then, there’s the curious overlap of lands that were once colonial hunting pastures becoming protected natural parks: the very people who themselves practiced big-game hunting in the colonial era are the ones outlawing such activities for locals. As Blanc notes, ‘there is still the good hunter and the bad hunter, the civilised European and the savage African’ (2020, p. 111).

Fundamentally, what the origins of these natural parks make clear is the way the colonising gaze attempts to build a divide between the human and the natural world. In the eyes of the occidental expert, the only way to preserve nature is to keep humans out of it – even if it’s a question of people that have been living alongside that nature for centuries. It goes without saying that it’s not humanity per se that is incompatible with flourishing biodiversity and a healthy planet, it’s the transactional capitalist outlook which sees nature as something ‘out there’ to be simultaneously revered, or exploited, as those in power see fit.

This outlook allows us, as environmental activist Colette Pichon Battle puts it, to see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than part of an ecosystem. As long as we allow the dominant narrative of climate crisis to be a struggling polar bear, or a bird, these problems remain in the abstract, and don’t force any true reckoning about what needs to be done to avert disaster. We might work, for example, to save rare birds that reside in a local lake without asking how our fossil fuel consumption is polluting that same lake. Her activism focusses on raising awareness of climate change through linking people’s lived experiences – particularly in the American South – to changes in global trends, and rejects the label of ‘environmentalist’ specifically because of the colonial overtones it has historically carried.

This is reflected in westerners’ contemporary relationship to Africa’s natural parks, something powerfully spelled out during this global pandemic. The sudden stop to incoming luxury tourism which brought so much money to the sector has had a drastic impact, and has raised real fears about the future of conservation in the area, as well as laying bare the extent to which tourism functions as the new face of colonialism in the natural world. Prohibitive prices and restrictive access means that these natural parks remain the preserve of the global rich, and when they leave, local communities whose income depended on tourism are suddenly dependent on poaching as a means of survival. The current situation, to some, is indicative of the good that the safari tourist market does for these places: look how much money floods into the area to save gorillas when they come! But the dependence laid bare by the pandemic shows how unhealthy such a relationship really is: the idea that the global rich go on safari because they are passionate about saving endangered species is hard to maintain when the money dries up as soon as they can no longer hop on a private jet to stock up on photos with a lion.

A recent Guardian article on the subject of Kenya’s natural parks in the time of a global pandemic talks of how ‘Competition for grazing land, especially during times of drought, has intensified long-standing conflict between the needs of local communities and the region’s unique wildlife’, bringing back to mind the conflict we introduced with Bourdain, which draws a binary between the needs of wildlife and local people, but misses out on the more crucial player outside of the parks. The droughts that are mentioned in passing are far from the random natural event that happens to push this relationship to the edge, when in fact it is the global climate crisis that makes such positions come to a head. If anything, the parks act as a distraction which, once again, stops the West having to look at environmental issues more holistically: pushing people out of their homes to protect endangered animals is a way of feeling like something is being done, without getting to the root of the problem, and starts to look a lot like eco-fascism.

One argument that often arises against this postcolonial critique of natural parks, and how they relate to the conservation movement at large, is the fact that we are on the cusp of environmental breakdown. Surely, the argument goes, anything that can make things better is enough – let’s fix the environment now and worry about sociopolitical issues later. But, to borrow the metaphor from Audre Lorde this amounts to little more than trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. The exploitative relationship with nature is what is causing the current crisis: it would be misleading and reductive to think that it would also hold the key to resolving it.

In the west, we have inherited a deeply problematic conception of nature which, unless, properly interrogated, risks propagating the very same behaviours and power structures that got us into this mess in the first place. It’s not a new idea that climate justice depends on the foregrounding of marginalised people in order to make a true difference, and fundamental to this is challenging the colonial inheritance evident in the way we position natural parks within the environmental struggle. That’s not to say that important work isn’t being done within such reserves, but that a reimagining of the place of the westerner within them is vital, and long overdue.

Sources: Blanc, Guillaume, (2020) L’invention du colonialisme vert, Paris

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