(Rebecca Adamson is the president and founder of First Peoples Worldwide, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated "to strengthening indigenous communities through the restoration of their authority and control over their assets." This opinion piece first appeared on AlterNet and is reprinted here with the permission of Ms. Adamson and First Peoples.)
As Americans anxiously watch stock market fluctuations, mothers and fathers a continent away are making choices about which of their children to save. In East Africa, worry about one's retirement investments is a fairy tale woe compared to the daily struggle for life that many face.
You may have seen something on the television news about a drought in the Horn of Africa. The worst such calamity in sixty years, the lack of rain has decimated farmers in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda. Over the last few months, 390,000 living skeletons have trekked from as far as southern Sudan to a Kenyan refugee camp, fleeing hunger and war, deprivation and death.
What you may not have seen is that "conservation" efforts undertaken by well-meaning industrialized nations are partly to blame. To save remaining African wilderness, we've been impoverishing the very people who have kept it intact. First, we've prohibited hunter-gatherers and pastoralists from their traditional itinerant lives and then, after we've turned them into farmers, we remove them forcibly from their lands.
The exact size of the area designated as protected in the region of the disaster is hard to assess. Somalia boasts 638,750 km of such lands, 11 national parks and 23 reserves. Kenya, an eco-tourism hub, has the most in the region and perhaps the continent: 348 protected areas on 75,238 km. While these may seem happy statistics in the current ocean of tragedy, in creating these preserves African governments consciously evicted or prohibited from farming an estimated 1.5 million indigenous inhabitants in the 1990s alone.
Yet the United Nations reports that in Africa the very same cultivation methods these evicted indigenous people always practiced "can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings." What's now in vogue as "small-scale mixed-use organic" is just status quo to these unheralded agronomists who know that monoculture and over-cultivation strips the land and makes communities vulnerable to starvation when their few crops no longer bear fruit.
Traditional practices combining hunting, gathering, and organic farming would not have cooled the blazing sun or made the rain fall. They would, however, have ensured the land could better withstand nature's onslaught and provided alternative sources of food. Instead, narrow-minded policies that fail to see indigenous people as vital to protecting their homes exacerbate the destruction that horrible weather has wrought. Not only do too many of our conservation efforts force whole tribes into refugee camps (or graves along the way), they make preserving lands and wildlife cost more.
Conservation experts such as George Washington University's Michal Cernea have long recognized that a "park-establishment strategy predicated upon compulsory population displacement has...compromised the cause of biodiversity conservation by inﬂicting aggravated impoverishment on very large numbers of people."
Scholars have a name for this: conservation-induced population displacement. That sounds euphemistically benign, but it means forcibly removing people who have lived harmoniously on lands in order to protect these lands -- global-sized proof that we'll cut off our nose to save our face.
Conservation is big business -- the budgets of nonprofits involved in such schemes can dwarf the GDPs of the countries in which they work. International groups receive billions of dollars every year for taking over biodiverse areas in underdeveloped regions without regard for the human diversity that is integral to these lands. The prevailing ethos of pristine wilderness may attract tourism dollars but it's an expensive, human rights-violating approach that has never been proven to work.
While modern-day perils like poaching pose threats to indigenous people, justifying business-as-usual conservation to control poachers makes as much sense as kicking owners out of homes because thieves may be on the way. In fact, despite everything stacked against them, today's indigenous lands contain 80 percent of our remaining biodiversity even though they constitute 24 percent of the world's surface. This is living proof that indigenous people are great stewards of land.
Nevertheless, outside the immediate famine zone, more of the same awaits these newly nomadic indigenous people. The Maasai of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, for example, are prohibited from living off the lands that had been their home for hundreds of years. The area's status as a world heritage site would be threatened were the Maasai to remain, so they were pressured by the government eager to collect conservation dollars to leave and assured they would not be allowed to farm, graze livestock, or gather food if they remained.
This violation of Maasai rights forced them to seek refuge in other countries even as the famine refugees begin to enter Tanzania. And this is no isolated case. Big-league conservation groups are encouraging African leaders to re-create this pattern throughout the Horn of Africa and beyond. Famine is the inevitable result of a community barred from producing food and living as they have for the whole of human history.
This is not, as some claim, "Sophie's Choice” on a massive scale. We are not sacrificing people in order to save trees and elephants; we are taking everything down with the same destructive policy sweep. But there's a way to address the environmental, moral, and human rights concerns all at once.
Indigenous people know how to care for their homelands; they've done so for centuries without the well-meaning intervention of the West. In fact, indigenous groups conserve land, purify air, and protect biodiversity for $3.50 per hectare; for large organizations to administer and conserve a hectare, US taxpayers spend $3,500. Yet, the United States Agency for International Development, the government agency that does development work internationally, continues to award 90 percent of its conservation funding to create and maintain these impoverishing protected areas, leaving zero for the indigenous communities who've been silently (and effectively) doing this work against great odds.
To reverse this dangerous trend, we must first grant land-tenure rights to indigenous peoples across the world, affirming what's been theirs all along. Because most of these groups have lived on their land since before the advent of property regulations or even governments, they don't hold deeds and thus have no means of legal redress in eviction attempts. Once we accomplish this, we must equitably equip indigenous people to do the work of preservation in harmony with their needs. This is the only morally defensible course of action. Of course, if this doesn't sway you, there's a pragmatic reason, too: it's cheaper.
-- Rebecca Adamson