Batwa: People vs. Nature Protection
In the 1930s, Ugandan leaders were persuaded by international conservationists that this area was threatened by loggers, miners, and other extractive interests. In response, three forest reserves were created - the Mgahinga, the Echuya, and the Bwindi - all of which overlapped with the Batwa's ancestral territory. For sixty years these reserves simply existed on paper, which kept them off-limits to extractors. And the Batwa stayed on, living as they had for generations, in reciprocity with the diverse biota that first drew conservationists to the region.
However, when the reserves were formally designated as national
1991 and a bureaucracy was created and funded by the World Bank's Global Environment Facility to manage them, a rumor was in circulation that the Batwa were hunting and eating silverback gorillas, which by that time were widely recognized as a threatened species and also, increasingly, as a featured attraction for ecotourists from Europe and America. Gorillas were being disturbed and even poached, the Batwa admitted, but by Bahutu, Batutsi, Bantu, and other tribes who invaded the forest from outside villages. The Batwa, who felt a strong kinship with the great apes, adamantly denied killing them. Nonetheless, under pressure from traditional Western conservationists, who had come to believe that wilderness and human community were incompatible, the Batwa were forcibly expelled from their homeland.
These forests are so dense that the Batwa lost perspective when they first came out. Some even stepped in front of moving vehicles. Now they are living in shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of the parks, without running water or sanitation. In one more generation their forest-based culture-songs, rituals, traditions, and stories - will be gone.
It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention.
In early 2004 a United Nations meeting was convened in New York for the ninth year in a row to push for passage of a resolution protecting the territorial and human rights of indigenous peoples. The UN draft declaration states: "Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option to return." During the meeting an indigenous delegate who did not identify herself rose to state that while extractive industries were still a serious threat to their welfare and cultural integrity, their new and biggest enemy was "conservation."
Later that spring, at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands." These rhetorical jabs have shaken the international conservation community, as have a subsequent spate of critical articles and studies, two of them conducted by the Ford Foundation, calling big conservation to task for its historical mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
"We are enemies of conservation," declared Maasai
leader Martin Saning'o, standing before a session of the November 2004 World
Conservation Congress sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai,
who have over the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation
projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn't always felt that way. In fact, Saning'o
reminded his audience, "...we were the original conservationists."
The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic cattlemen
have traditionally protected their range:
"Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems." Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty.
"We don't want to be like you," Saning'o told a room of shocked white faces. "We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us."
Although he might not have realized it, Saning'o was speaking
for a growing worldwide movement of indigenous peoples who think of themselves
as conservation refugees. Not to be confused with ecological refugees - people
forced to abandon their homelands as a result of unbearable heat, drought, desertification,
flooding, disease, or other consequences of climate chaos - conservation refugees
are removed from their lands involuntarily, either forcibly or through a variety
of less coercive measures. The gentler, more benign methods are sometimes called
"soft eviction" or "voluntary resettlement," though the
latter is contestable.
Soft or hard, the main complaint heard in the makeshift villages bordering parks and at meetings like the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok is that relocation often occurs with the tacit approval or benign neglect of one of the five big international nongovernmental conservation organizations, or as they have been nicknamed by indigenous leaders, the BINGOs. Indigenous peoples are often left out of the process entirely