Fortress Conservation: The Green Colonialism that Must End to Achieve Ecological Harmony in a Post-COVID World
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted global focus towards reconciling human interactions with nature. Identifying the key drivers of zoonotic disease emergence as land-use change, agricultural intensification, livestock production, and wildlife consumption, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature(1) has called for more focused policy efforts to eliminate deforestation and promote conservation. Similar calls have been articulated in the United Nations Environmental Program’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework(2) and, most recently, at the One Planet Summit for Biodiversity(3) this past January.
Indeed, the global momentum for ecological conservation is on the rise amidst a pandemic-driven ethos favouring the restoration of harmony between humans and wildlife. In May 2021, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity(4) is set to agree on a new target to place at least 30 percent of the Earth’s surface under conservation status by 2030. This “30 x 30” target(5) would double the current protected land area over the coming decade.
To most, this would appear to mark laudable progress in the push to mitigate the risk of future pandemics in a post-COVID world. What is not to celebrate about leaders finally heeding calls to action(6), to promote the ideals of ecological harmony we now embrace as key to preventing the cyclical recurrence of devastating pandemics?
Before celebrating this apparent “milestone”, however, I challenge you to stop and reflect; to reflect upon how we practice “conservation”, and whether this is truly compatible with the very ecological equilibrium it aims to restore.
When you hear the word “conservation”, you probably think about pristine national parks or wildlife reserves, neatly isolated from human contact, albeit with controlled provisions for entry by certain tourists and researchers. This style of conservation is often referred to as “fortress conservation” or as “the nature island concept” wherein you build a “fortress” with defined boundaries, oftentimes fences, and distinctly separate nature from society. Fortress conservation is rooted in the long-held assumption that humans, with our ecologically destructive anthropogenic activities(7), are the problem. By consequence, the solution is therefore to exclude humans from interacting with nature, so as to restore the “natural state” of the environment, untarnished by human forces. While seemingly logical, this assumption is deeply problematic, in that it fails to account for the historical fact that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it. Thinking of the environment as separate from human society and civilization blatantly ignores the deep interconnectedness of the global ecosystem.
This flawed line of thinking has its origins in colonialism where colonial state authorities, seeing the need to police “savage” wildlife-encroaching peoples, undertook technical acts of surveying the biological resources of an area. With blatant disregard for indigenous modes of customary land tenure, they transferred control of these resources to the state and divided ecological land tracts through zoning policies, earmarking regions for either economic production or conservation. While global examples abound, this happened most markedly in the world’s largest rainforests, namely the Amazon(8) and East Africa’s Congo Basin(9), both homes to teeming numbers of indigenous tribes. The result was mass displacement(10) of local communities from their traditional lands and a forgone opportunity to privilege their wisdom in the ecologically sound stewardship of environmental resources.
The dominant narrative of conservation that favours the isolation of humans from wildlife still prevails today, the result of which has been a continued legacy of fortress conservation and an ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands. In places like the Congo Basin, the consequences have been dire, with armed eco-guards(11) funded by international donors and Western environmental NGOs having reportedly harassed, abused, and raped local people trying to access the very environmental resources that have sustained them for millennia. Similar atrocities have been reported in India(12) and Nepal(13), leading to a recent global investigation(14) into allegations of human rights abuses by World Wildlife Foundation-sponsored eco-guards.
In Sri Lanka(15), conservation ecologists have attributed the decline of the native elephant species, resulting in its current endangerment, to the establishment of national parks. Such parks have, since colonialism, bifurcated humans and elephants into separate ecological zones, despite their largely positive cohabitation across history. This has resulted in an inability for elephants to access traditional agricultural irrigation canals in human-inhabited areas, leading to both the loss of water sources for elephants and consequences for communal crop yields. In this example, the very exercise of “conservation”, despite its intended co-benefits for humans and wildlife, has been dually disadvantageous for humans and elephants alike. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the co-evolution of indigenous peoples and local wildlife, this example is not exceptional.
Meanwhile, in response to growing calls for carbon emission reductions, increasing numbers of corporations are adopting a business model termed “biodiversity offsetting”. In practice, this enables them to compensate for, rather than reduce, their large ecological footprints and greenhouse gas emissions by investing in top-down managed protected areas. The recent case(16) of Steven House, director of Australian company Meridolum No 1 who made $40 million from biodiversity offsets, provides a strong case in point. Representatives at Greenpeace International have referred(17) to this “biodiversity offsetting” as a “worst case outcome of land protection”.
In reference to the greenwashing of human rights abuses, Kenyan ecologist Mordecai Ogada says(18) “I describe it as the last remaining colony in Africa- the conservation sector; because it is the only sector where someone can come in from another country or another continent and annex a large tract of land, fence off the indigenous people from it, get arms to threaten or shoot those who venture into it, and keep it for himself or herself.” This sentiment has been echoed by Greenpeace(17), which refers to fortress conservation as the “darker side of conservation that commits human rights violations and outright atrocities in its name”.
Considering that this flawed conservation model is still underway, it is deeply concerning that world leaders will soon be convening to chart a post-pandemic path towards converting 30% of global land into protected areas. Concerns are warranted not only from a human rights standpoint, but also from the perspective of achieving ecological health. Indeed, a growing body of research shows that indigenous peoples are the best stewards of biodiversity(19). A recent report(20) presented strong evidence that indigenous communities are more effectively managing natural resources and environmental hazards like species decline and pollution. Likewise, a study(21) examining 245 Indigenous territories across the Amazon found that the endowment of full land rights to indigenous peoples was the most effective way to curb deforestation.
In the face of such evidence, a diverse coalition of NGOs have co-signed a letter(22) to the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity calling for a stronger role of indigenous peoples and other traditional landowners in the environmental stewardship of threatened ecosystems. In practice, this would mean investing in community-based forest management(23) as an alternative to the green colonialism of fortress conservation. Defined simply by the Food and Agriculture Organization(24) as “management of forest lands and forest resources by or with local people”, efforts to herald this model are already underway by the World Rainforest Movement(25) and other grassroots conservation groups worldwide.
It is time to do away with an outdated model which disregards the integral role that humans play in the ecological order which sustains biodiversity, all whilst continuing a colonial legacy of gross environmental injustice. By privileging the knowledge authority of indigenous stewards of the land and grounding conservation in the ecologically sound principles that traditional wisdom bestows, we, as a civilization, have the potential to create a post-pandemic world characterized by the very ecological harmony we so desperately need.