Racism and colonialism embedded in language of conservation, NGO says

Words and phrases commonly found in school textbooks, wildlife documentaries and the media around nature conservation are perpetuating “racist and colonial” myths, according to a new guide.

Survival International is calling for an end to the use of everyday language that it says is mired in racism, white supremacy, land theft and violence. The human rights group has published a guide to decolonising conservation terms, including “wilderness”, a word it says has been used to portray lands as empty so that they could be taken, when in fact they belong to Indigenous peoples.

According to the guide, the term “voluntary relocation” has the “highly improbable” implication that communities have consented to leave their homes, land and way of life to enable conservation. In reality, it says, most “voluntary relocations” are forced evictions, in which people have been threatened, harassed or bribed into agreeing.

It also argues that the term “protected area” has a meaning which differs by location. In Europe, the designation would be typically established after consultation and due process, and would be accompanied either by benefits to local people or proper compensation. In Africa and Asia, almost no parks have involved consultation, and in many cases, people who live there have been “persecuted and evicted using force, coercion or bribery”.

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“Your conservation areas are a war zone for us” a Maasai leader from Loliondo in Tanzania is quoted as saying.

Survival International says the “colonial conservation” model is based on that of the 19th-century American fathers of conservation – such as John Muir, one of the most renowned figures in US environmentalism – who saw Indigenous lands as wild and the people living there as unable to take care of them.

This model was exported around the world, to Africa and Asia, where wealthy colonialists were often central to setting up “game reserves”, which excluded local people. The guide uses the term “fortress conservation” to cover the common model of nature protection in Africa and Asia, where local people have been beaten, tortured and even killed by guards if they hunt or collect medicinal plants in designated areas.

In a section titled “terms to revisit”, Survival International contrasts “bushmeat”, wild animal meat eaten by many people in Africa and Asia, with the more prestigious term “game”, used when wild meat is served in Europe’s restaurants.

“Poaching”, the guide notes, has been used to criminalise hunter-gatherers who were simply feeding their families from their ancestral lands. The conservation industry does not differentiate between those who hunt to make a living sustainably and those involved in the illegal wildlife trade, it says.

The guide is aimed at anyone who writes or talks about conservation, climate breakdown and nature protection, and follows recent attempts by conservation bodies to confront their colonial history.

Two years ago, in the wake of racial justice protests after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, the executive director of the Sierra Club acknowledged the environmental organisation’s role in “perpetuating white supremacy”. In a blogpost titled Pulling Down Our Monuments, Michael Brune said John Muir, the club’s founder, was “not immune” to racist views that “continue to hurt Indigenous people and people of colour”.

In the same year, the Wildlife Conservation Society apologised for historically “demonstrating unconscionable racial intolerance”, including exhibiting Ota Benga, a man from Central African Republic, in the monkey house in the Bronx zoo in 1906, and for the “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism” of two of its founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn.

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