The plan to turn 30% of the earth into Protected Areas is based on a deeply unscientific and racist logic.
On my first field trip as a researcher for Survival International, the global movement for Indigenous peoples, I met a man called Bharat. A member of the Baiga tribe in Central India, he had been evicted from his home and separated from the forest he loved, the tigers he held sacred, the plants that healed him, and the community to which he belonged. He was distraught at what lay in store for the lands his people had looked after for generations; it is with good reason that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in Indigenous territories.
“We’re the protectors of the forest,” Bharat said in his clear quiet voice. “If we don’t save it, what will happen? If we abandon it, who will protect it?”
Perhaps surprisingly, the Baiga had not been violently removed by some insatiable multinational corporation. Rather, they had been evicted in the seemingly benign interests of “conservation”. “Experts” had claimed that Indian tigers need vast swathes of “untouched” land to survive, and that people must be therefore denied access to these spaces. Or – more accurately – certain people.
As the Baiga came to terms with their eviction from their ancestral lands, tourists flew in from all corners of the world to stay in luxury hotels, roar around in gas-guzzling jeeps, and take photos. So. Many. Photos. The Baiga, with their sacred connections to land and their negligible ecological footprint, had essentially been forced from their homes to create an enormous zoo.
Bharat’s experience, I soon learnt, is the tip of the iceberg. From the Congo rainforest to the savannahs of Tanzania, from the mountains of Nepal to the arid lands of Kenya, the protection of animals has served as a pretext to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land. Communities are violently removed, and armed park rangers – financed by conservation organisations headquartered in Europe and the US – take their place. If Indigenous people try to hunt to feed their families or practice rituals in what was once their land, they risk being abused, tortured, raped, or killed.
Protect and exploit at COP15
From 7-19 December, officials from across the world are meeting in Montreal for COP15, the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is deeply worrying that at the heart of their plans to save the planet lies the 30% initiative, a commitment to create even more national parks and animal reserves.
This mainstream approach to conservation is based on “Fortress Conservation”, a model imposed in Africa and Asia during colonial times. It is founded on the racist idea that Indigenous people are primitive, that their knowledge is mere superstition, and they do not know how to take care of their environments – that it’s best left to white people to decide what’s best.
Today, this attitude is no longer explicitly condoned, but it is still very much alive in many conservation organisations. These bodies and the mainstream media still describe landscapes that have been shaped and nourished by Indigenous peoples for millennia as “untouched” or “wild” and portray the people that live on them as “encroachers” or “poachers”.
Yet scientific data proves the contrary: world famous “natural” environments like Yellowstone, the Amazon and Serengeti are the ancestral homelands of millions of Indigenous people who have cared for and protected these lands for generations. In the Lion King, little Simba wasn’t just hanging out in “wilderness”; the inspiration for the movie’s setting was the former home of the Maasai, a pastoralist tribe, who have been evicted to make room for a national park.
When we start unravelling the conservation myth, we don’t only discover the racist attempts to render invisible the role of Indigenous peoples in nurturing and stewarding their own territories. There is something else. By blaming local communities for environmental destruction, governments and corporations can stick to business as usual outside the “Protected Areas”. Fencing off a bit of nature can allow them to suggest that progress is being made but without doing anything to tackle the real causes of environmental destruction: the exploitation of natural resources for profit and growing overconsumption, driven by the Global North.
This is why the plan at COP15 to make 30% of the earth into Protected Areas by 2030 (“30×30”) is a dangerous distraction. Creating more national parks by driving out Indigenous communities won’t do anything to protect biodiversity, but will mean more human rights abuses and land grabs.
Studies have shown that the 30×30 plan could affect the lands and livelihoods of 300 million people, the ones least responsible for environmental destruction. As it stands today as COP15 begins, the plan would be the biggest land grab in history. No wonder the idea is supported by the most contaminating and destructive corporations in the world, like Unilever, Nestlé and Shell, amongst others. With the world distracted by a dangerous plan for 30% of the earth, they can continue to exploit the remaining 70% as usual.
But if the 30% plan isn’t a good idea, what do we have left? A growing body of scientific evidence shows that lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities are more effective than Protected Areas in conserving biodiversity. Indigenous peoples know very well that nature is not something separate from humans, something we can “conserve” on one side while destroying somewhere else. We are one. As Bharat put it, “people and tigers can live together in the same space”.
Despite what marketing experts with their catchy slogans want us to believe, there is no miracle cure to save the planet. There is no one easy solution. Nevertheless, some of the answers are already there, held by Indigenous peoples who have resisted, and continue to resist, countless attacks on their lands and life. Maybe, for once, we should listen and learn.