A challenge to conservationists: An interview with Mac Chapin

In an article published in World Watch magazine in 2004, Mac Chapin critiqued the work and style of functioning of three big conservation NGOs—World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—especially in relation to their neglect of indigenous peoples living within their areas of work. Based on a variety of sources including published literature, conversations with NGO staff, and his own personal experiences, Chapin argued that the relationships of these NGOs with indigenous groups stems from conflicts of interest linked to their government and corporate funding. The article, as you will see below, created a storm, before and after it was published, and attracted both criticism and praise. 18 years after its publication, we asked Mac Chapin about his reasons for writing this article, the controversies surrounding its publication, and how he views the relationship between conservation NGOs and indigenous peoples today. 

Hari Sridhar: What got you interested in the relationship between conservation and indigenous peoples, and motivated you to write this article?

Mac Chapin: I lived with the Guna Indians in Panama for three years in the late 1960s, with the Peace Corps. I became aware of the Guna’s close relationship with their natural ecosystems, and how they were threatened by colonisation from non-Indians and “modernisation” in general. That inspired me to study anthropology, and in the mid-1980s, I started working throughout Central America with Cultural Survival, an indigenous rights NGO. From the start, we focused on indigenous rights and conservation; and in 1992 we collaborated with The National Geographic Society on a bilingual Spanish-English map of Central America showing the forests and indigenous regions of occupation and use. There was a clear correspondence, and we began working on programmes that emphasised the two areas.

Some of the large conservation organisations (WWF and CI) expressed interest (TNC was not very interested) and we tried to work with them, but, unfortunately, collaboration was difficult, often impossible. They developed their programmes without consulting with us or, more importantly, with the indigenous peoples living in the areas they wanted to conserve. They felt they knew more about conservation than the Indians, who were excluded from their programmes; and beyond this, there was often hostility toward the peoples living in the areas they had singled out for their work.

This situation was coming to a head in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indigenous peoples were getting organised in Central America and they began complaining—to us and to some of the private foundations that were funding the conservationists. Several of the foundations were meeting and discussing this at a gathering in California, and the Ford Foundation decided to hire an anthropologist who has worked in Mexico and an economist from India to do a study. I knew the anthropologist and we spoke, and he started feeding me material; he also got me in touch with the economist, and I started expanding my research. I had no thoughts of publishing what I was writing; I just wanted to clear things up in my head, and see how widespread the problem was (it was very widespread). 

I was very close to Ed Ayres, the editor of World Watch Magazine. Ed is very principled and stands firm for things he believes in. He phoned up one morning when I was almost finished and asked what I was up to. I mentioned my research and sent a draft to him. He phoned the next morning and asked where I was going to publish it. I said I had no thoughts about it, and he said, “Then we’ll take it.” It was obviously an issue that was on many people’s minds at the time, yet nobody was writing about it.

HS: Stepping back a bit, can you trace the origins of your interest in indigenous communities’ rights? What led to you spending three years living with the Guna Indians, as part of the Peace Corps?

MC: When I was young, I read many books about travel to exotic (for me) parts of the globe: Africa, Latin America, the Near East; both fiction and non-fiction. This interest grew out of my very early reading of comic books: Tarzan, Scrooge McDuck (who was always heading off to distant lands with Donald and Huey, Dewey, and Louie), Tintin, and so forth. I graduated to tales of Richard F. Burton and the search for the origin of the Nile, the adventures of hunters and animal collectors in Africa and the Amazon Basin, the British Empire, and on and on. This was my search for adventure, pure and simple. After my undergraduate studies (History of Medieval and early modern Europe), I began traveling myself, to Europe and Turkey and Israel. And in 1965, I joined the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, where I spent two years working with small-holder coffee farmers. In 1967, I rejoined the Peace Corps, this time with the Guna Indians in Panama, and stayed there for three years as director of an agricultural school. On the strength of all this practical experience, with Caribbean Blacks and Central American Indians, I decided to study anthropology. With my degree in hand, I set out to apply my knowledge helping the indigenous peoples of Central and South America to hold onto their lands, natural resources, and cultures.

You will see that I began vicariously with literature that can only be described as “colonialist” and ended up somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum. The heroes of virtually everything I had been reading and thinking about were white males of European descent (except perhaps the Disney Ducks—but they sure acted like White males); and the “natives” in the colonised regions of the world were depicted as submissive and not terribly bright—often like children needing a helping hand from the civilised and powerful. But of course, in this world things don’t work that way. The literature had a strong effect on me, and it took years to shed it, and only partially. At the same time, I strongly believe that the contrast between the two groups—rich and poor, First World versus Third World—allowed me to understand the ramifications, the scarring impact of the power differential. This didn’t happen all at once, like a flash of lightning. It was gradual, and after many years in the field and thinking and writing about rural development, and seeing the power differential up close, I believe I understand, to some extent, what is going on. At the same time, I have to catch myself from time to time from practicing what I don’t preach. No matter what, I am a member of the class that runs the world, and I often feel like Lady Macbeth, who, try as she might, cannot clean her blood-stained hands. But I try.

In this context, the actions of the large conservationist organisations are a prime example of the ugly face of this imbalance. 

He weathered the storm nicely, but there was a fair amount of commotion surrounding the issue of the magazine. A woman who had a small foundation had offered to give World Watch $30,000 to cover the cost of destroying the 30,000 copies of the magazine that had already been printed and republish it with an altered (sanitised) version of my article. This was done without informing the editor or me. It was a crazy, half-baked scheme and was abandoned soon after, but it had already become public. The editor stood up for me and in the end the magazine was distributed with the article untouched. The woman in the small foundation was trapped: she had been pretending to be on my side, but this exposed her, and she resigned shortly after. The following issue of the magazine contained 16 pages of letters about the article, most of them positive. 

I think the article had a powerful impact. It opened up a needed debate; it ignited a broad movement among many indigenous organisations worldwide; and the recent environmental congress in Glasgow, Scotland, apparently pledged to support indigenous peoples on conservation issues. On the other side, the big conservation organisations—WWF, TNC, CI—have been trying to co-opt the issues raised in the article for their own benefit, with what they say are initiatives to help indigenous peoples. But at least it is out in the open, and indigenous and tribal peoples are taking up the cudgel and fighting for their rights—something they were not involved with to any extent before.

HS: In the 18 years since this article was published, have you seen any examples of conservation programmes that you think are “responsive to the needs of both biological and human diversity”?

MC: Just a couple of days ago [as on 22 March 2022], I was speaking with someone who continues working in this field and he said that in the recent gathering in Glasgow, people were talking about the need to work with indigenous peoples on conservation initiatives, and they were talking about tens of millions of dollars. This sounds like a move in the right direction. But how in Hades would this work? Who would handle it? Which indigenous groups would get the money, and for what? If those with the money and in charge of organising the distribution [of funds] don’t do it “correctly” it will hurt indigenous peoples. It needs to be done carefully, sensitively, and responsibly—but I doubt that will happen. On the surface, it sounds like it will do more harm than good.

Please excuse my cynicism, but I have seen this sort of thing before, many times.

HS: Why do you think it might “do more harm than good”? What might the “right” approach look like?

MC: I’m afraid, based on experience, that the donors (who are varied; largely private foundations in the United States, and a mixture of government and private donors in Europe) will want to throw lots of money at the problem. If they give oodles of money directly to indigenous organisations, things could go awry fast. Few of them in Latin America, a region I know best, presently have the administrative capacity to manage money responsibly; they are learning, but they need help on this. The large conservationist NGOs see their role as working on conservation, not administration—or any of the other needs of indigenous organisations, such as land tenure and employment (“too political,” they often say). Also, we are in a transition phase, in which indigenous groups want to take more control of their own programmes, and many are increasingly seeing non-indigenous NGOs that work with indigenous peoples as unnecessary, and their role is being questioned by both indigenous peoples and donor agencies. Into this mix, we find the largest donors wanting to do something big and fast (after all, the problems facing all of us are quite large) and this will never happen if they are forced to fund small, less sophisticated indigenous organisations. So, they stick with the large conservation NGOs. There are very few donor agencies that have experience with indigenous peoples, and too much money too fast can cause havoc. It can easily destroy the organisations they are attempting to help.

Much of this is predetermined. In the environmental programmes of the large foundations, the staff have invariably come directly from the large conservation NGOs, and they funnel their money directly back to their colleagues. This has always been the case with the largest private foundations—MacArthur, Moore, Packard, Hewlett, and Ford Foundations—and the same pattern is found throughout the donor community. The number of foundations with programmes to work with indigenous peoples is miniscule. If donors want to really help indigenous peoples, they should provide support for institution strengthening, land rights, and employment generation—things indigenous organisations desperately need. These are the priorities of indigenous peoples. But they are not the priorities of the conservationists, and trying to jam conservation down the throats of indigenous and tribal peoples will go nowhere. Donors tend not to see this, and they are invariably unhappy with what indigenous peoples do with their money. This is repeated over and over and over.

HS: How has the increasing dependency of conservation organisations on corporate funding affected their relations with indigenous peoples?

MC: This has become a huge problem. It not only causes the conservation NGOs to ignore indigenous peoples; but has also served to disfigure their mission and turn a blind eye to the unsustainable, destructive activities of the corporations; and, I might add, their relations with abusive governments, such as Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is vanishing with astounding speed. Conservation NGOs can be thrown out of a number of countries for working with indigenous peoples on environmental issues (or any other issues, for that matter). Granted, the conservationist NGOs are caught in an impossible situation, but they are the ones to blame.

HS: Could you tell us about the response the article received at the time it was published, both formally and otherwise?

MC: The editor got a strong response, especially from indigenous people and representatives of NGOs that work with indigenous peoples. Most of the reaction was positive. The three large conservationist NGOs sent in measured responses, admitting that they needed to do more to work with indigenous peoples in the field. Ford gave a defensive, not-terribly-honest response that missed the mark altogether. But the reaction on the whole was positive and constructive. 

Most important, however, is that the article opened up discussion on the issue and it has continued to this day. Much of it now resides with indigenous people, who have become more openly active in the defence of their lands and conservation of their natural resources. 

HS: Are there ways in which science (and scientists) can contribute to repairing this fraught relationship?

MC: It is my experience that the conservation NGOs use science to exclude indigenous people. They advertise themselves as doing “science-based conservation,” which sets them apart from indigenous people, who are not, in their eyes, “scientists.” (Here there is a disagreement regarding the meaning of the term “science”.) With the conclusion that they need to be guided by the “real scientists” (themselves). Does this sound familiar? My feeling is that biological science has much to contribute, and indigenous people could learn a good deal from it. But it has to be a two-way street, for the conservationists can learn a good deal from the indigenous people. Unfortunately, it all boils down to power and money, two things the indigenous people do not have.

HS: Do you have any suggestions on what biologists can do differently (e.g. in what they choose to study, the approaches they take, the interpretation of their data) to help repair this relationship between conservation and indigenous groups?

MC: What the biologists/conservationists need to do is stop imposing their agendas on indigenous peoples. They have to listen to indigenous agendas and take them seriously. They could do this by spending time with indigenous people and experiencing their lives, what their problems are and how they deal with them. What their thoughts are on a variety of issues such as natural resources, food, sustainability, economics, and land tenure. I know this would take time, but something along these lines needs to be done. Without it, there will be no meeting of the minds and no basis for negotiating terms, and collaboration. There will be no respect or trust on either side of the divide. The biggest obstacle at present is the imbalance of money and power, both of which are on the side of the conservationists. It allows them to push their own agendas, using the excuse that they know what is right for the planet. I don’t think we can change this. In other words, I am not optimistic.

HS: Looking back, what is the place of this article (2004, World Watch) and the study on which it was based in the long arc of your career?

MC: I see the article as a small blip in my career path. I value much more the work of bringing indigenous peoples together in Central America and Mexico by helping—with various indigenous groups—to organise regional conferences and workshops dealing with natural resources, land tenure, and cultural identity; and also the mapping projects we set up with groups in Latin America, Africa, and New Guinea, and the mapping of Central America we did with National Geographic (1992 and 2002) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (2015). These maps were collaborations with the indigenous peoples and showed natural ecosystems, indigenous territories of occupation and use, and protected areas. All of this mapping, in which indigenous people and local villagers mapped their lands according to their wishes, have been extremely influential and have had a powerful impact at all levels.

The mapping we did with a number of indigenous peoples in Latin America, along with the work in Africa (Cameroon) and New Guinea (West Papua and Papua New Guinea) was a first step in which people in all of these areas have begun to learn about the practical value of mapping and learn to do the mapping themselves. They have begun to learn the technology of cartography; they have been working with professional cartographers in their own countries—and the cartographers have learned new skills to work with indigenous people in the field, with field data, for the first time (before this, they had only worked with aerial photographs, never field data). The mapping has been a real collaboration of people and technology, and the maps have been recognised as valid—“official”—by governments everywhere we have worked.

When I consider all that has been done with the organising and especially the mapping, the World Watch article was a minor diversion.

HS: What might you say to a young conservationist who is about to read the 2004 article?

MC: Just be aware of the issues it raises. I can’t force anyone to behave as I would like. But they should know what the dynamic between conservation and indigenous rights is, and perhaps learn something that can lead to a more constructive partnership in the field.

This article has been modified from: Sridhar, H. 2022. Revisiting Chapin 2004. Reflections on Papers Past. https://reflectionsonpaperspast.wordpress.com/2022/04/24/revisiting-chapin-2004/. Accessed on 5th May 2022.

Further reading:

Chapin, M. 2004. A Challenge to Conservationists. World Watch Magazine 17(6): 17–32.