Imagine you live in a simple mud house you built with your family in a beautiful landscape that provides you with all that you need to live well. You have a small herd of livestock that you move freely depending on the season, from which you make your living. You have a few chickens that run around the yard and a small dog that plays with your children and guards the house. You have a good relationship with your community and you collectively decide grazing arrangements and manage your livestock in ways that do not deplete pasture. You lead a calm life, develop good kinship relationships with the people that live next to you and take from the land what you need to survive, while taking care of it.
One day, somebody from far away comes to tell you that you have to move from the place you have known your whole life and where you see yourself getting older. Leaving your home is mandatory, even though it is your homeland and you do not know anything else, you do not have the right to decide. They blame you for not taking good care of the wildlife that you and your ancestors have convivially shared the landscape with. They tell you that without you and your neighbours, wildlife will be better off. All your past and present connections to the land, the nature and the people are lost and they order you to reinvent a life somewhere else that you had never imagined living. If you reject this, you will be violently evicted, the government security forces will burn your house and they will threaten your life.
That was the story of Ole Sopia, a Tanzanian Maasai from Ololosokwan village near the world famous Serengeti National Park. His family along with hundreds of other families were evicted from their land by the British colonial administration in the 1950s. Six decades later, the area where Ole Sopia and his community lived is now designated as an important wildlife corridor and dispersal area of the national park. Despite ongoing violence by the Tanzanian security forces, his community continued to resist forced eviction. In August 2017, Ole Sopia was shot, his house set ablaze, and his livestock confiscated and publicly auctioned because of his relentless fight for access to their ancestral land and livelihood and for justice for pastoralists.
This was not an isolated case, there are plenty of cases of community leaders and environmental defenders being attacked, murdered and subjected to different forms of violence to protect their land. Many of these cases are consequences of global conservation initiatives that, perhaps well-intended, in reality do not contribute to further biodiversity conservation or prevent environmental degradation, but instead accumulate heavy violence and gross violations of human rights.
Why would untouched protected areas actually worsen environmental degradation, when their aim is to stop the harm? The answer lies in a kind of created separation that wedges human beings from their connection to and stewardship of a place. Conservation practice has been founded on a Eurocentric idea called ‘Cartesian nature-culture dualism’, which separated humans from the rest of nature and suggested that in order to conserve nature, we need to remove people from it. What we are not told is that there is a particular nature that gets to be conserved and there is a particular group of people that gets removed. This nature is normally located in tropical, biodiversity-rich regions and where poor, marginal and racialised communities live. These places are normally located in sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous US or Canada, the Amazon, and much of South and Southeast Asia.
For years, academics, policymakers and NGOs have labelled these communities as the drivers of environmental damage, when as a matter of fact, more and more evidence points to their role in maintaining biodiversity and nature in general. More often than not, access to land set aside for conservation is given to multinational corporations and local elites who establish high-end tourism businesses. In the process, communities that have historically lived in and protected the environment, have been dispossessed from their lands to create protected areas. This has been an ill-conceived policy idea that remains today.
The 30 by 30 conservation initiative
At the COP15 Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022, world governments reached an agreement to protect 30 percent of Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters by 2030. This so-called 30×30 agreement is hailed as historic and is argued to secure the future of the planet’s living beings. This is not the first time that global bodies have put their conservation hopes in the creation of protected areas. The size of untouched or restricted-use conservation areas has significantly increased over the last several decades—from two percent in the early 1960s to around 17 percent today. Yet, this has been proven to fail in halting biodiversity decline.
What the agreement does not address is the ways that the expansion of protected areas to cover 30 percent of the earth’s surface will play out in practice. For the last several decades, human populations in biodiversity-rich parts of the world have paid a heavy price due to the expansion of certain forms of protected area that either led to extreme violence and forced displacements, or placed increasing restrictions on their livelihood practices. In Tanzania, where almost 40 percent of land is under some form of protection, government security forces continue to militarise conservation and forcefully evict, torture and abuse people living in areas that conservation experts and organisations suggest should be free of people in order to protect wildlife.
Another important feature of recent conservation initiatives that prioritise expansion of biodiversity spaces has been the call for increased involvement of the private sector, irrespective of their background and intentions. For example, multinational oil companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil, among others historically responsible for enormous environmental damage, have recently mobilised several millions of dollars in proposals for conservation around Nature Positive or nature-based solutions to offset the continuation of their carbon-intensive business as usual. Neither conservation organisations nor governments seem to strongly question the emergence of this private funding. The more concerning fact is that it is becoming quite common to see many conservation organisations working in close collaboration with multinational mining and fossil fuel corporations. But, can we tell whether they actually contribute to the solutions for biodiversity loss or climate change they have facilitated (if not caused) in the first place?
The 30×30 initiative reinforces mainstream efforts that blind us to work in dismantling the real causes of biodiversity loss: intensive industrial farming and large-scale extractive sectors. In other words, biodiversity loss is a consequence of greedy economic marginalisation and capital accumulation. That is why it is hard to celebrate supposed achievements that have already proven to create no meaningful change and even worse, distract us from fruitful transformative work that revolves around imposing structural limits to destructive economic growth. Other policymakers and actors would argue differently as they seem to benefit from the results. Perhaps they have major wins to celebrate as many corporations will be able to offset their environmental damages by financing the conservation of landscape patches. The solution is to be found somewhere else.
Ours is not an anti-conservation argument. There are countless areas inhabited and managed by self-governed indigenous peoples. Some communities in the Amazon, for example, use non-market oriented conservation schemes to protect their land against extractive activities. It is therefore necessary to study each policy initiative with utmost attention and each context with extreme care for the social implications of such policies for conservation.
How can political ecology contribute to conservation practice?
The contentious nature of such a global decision for conservation makes it important to focus on who decides certain actions over others or what type of social implications the 30×30 initiative or any other conservation initiatives have. Political ecology does precisely that—it helps us analyse the uneven power relations that are not necessarily proximal to the ecological symptoms, but ultimately create the ecological crises. This fundamentally helps us to challenge dominant narratives about the causes of environmental damage that tend to blame people like Ole Sopia. A political ecology lens enables us to question mainstream narratives that justify and enable land dispossession from communities to benefit a wealthy few.
For anybody that is interested in deeply thinking about the causes and solutions to the ecological crises today or in thinking about any conservation effort, the decision needs to be accompanied by a set of key questions such as: Which natures are being protected and which ones are discarded? Who can access and make decisions relating to nature? Whose ideas are recognised, who decides when, where and how, and who gets ignored? How do the affected populations put their lives, experiences, and knowledge at stake because of externally designed solutions? How are claims for environmental justice and social marginalisation articulated? And overall, who are the winners and who are the losers of any decision? These are questions political ecology offers as a way to clear the air between solutions that further social and ecological harm to people in nature and those that prioritise justice, self-determination and reparative relationships with nature.
Adams, W. 2017. Sleeping with the enemy? Biodiversity conservation, corporations and the green economy. Journal of political ecology 24: 243–257.
Estrada, A., P. A. Garber, S. Gouveia, Á. Fernández-Llamazares, F. Ascensão, A. Fuentes, S. T. Garnett et al. 2022. Global importance of Indigenous Peoples, their lands, and knowledge systems for saving the world’s primates from extinction. Science advances 8(32):eabn2927. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn2927