Crumb Trail
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Wednesday, August 27, 2003

This essay Environmental Colonialism by Robert Nelson deals with another aspect of the issues of land, property and environment discussed earlier the Wendell Berry essay.

The greatest current efforts to “save” Africa are associated with contemporary environmentalism. The results have not been as devastating as the experience of slavery, yet they have often served Western interests and goals much more than the interests of ordinary Africans. In some cases, local populations have been displaced and impoverished in order to create national parks and to serve other conservation objectives. Under the banner of saving the African environment, Africans in the last half century have been subjected to a new form of “environmental colonialism.”


In further exploring the neocolonial character of Western environmentalism in the African setting, I draw here on an impressive body of recent scholarly research. Many of these studies are by people who would be placed on the traditional left of the political spectrum. As seen from their perspective, it is no longer businessmen who are today most likely to be exploiting Africans for their own gain (most current capitalists are actually almost entirely indifferent to Africa, preferring to put their money elsewhere, where the returns are higher and more predictable), but rather the activities of the environmental movement.

I am not suggesting that the problems of environmental colonialism have gone entirely unnoticed until now; some observers, even some within important components of the environmental community, have noticed it. Indeed, for at least a decade international conservationists based for the most part in southern and eastern Africa have led a strong movement for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) (Hulme and Murphree 2001; Western, Wright, and Strum 1994). The CBNRM advocates have argued that successful wildlife conservation requires the assistance of local African populations (Child 1995; Murombedzi 1992) and have emphasized the importance of local economic benefits in order to create positive incentives for the protection of wildlife.

Nelson speaks at length about the moral and ideological failures of environmental NGOs whose efforts disenfranchise, displace and impoverish African people. More important perhaps is the fact that their policies are bad for the environment. When African people are removed from their lands then no one is left to know it, love and protect it. The environmentalists want people removed from the land so that they won't use it, won't eat the creatures or use forest resources. This doesn't stop other people from using the forest resources, but they are only interested in extracting wealth, the quicker the better. So, guns are hired to police the forests and smugglers and poachers play a game of cops and robbers with them.

There is something thoroughly broken about this western environmentalist vision of depeopled lands that is especially poignant in Africa, the home of humanity. Environments are changed by people and when people are numerous and powerful change can be great. We have a long historical record of such changes in the old world - in the middle east, Asia and Europe - and a shorter but more precise record in the new world - in N. America, New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia. Only S. America and Africa have remained comparatively poor with large areas of low human population and so less changed. The urge to put fences around these remaining places and only allow people to visit is mistaken. While populations must be constrained and use must be limited to avoid the massive changes industrialized countries have inflicted on their own lands, local populations with intimate knowledge living on and from the land are the very best ones to do that.

posted by back40 | 8/27/2003 10:53:00 PM


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