In most human conflicts, there are good guys and bad guys. This is not so in the history of global conservation, which is at least partly a story of good guy versus good guy. The major contestants in the struggle to protect nature and preserve biological diversity may seem to be transnational conservation organisations on one side and rapacious extractive industries on the other. But there is a larger, more lamentable conflict: the one between transnational conservation and the worldwide movement of indigenous peoples - good guys both.
These two forces share a goal that is vital to life on earth - a healthy and diverse biosphere. Both are communities of integrity led by some of the most admirable, dedicated people alive. Both care deeply for the planet and together are capable of preserving more biodiversity than any other two groups on it. Yet they have been terribly at odds with one another over the past century or more, violently so at times, mostly because of conflicting views of nature, radically different definitions of "wilderness" and profound misunderstandings of one another's science and culture.
The perceived arrogance of "big conservation" is a confounding factor; so too is the understandable tendency of some indigenous people to conflate conservation with imperialism. The results of this century-old conflict are thousands of protected areas that cannot be managed and an intractable debate over who holds the key to successful conservation in the most biologically rich areas of the world.
The conflict began in the bucolic stillness of Yosemite valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. From the middle of the 19th century until 1914, when Yosemite became a national park, a concerted and at times violent effort was made to rid Yosemite of its natives, a small band of Miwok Native Americans who had settled in the valley about 4,000 years ago.
During the same period, most of the major parks created in America - notably Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Rainier, Zion, Glacier, Everglades and Olympic - repeated the Yosemite example by expelling thousands of tribal people from their homes and hunting grounds so that the new parks could remain in a "state of nature". This practice of conservation was exported worldwide, becoming known as "the Yosemite model". Refugees from conservation areas have never been counted; they are not even officially recognised as refugees. But the number of people displaced from traditional homelands worldwide over the past century in the interest of conservation is estimated to be close to 20 million, 14 million of them in Africa alone.
I have travelled across all five inhabited continents researching this subject, visiting hundreds of indigenous communities, some in conflict with western-style conservation, others in harmony with it. Although tension persists, along with arrogance, ignorance and the conflicts they breed, I found an encouraging dialogue growing between formally educated wildlife biologists, who once saw humanity as inimical to nature, and ancient aboriginal societies that have passed their remarkable ecological knowledge from generation to generation without a page of text. I found, mostly in the field, a new generation of conservationists who realise that the very landscapes they seek to protect owe their high biodiversity to the practices of the people who have lived there, in some cases for thousands of years.
Wildland conservation has a recorded history and a literary tradition. Aborigines evicted from their homelands in the interest of conservation have only memory and the bitter oral narrative I heard again and again while visiting their makeshift villages and refugee camps; their pre-eviction experience is rarely recorded outside the literature of anthropology. So the concept of "fortress conservation" and the preference for "virgin" wilderness has lingered in a movement that has tended to value all nature but human nature, and refused to recognise the positive wildness in human beings.
Thus the beautifully written and widely read essays and memoirs of early American eco-heroes such as John Muir, Lafayette Bunnell, Samuel Bowles, George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold inform a conservation mythology that until quite recently separated nature from culture and portrayed both natives and early settlers of frontier areas as reckless abusers of nature, with no sense or tradition of stewardship, no understanding of wildlife biology and no appreciation of biodiversity.
It was the "manifest destiny" of conservation leaders, then, to tame what the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan poet and minister Michael Wigglesworth described as
A waste and howling wilderness / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That devils worshipped
It has taken transnational conservation a century to see the folly of some of its heroes, such as Richard Leakey, who recently denied the existence of indigenous peoples in his home country, Kenya, and called for the removal of all "settlers" from game reserves and other protected areas.
Today, all but the most stubborn enclose-and-exclude conservationists are willing to admit that it is specious to conflate nature with wilderness and occupants with "first visitors". They have recognised that indigenous people manage immense areas of biologically rich land, even if they don't own it. And most, although not all, are managing it well.
Some conservationists argue that a policy of tolerating the impoverishment of indigenous people has wrecked the lives of 20 million poor, powerless but eco-wise people, and has been an enormous mistake - not only a moral, social, philosophical and economic mistake, but an ecological one as well. For it is far better to have good stewards living on land than to have that same land cleared of residents and surrounded by hostile evictees. Enlightened conservationists are beginning to accept the axiom that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.
As conservationists and native people make their uneasy convergence, I hope they will come to agree that they both own the interdependent causes of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, that they need each other, and that together they can create a new conservation paradigm that honours and respects the ways of life of people who have been living sustainably for generations on what can only be fairly regarded as their native land.
And I hope that native people will blend their traditional knowledge systems with the newer sciences of ecology and conservation biology in search of better ways to preserve the diversity of species , which is not only vital to their own security but to all life on earth. At this point, as the entire planet seems poised to tip into ecological chaos, with almost 40,000 plant and animal species facing extinction and 60% of the ecosystem services that support life failing, there may be no other way.
• Mark Dowie's latest book is Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, published by MIT Press, priced £18.99. To order a copy for £17.99 plus p&p, call 0330 333 6846 or go to theguardian.com/bookshop
Conservation is an ethic of resource use, allocation, and protection. Its primary focus is upon maintaining the health of the natural world, its fisheries, habitats, and biological diversity. Secondary focus is on material conservation, including non-renewable resources such as metals, minerals and fossil fuels, and energy conservation, which is important to protect the natural world. Those who follow the conservation ethic and, especially, those who advocate or work toward conservation goals are termed conservationists.
The terms conservation and preservation are frequently conflated outside the academic, scientific, and professional kinds of literature. The US National Park Service offers the following explanation of the important ways in which these two terms represent very different conceptions of environmental protection ethics:
″Conservation and preservation are closely linked and may indeed seem to mean the same thing. Both terms involve a degree of protection, but how that protection is carried out is the key difference. Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of buildings, objects, and landscapes. Put simply, conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.
During the environmental movement of the early 20th century, two opposing factions emerged: conservationists and preservationists. Conservationists sought to regulate human use while preservationists sought to eliminate human impact altogether.″
To conserve habitat in terrestrial ecoregions and to stop deforestation is a goal widely shared by many groups with a wide variety of motivations.
To protect sea life from extinction due to overfishing or climate change is another commonly stated goal of conservation – ensuring that "some will be available for future generations" to continue a way of life.
The consumer conservation ethic is sometimes expressed by the four R's: " Rethink, Reduce, Recycle, Repair" This social ethic primarily relates to local purchasing, moral purchasing, the sustained, and efficient use of renewable resources, the moderation of destructive use of finite resources, and the prevention of harm to common resources such as air and water quality, the natural functions of a living earth, and cultural values in a built environment.
The principal value underlying most expressions of the conservation ethic is that the natural world has intrinsic and intangible worth along with utilitarian value – a view carried forward by the scientific conservation movement and some of the older Romantic schools of ecology movement.
More Utilitarian schools of conservation seek a proper valuation of local and global impacts of human activity upon nature in their effect upon human well being, now and to posterity. How such values are assessed and exchanged among people determines the social, political, and personal restraints and imperatives by which conservation is practiced. This is a view common in the modern environmental movement.
These movements have diverged but they have deep and common roots in the conservation movement.
In the United States of America, the year 1864 saw the publication of two books which laid the foundation for Romantic and Utilitarian conservation traditions in America. The posthumous publication of Henry David Thoreau's Walden established the grandeur of unspoiled nature as a citadel to nourish the spirit of man. From George Perkins Marsh a very different book, Man and Nature, later subtitled "The Earth as Modified by Human Action", catalogued his observations of man exhausting and altering the land from which his sustenance derives.
The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.
In common usage, the term refers to the activity of systematically protecting natural resources such as forests, including biological diversity. Carl F. Jordan defines the term as:
biological conservation as being a philosophy of managing the environment in a manner that does not despoil, exhaust or extinguish.
While this usage is not new, the idea of biological conservation has been applied to the principles of ecology, bio geography, anthropology, economy and sociology to maintain biodiversity.
The term "conservation" itself may cover the concepts such as cultural diversity, genetic diversity and the concept of movements environmental conservation, seedbank (preservation of seeds). These are often summarized as the priority to respect diversity, especially by Greens.
Much recent movement in conservation can be considered a resistance to commercialism and globalization. Slow Food is a consequence of rejecting these as moral priorities, and embracing a slower and more locally focused lifestyle.
Distinct trends exist regarding conservation development. While many countries' efforts to preserve species and their habitats have been government-led, those in the North Western Europe tended to arise out of the middle-class and aristocratic interest in natural history, expressed at the level of the individual and the national, regional or local learned society. Thus countries like Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. had what we would today term NGOs – in the shape of the RSPB, National Trust and County Naturalists' Trusts (dating back to 1889, 1895 and 1912 respectively) Natuurmonumenten, Provincial Conservation Trusts for each Dutch province, Vogelbescherming, etc. – a long time before there were national parks and national nature reserves. This in part reflects the absence of wilderness areas in heavily cultivated Europe, as well as a longstanding interest in laissez-faire government in some countries, like the UK, leaving it as no coincidence that John Muir, the Scottish-born founder of the National Park movement (and hence of government-sponsored conservation) did his sterling work in the USA, where he was the motor force behind the establishment of such NPs as Yosemite and Yellowstone. Nowadays, officially more than 10 percent of the world is legally protected in some way or the other, and in practice, private fundraising is insufficient to pay for the effective management of so much land with protective status.
Protected areas in developing countries, where probably as many as 70–80 percent of the species of the world live, still enjoy very little effective management and protection. Some countries, such as Mexico, have non-profit civil organizations and landowners dedicated to protecting vast private property, such is the case of Hacienda Chichen's Maya Jungle Reserve and Bird Refuge in Chichen Itza, Yucatán. The Adopt A Ranger Foundation has calculated that worldwide about 140,000 rangers are needed for the protected areas in developing and transition countries. There are no data on how many rangers are employed at the moment, but probably less than half the protected areas in developing and transition countries have any rangers at all and those that have them are at least 50% short This means that there would be a worldwide ranger deficit of 105,000 rangers in the developing and transition countries.
One of the world's foremost conservationists, Dr.Kenton Miller, stated about the importance of Rangers: "The future of our ecosystem services and our heritage depends upon park rangers. With the rapidity at which the challenges to protected areas are both changing and increasing, there has never been more of a need for well-prepared human capacity to manage. Park rangers are the backbone of park management. They are on the ground. They work on the front line with scientists, visitors, and members of local communities."
Adopt A Ranger, fears that the ranger deficit is the greatest single limiting factor in effectively conserving nature in 75% of the world. Currently, no conservation organization or western country or international organization addresses this problem. Adopt A Ranger has been incorporated to draw worldwide public attention to the most urgent problem that conservation is facing in developing and transition countries: protected areas without field staff. Very specifically, it will contribute to solving the problem by fundraising to finance rangers in the field. It will also help governments in developing and transition countries to assess realistic staffing needs and staffing strategies.
Others, including Survival International, have advocated instead for cooperation with local tribal peoples, who are natural allies of the conservation movement and can provide cost-effective protection.
- Conservation and evolution (Frankel et Soulé, 1981)
- Glacken, C.J. (1967) Traces on the Rhodian Shore. University of California Press. Berkeley
- Grove, R.H. (1992) 'Origins of Western Environmentalism', Scientific American 267(1): 22–27.
- Grove, R.H. (1997) Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History 1400–1940 Cambridge: Whitehorse Press
- Grove, R.H. (1995) Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 New York: Cambridge University Press
- Leopold, A. (1966) A Sand County Almanac New York: Oxford University Press
- Pinchot, G. (1910) The Fight for Conservation New York: Harcourt Brace.
- "Why Care for Earth's Environment?" (in the series "The Bible's Viewpoint") is a two-page article in the December 2007 issue of the magazine Awake!.
- Sutherland, W.; et al. (2015). What Works in Conservation. Open Book Publishers. A free textbook for download.