Activists Call for End to US Model of Conservation and a Return to Indigenous Practices
August 16, 2015
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
A campaign was launched this week to prevent the further spread of the US preservationist model of conservation. Local tribes have called for traditional knowledge of forest stewardship to preserve water and create wildfire buffers. And, as California battles its worst drought in 1,000 years, tribal representatives, scientists and US Forest Service officials are working to revive traditional Native American land management practices that some believe could help contain the blazes and lessen effects of the drought.
'Violent Displacement' in the Name of Conservation Must End, Group Says
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(August 14, 2015) -- A new indigenous rights campaign called "Stop the Con" is trying to prevent the American conservation model of national parks and reserves from being further exported around the world.
The view that any human disturbance is inherently damaging to the environment results in decreased biodiversity and human rights abuses as tribal peoples are pushed off their lands, the rights group says.
"The conservation movement was born in the USA, when tribal people were violently evicted from their ancestral homelands in order to create money-making national parks," according to Survival International, the group that launched the campaign on Wednesday.
"The legacy created in the United States lives on," the group added. "The illegal, violent displacement of tribal peoples is being replicated around the world in the name of conservation."
Survival International says indigenous peoples have been actively managing their landsince time immemorial and should never be forced from their land to preserve a tract of wilderness.
"Tribal people are better than anyone at looking after their own environment," Survival International says on its campaign website.
Wade Davis, an anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia, told Al Jazeera that the origin of that view of national parks as a place without people grew directly out of the American West.
"The whole settling of America was based on the myth of an empty land and to make it empty the Americans adopted the policies they did towards indigenous people," Davis said.
Theodore Roosevelt was the "great champion" of national parks, and he famously disdained native people, referring to them as a "pestilence" that must be removed, Davis said.
At Yosemite and Yellowstone, native peoples who had lived there for centuries were evicted so that the areas could become national parks, Survival International said. Davis added that the expulsion of American Indians happened at the founding of the Grand Canyon National Park as well.
In the 1960s, during the decolonization movement, the American national park model started to take hold around the world, because it was widely viewed as being one of the measures of a "real country," Davis said.
Violent displacement of tribal peoples often followed, Survival International said in a press release.
In 2006, the Bushmen tribes in Botswana were evicted from the country's Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the name of conservation, the group said, adding that they had helped reverse the policy.
Then in 2014, a new threat meant the Bushmen were once again forced into eviction camps they call "places of death," Survival International says on its website. That's because a decision that year by President Ian Khama imposed a nationwide hunting ban that was celebrated by conservation organizations around the world.
Now, they are being starved off their land by the hunting ban, Survival International says.
Private game hunters were exempt, but not the Bushmen who had hunted sustainably without guns for generations, the group says. The Bushmen are accused of poaching and face arrests, beatings and torture from government security forces.
"Two wildlife scouts tied my hands behind my back and threw me in their Land Rover. While I was lying down, they jumped on my back wearing their boots. My daughter was crying and crying, thinking I was being killed. She had a 10-month-old baby, and the wildlife people threw them both to the ground," Gakeitsiwe Gaorapelwe, a Bushman, told Survival International.
As an alternative to traditional American preservationist model, Paige West, a professor in the joint anthropology department at Barnard College and Columbia University, said it is possible for Western conservation scientists and indigenous peoples to work together to preserve biodiversity.
"Often, when [Westerners] think about the value of nature, they think about it as apart from human society -- a cathedral view, something to be revered and maybe spend time in it hiking or bird watching -- but not as something that is intimately and historically related to human beings," West said.
With her research partner, John Aini, West has been working with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea. The tribes identify species or systems they feel are in decline, and West and Aini consult with them about bringing in western, scientific techniques to preserve them.
"It is successful in my experience," West said. "I found that [Western] conservation projects -- by failing to understand that indigenous practices actually contribute -- end up hurting the chances of those peoples preserving their own biodiversity."
Native Traditional Methods Revived
To Combat California Drought, Wildfires
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(June 12, 2015) -- As California battles its worst drought in 1,000 years -- and after massive wildfires swept across the state for two consecutive summers -- a number of tribe members, scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials are working to revive traditional Native American land management practices that some believe could help contain the blazes and lessen effects of the drought.
Native Americans in California had long tended the land in ways that preserved watersheds to ease droughts and created barriers to out-of-control fires, said Rick Flores, steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum.
Flores is leading the program in conjunction with California's Amah Mutsun tribe to revive the knowledge of those cultural practices. One of the activities they have carried out is controlled burning in an effort to preserve certain useful plants and prevent larger fires.
The U.S. Forest Service uses prescribed burns in areas of high risk for wildfire, usually during the summer and not every year. But that practice has declined because of issues with staffing, budgets, liability and new development, a recent study showed.
Native Americans in northern California traditionally used a different approach to controlled burning, carrying it out every year in the late fall and early winter while the ground was damp and cold, experts said.
Indigenous groups also helped preserve fire-slowing open areas by clearing out some of the coniferous trees that often invade oak forests, meadows and grasslands, Flores said. The conifers, especially older and larger ones, also use a large amount of available water to the disadvantage of other plants and local inhabitants.
The North Fork Mono tribe, whose traditional homeland includes much of the Sierra Nevada National Forest, is now conducting similar land management activities. The tribe has its own nonprofit organization dedicated to managing the landscape and reviving traditional knowledge.
Tribal Chairman Ron Goode -- who has been working on such projects with the U.S. Forest Service for over 20 years -- said he has been receiving more requests to share knowledge of traditional land management techniques since the current drought began gripping the state.
Goode's technique to combat drought and wildfires focuses on restoring meadows, which he said achieves dual purposes: keeping more water in the ground by thinning the forest canopy, and thus also creating clear, wetter areas that act as buffers to large fires.
The North Fork Mono tribe also managed forest canopies, keeping them thin enough so that one could see about a quarter of a mile through the trees, Goode said. But in the past century canopies have become overgrown, which he said fuels out-of-control fires and prevents rain and snow from reaching the ground and entering the watershed.
The U.S. Forest Service heard of Goode's methods and last year asked his organization to collaborate on a project to restore a meadow, where "everything is still green and wet" this year despite the drought, Goode said.
Goode and his team of volunteers -- mostly students from high schools and universities, and including local Forest Service rangers -- have cleared three meadows in the Sierra National Forest.
Restored meadows "retain water like a sponge," Dirk Charley, U.S. Forest Service tribal relations manager in the Sierra region and member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, told Al Jazeera. Charley said he and other forest service employees heard of Goode's work, and began to learn about and incorporate his land management practices.
Actively managing the meadows has not only helped preserve the area's water resources and reduce wildfire fuel, but has helped strengthen the entire ecosystem by providing more food for insects and animals, he added.
"We opened the meadow up, and all of a sudden the bees are there, here come the bears, deer and their fawns come walking through and next thing you know you see a [mountain] lion track on the road -- that's the way the meadow works," Goode said.
Managing mountain forests to build the watershed also benefits humans living in urban areas below, as "water flows through various streams, meadows and creeks down to the rivers and goes into the waterways," Charley said.
As California's drought drags on, traditional land management techniques are also being experimented with at Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,120-acre protected area in California's Sonoma County coastal mountains just north of San Francisco.
Pepperwood has an inter-tribal Native American advisory council that it hopes can revive traditional knowledge of land management, the preserve's Executive Director Lisa Micheli told Al Jazeera.
"Across California, the area's first people are reclaiming their roles as expert stewards of the state's land and water resources," Micheli said. "As drought and fire ravage undermanaged and overgrown public and private lands, partnerships like this are reintegrating native knowledge."
Pepperwood and local tribes are collaborating on projects including one to clear underbrush, a practice that has been largely lost since modern Americans colonized the West Coast, Micheli said.
Similar collaboration projects with the U.S. Forest service have also been implemented in northern California by leading fire management tribes including the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa, Charley said.
Although the use of controlled burns is viewed critically by some landowners -- as well as environmentalists worried about protected species -- Flores said such techniques have been used for centuries.
"This was a tradition they were doing for fire prevention," Micheli said. "This is how it was managed for 1,400 years, and they were doing a pretty good job so we're interested in learning from them."
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