What would a new model of conservation look like?
Can we grow the conditions for decolonised conservation?
As the news came out about the violent eviction of the Maasai people from their ancestral land in Tanzania this week, we’ve been thinking a lot about conservation. Clearly, the current model of conservation (at least mainstream conservation) is failing to deliver its promised results, more often doing harm than good. We wanted to take some time today to explore what a decolonised model of conservation might look like and how we might take steps toward changing how conservation operates.
First, some backstory. Most of the conservation that gets large-scale funding today is what many organisations call Fortress or Colonial Conservation. Survival International defines it in the following way:
“Colonial conservation, also known as Fortress Conservation, rests on the racist misconception that indigenous people cannot be trusted to look after their own land and the animals that live there. Its proponents view the original custodians of the land as a “nuisance” to be “dealt with", instead of as experts in local biodiversity and key partners in conservation.”
This form of conservation comes from the deeply misguided idea that humans are both separate from nature and somehow parasitic to it, leading to the conclusion that the best-case scenario for conservation is untouched, pristine wilderness with no people on it. That humans will inevitably harm any nature they lay their hands on. (As an aside, this also signals a deeper problem in environmental movements that animals and plants are often prioritised and protected above the people living amongst them). But this simply isn’t true; ecosystems thrive under the careful stewardship of Indigenous people.
Our current model of conservation is even more insidious than that, though, because conservation is often in name only. The land that Indigenous people are evicted from is often used for profit, either for luxury hunting, safari excursions, or other activities only accessible by a wealthy subset of the population. Conservation is used as a frame to conceal further development. It’s a deep irony—under capitalism, even conservation is contorted to be at the service of never-ending growth.
The pathway forward is pretty clear: Indigenous people understand land stewardship better than anyone. They already protect 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity, even though they manage or have tenure rights on just 25 percent of the land. Indigenous peoples have consistently better track records of conserving environmental systems than external players like governments, NGOs, and private actors. A meta-analysis of 169 case studies conducted between 1996 and 2019 found that external actors “were 10 times more likely than [Indigenous groups] to produce negative outcomes in both community well-being and conservation.”
Not only do Indigenous peoples do a far better job of conserving environmental systems, it costs countries more to resettle and compensate communities (not to mention it’s incredibly unjust) than it would to simply fund Indigenous groups to keep doing what they’re already doing.
A 2022 report titled “Reconciling Conservation and Global Biodiversity Goals with Community Land Rights in Asia” calculated that it will cost countries between 100 and 1,000 times more to evict Indigenous groups in the name of “conservation” than to just recognize their tenure rights. Further, programs like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) have received more than US$4 billion in pledged funding, but a small portion of that—around US$535 million—would be “sufficient to fund the three countries in Asia that currently have the capacity to map, delimitate, and title all Indigenous and community lands — India, Indonesia and Nepal.”
What the report argues, in short, is that we need to change from a spacial understanding of conservation to a rights-based understanding of conservation. Traditionally, conservation efforts have focused on how many hectares of land can be “conserved”—the 30 by 30 target to conserve 30 percent of earth’s land and sea areas by 2030 is a perfect example. A rights-based account would measure success by the strength and expansion of tenure rights for the Indigenous communities already stewarding the land and protecting its biodiversity.
There is really no justification for the fortress model of conservation to continue, and the violent eviction of the Maasai in Tanzania, the accounts of murder in Democratic Republic of Congo's national parks show the urgent need to change approaches to conservation. My main remaining question on this topic isn’t really “what should we do,” because It’s pretty clear what we should do (entrust Indigenous people with conservation and support them financially and legally through tenure rights). What feels frustrating about this case—as well as many things in the food and agriculture world—is how straightforward and low-tech the solutions can be and still, they are met with resistance or stagnation.
Switching to an Indigenous-led model of conservation would be a win-win if success were measured by actually conserving biodiversity and building a just food system (and accomplishing both in the most cost-effective way). But it isn’t happening on a large scale because this model doesn’t fit within our current paradigm in agriculture, which has different goals than the ones above. In a capitalist system, we can’t escape the profit motive, even in supposedly humanitarian goals like conservation. That’s how we get models like the one we have now, where “conservation” turns into “nature for those who can pay to enjoy it, or hunt on it, or experience the wildlife.” It becomes commodified. So my remaining question is more along the lines of “how do we actually shift this system meaningfully when solutions like this go against the grain of profit-making and those in power?” That’s the harder question.
It’s the same thing with practices like agroecology. Through agroecological practices, farmers can increase their yields (and by extension their incomes), strengthen biodiversity and climate resilience, and sequester more carbon dioxide in the soil, all while saving money on inputs that are expensive for both them and harmful to the environment. There’s evidence to back all of this up. But agroecology remains pretty marginal because farmers being dependent on purchasing inputs is the backbone of the current system, which is designed to primarily benefit the corporations selling them.
So how do we move forward as long as we’re still in the corporate food regime, where corporations have the power to set the rules of engagement of the system? What are the tangible steps? We often struggle with that part, because these extremely common-sense solutions—both from an economic lens and a social justice lens—seem so incompatible with the larger system that they are embedded within.
In reflecting this week, there’s one idea I think could be helpful. In political philosophy class, we were taught about the difference between ideal theory and non-ideal theory, a distinction that I think can help us here. Non-ideal theory works within the real constraints of our social reality; it doesn’t pretend things are different than they really are. It proposes solutions that are really possible to achieve given how the world is right now. Ideal theory, on the other hand, creates a view of how society ought to be, even if that is detached from how the world is right now. It describes the principles that would need to be true in order to achieve this ideal reality.
It’s a basic distinction on some levels, but I think that if we want to rewrite paradigms like conservation (or really make any meaningful changes in agriculture), we really need both. On one hand, we need incremental change that works within our current constraints—pressuring governments to ratify legislation like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to strengthen the rights of Indigenous people and give avenues of recourse through the court system. We need advocacy and awareness-raising. We need funds to funnel to land-defenders and Indigenous groups. We need to question massive conservation machines like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and push for their reform.
But we also need to recognize the underlying tension that makes incremental change so difficult—the wider system surrounding all of these efforts is simply incompatible with what many of us consider to be the kind of world we want to live in. Capitalism does not value these non-commodified approaches to agriculture or conservation, nor does it value the knowledge or work of those currently protecting these environments. As a result, all of these incremental efforts will be like swimming upstream.
That’s why we need movements like food sovereignty, which contains both practical elements and assertions about how agriculture should be, even if those are somewhat detached from the (very non-ideal) world we live in right now. We can acknowledge that the entire system needs dismantling, and we can try to make incremental changes within it at the same time. Both approaches are so needed.
I’ll be reflecting more on this in the coming weeks, and I invite your reflection as well: how do you think we ought to move towards a new model of conservation? What practical actions can we take? What questions must we ask? Which institutions should we be targeting? What stories are not being told? As always, we don’t have the answers, but we would love to hear your thoughts. Leave us a comment, reply to this email, or send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article from investigative journalist Thin Lei Wei for Fortune titled “Scary headlines about food shortages are misleading. Here’s why.” It succinctly points out many of the flaws with the current rhetoric around food shortages, reframing it as an access issue and reminding us that these structural issues in the food system are primarily a result of prioritising capital, not solely because of a particular conflict. It’s a great contribution to the conversation about food right now.
This Substack article from Alicia Kennedy unpacking the morality of “good food” in a system marked by rampant hunger.” It’s a topic I’ve wondered about a lot myself, and Kennedy offers some great places to start in answering these questions. In it, she asks: “Can we talk about food justice without incorporating diet culture tropes? Can we talk about industrial agriculture practices in a way that prioritises planet and worker without suggesting anyone is “bad” for how they eat?”
This podcast from Cultural Survival that contains an interview with a Maasai woman on the ground who is facing the threat of fortress conservation in Loliondo, Tanzania. She provides a historical account for this ongoing struggle for the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples that has been going on for years, with the current violence created by increased police activity in the region. We recommend listening if you want more details about the situation.
Calling all journalists: this week we are co-hosting a media workshop with IPES-Food — “Beyond Ukraine: the untold story of the food crisis. Journalists and leading figures on food systems will unpack the fragility of the centralised food system, how commodity speculation is driving up food prices, and the factors and players stoking the flames of global hunger. We invite journalists to register here, or invite you to share this registration link to any members of the press and journalists in your network!