The Human Tragedy of Conservationism

Having just read an interesting article by Joanna Eede for Survival International on “how the western concept of the wild and conservation policies have affected tribal peoples”, I find myself musing on how many people seem to care more about the preservation of animals and plants than they do the welfare of their fellow-man in the here and now – even when the latter’s way of life is destroyed in the process.

Joanna explains that:

“Today there are an estimated 120,000 protected areas worldwide, covering nearly 15% of the world’s land surface … But the sorry backdrop to these statistics — the story that is overlooked in the desire to preserve the ‘wild’ — is one of intense human suffering. For in the creation of reserves, millions of people — most of them tribal — have been evicted from their homes.”

That access to and development of roughly 22 million square kilometres of land on our planet is being actively restricted by laws enforced by various governments at the behest of lobbying conservationists is quite staggering. Forcibly evicting tribal people from their land is a violation of their property rights as homesteaders (the first people to ‘mix their labour’ with the land by building shelters and growing food or hunting animals etc) and cannot be justified according to the universal ethical principle of property rights. The State can have no legitimate claim to the title of any land which is justly inhabited by one or more persons and neither can it act as a contracted agent for a group of other people who want access to the land to be restricted in order to protect animals, plants or an ecosystem from human activity. Only the land owners can determine how their land is to be used. Any other system is arbitrary, requires the use of force by the State and cannot work as a universal ethical theory of property.

Joanna continues:

“In India, hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced from parks in the name of conservation, while in Africa mass evictions from protected areas have taken place, including the Batwa ‘pygmies’, who were forcibly moved from Uganda’s Bwindi Forest in order to protect the mountain gorillas and the Waliangulu people of Kenya, who once lived in the Tsavo Park area. ‘This variant of land theft is rapidly emerging as one of the biggest problems confronting indigenous peoples today,’ says Stephen Corry of Survival International.”

I suspect that, if all those folk in the western world signing petitions and donating money to conservation groups lobbying for laws to protect mountain gorillas and the like on the other side of the world fully understood that in order to do so thousands of indigenous people would have to be evicted from their homes, then they would not be so forthcoming with their moral and financial support. When you see a picture of dead gorillas accompanied by some dramatic statistics about their plight it’s easy to mistakenly believe that you’re being presented with a simple ethical proposition: should we use force in order to prevent aggressions against this defenseless animal? When the issue is framed like this most people will agree that we should act, without much or any further thought about what the consequences of doing so might because we’re simply ‘doing the right thing’ and that’s all that matters.

Or so it would seem. The problem with believing animal welfare is an ethical issue is that animals can’t be bound by ethics because they lack the capacity to understand concepts like rights or contracts. Therefore wherever an act of ‘self defense’ by a human being (or government) on behalf of an animal (in reality an enforcing of a moral preference) involves aggressing against innocent people, i.e. evicting them from their own land, then it is a violation of said people’s property rights; and therefore they are justified in forcibly resisting. The only circumstances in which a person or persons can justly use force to protect animals is when the animals inhabit their own land. In other words when the animals are the property of the person or persons using force to protect them like they would to protect their car or house. Because animals can’t reason like human beings they can be owned in the same way a TV can be owned. Animals as property is a concept that is already widely accepted in society because everyone with a pet cat or dog would forcibly resist someone else taking it in the same way that they would if they were taking their TVs. Animals are property in the same way that a table is, but they are a unique type of property that can experience suffering. When we walk into a table we aren’t concerned for its ‘welfare’, but if the table could experience suffering, then we would be – and there would probably be groups of people campaigning for ‘table rights’.

In order to determine who may rightly use force to protect wildlife, then, we must first establish who the rightful owner of that wildlife is – i.e. whose land is it on. If no land owner exists, then the land and therefore the right to protect its wildlife using force may be appropriated by demarcation of the area and ownership of the animals made clear by branding or tagging where possible. Who, then, can rightly use force to protect the African mountain gorillas referred to in Joanna’s article? It can only be the people occupying the land they inhabit. If it’s not, then why not? And how did someone else acquire ownership of them? These are vital questions because if the State or anyone else can justify ownership of and therefore the right to use force to ‘protect’ wildlife from even the owner himself, then they can logically make claim to anything else on the land – including the land itself. Which destroys the universality of the principle of property rights and leaves us with an arbitrary system in which property rights suddenly cease to exist for those people whose land contains wildlife, plants or landscapes but somehow continue to exist for conservationists who assume the right to expropriate the land (via the coercive apparatus of the State) in order to use it in ways that suit them and not the true owners.

The author claims that “conservation is undoubtedly vital when the biological diversity of the planet is so threatened”, which seems to reveal a belief that although mass evictions of millions of tribal peoples in the name of conservation is deeply immoral and unjust it is a necessary or unavoidable evil in pursuit of the greater good of conserving biological diversity. But if such a thing as ‘necessary evil’ exists, then that means evil is necessary. And that’s the end of morality. Period. Thankfully, evil is not necessary in attempting to solve the problem of the planet’s diminishing biological diversity (assuming that is a problem now or will be in the future) when we apply the principle of property rights universally. In doing so we avoid committing acts of evil against innocent people, which is of course what we as peace-loving people wish always to do. We also establish a clear path to possible solutions. The path of peaceful, voluntary exchange.

In the case of the African mountain gorillas, only the people who own the land can justifiably use force to protect them from humans. Therefore, the peaceful way for people who desire to protect and conserve these animals is to negotiate a deal or contractual arrangement with the land owners. Purchasing the land outright from the owners in order to convert the area into a conservation is surely highly unlikely since tribal peoples will presumably have no use for government paper money. They may be persuaded, however, to leave their land if other land of more value to them could be offered in exchange. If the owners cannot be persuaded to leave, then conservationists could look for ways to incentivize the land owners to protect the gorillas from poachers or to refrain from killing them themselves if they do. A contract could be drawn up whereby for each gorilla that lives long enough to mate the tribe receives some goods or services they value, for example. This is just one way, there are surely many more. If the owners share the conservationists desire to protect the gorillas, then the conservationists can offer to contract themselves or someone else to act as hired protectors given permission to operate on the land. If conservationists wish simply to keep the gorillas alive, then they could seek permission from the land owners to capture and remove the gorillas to a zoo or protected area elsewhere. Many potential solutions. All peaceful.

There’s less ways to achieve the conservation of landscapes such as forests or ecosystems themselves, but it’s still possible using peaceful means. For example, the purchasing of land in order to create protected areas people would be prepared to pay to visit or paying land owners to not develop their land and taking a percentage of the profits from visitors.

If all attempts by conservationists to make a deal with the land owners fail, then the former must respect the latter’s right to abstain from engaging in an exchange or agreeing to a contract and accept that in this instance they cannot peacefully achieve their goal. Some conservationists will no doubt have a hard time accepting this because they mistakenly perceive the issue of biodiversity/animal welfare as an ethical issue for which it is justified to use force to attempt to solve the problem. It’s not an ethical issue, however, because using legitimately owned land (and any wildlife inhabiting it) according to one’s own needs or wants does not violate any present or future person’s self-ownership or property rights. Furthermore, as established above, animals can’t logically have rights like people. This doesn’t, however, mean that it’s good to cause animals suffering and that people can’t ostracize and boycott people and businesses that engage in such behavior out of moral objection. They can and indeed many of us do.

There’s a dark irony to the ideology of conservationism coupled with the violence of the State. When conservationists successfully lobby governments to engage in large-scale land theft and forcibly evict millions of people from their homes in order to create reserves they essentially treat human beings like animals, rounding them up at gun point and hearding them elsewhere.

There’s a distinct lack of humility on the part of the western world’s conservationists too. For who could know better how to sustain any given land and its biodiversity than the very people whose very lives and way of life depend upon doing so, and who have successfully done so for thousands of years? Furthermore, who else could possibly value, love and appreciate the land and its biodiversity more than they? Who else could possibly have a stronger connection to it? And yet these very people are being forced out of their lands in the millions just so conservationists can feel good about themselves. For shame.

As Joanna remarks: “dispossessing indigenous owners for conservation may appear more benign, but for tribal peoples the consequences are similarly catastrophic. Once separated from their lands, tribal peoples begin to lose the traditions, skills and knowledge that together weave the tapestry of identity; thus follows a profound decrease in mental and physical health.”

Tribal peoples, then, suffer in much the same way animals suffer when they are forcibly removed from their habitats (and yet conservationists are only concerned for the welfare of the latter). But animals can often adapt and recover completely because they are usually moved into a new environment designed to simulate their natural one. Whereas for tribal peoples it’s much harder because they may find themselves having to adapt to, essentially, a completely different world. An alien world. The modern, industrial world. In my time spent in Australia, I’ve seen how many Aboriginal Australians struggle to adapt to living in modern civilisation. Some cope well enough, but many do not and end up homeless and addicted to drugs or alcohol. It’s truly tragic to see an Aboriginal Australian slumped on a park bench and to compare that to the image of one standing proudly on a rock in the outback, master of his domain.

The great tragedy of the ideology of conservationism that permeates the western world is that it unnecessarily and unjustly wrenches tribal peoples away from their lands, which they often have a profound spiritual and emotional connection to, causing them great suffering. Modern man may consider these people savage or backward, but stealing the lands of defenceless people is about as brutal and uncivilised as you can get.

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