Militant exploitation vs. militant conservation – how far will this go?

By SdS

Protecting nature can be dangerous and messy. Two recent reports bring to light what seem to be flipsides of the same coin. On one side are those who heroically fight and even lose their lives defending their homes, wild places, and wild animals. Then there are those who take lives, for the same purpose. August 12th is World Elephant Day. Normally, I would say something about elephants. But I already did that in the last post. So today I want to reflect on the people who protect wildlife, in one way or another.

It’s been on my mind a long time, but particularly since a conference I attended a few years ago. It was supposed to be an academic conference, but the audience was a mix of scientists, conservation practitioners and activists. Alongside the sessions people would huddle around in their little cliques, chatting about the state of affairs on the ground. Some of the conversations were depressing, there was no hiding it. Here we were free to speak truth out loud, in an atmosphere of urgency that everyone present acknowledged. I had a palpable sense that some (perhaps even many) of those present acted as though we were at war. It was a mindset that people stewing in, breathing in, day in and day out. I imagined that this was not unlike how reporters felt, who had spent too long embedded in war zones – a creeping feeling that far from the comfortable lives that most of our colleagues and acquaintances led, an epic battle was raging.

I was glad to leave the conference and found myself questioning whether I would ever attend another of those again.

A report released this year by the nonprofit Global Witness confirms that this is not exaggeration. It is not merely a psychological phenomenon reflecting people who have been in the metaphorical “trenches” for too long. It is real. Between 2002 and 2017 1558 environmental activists have been killed worldwide, outnumbering the number of soldiers from the UK and Australia that have been killed in actual war zones and about equivalent to half the number of US troops that have been in killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to one study. The difference is that these environmental defenders are for the most part not soldiers – they are civilians from diverse professions and ethnic groups, many indigenous, who have been trying to protect their land. They are also rangers and wildlife law enforcement officers. The number doesn’t even include casualties of actual armed conflicts and territorial disputes over natural resources. But their lives are taken by an increasingly brazen and weaponized mafia benefitting financially from the exploitation of species and ecosystems – together with their corporate partners.

According to the study, there was regional variation in the reasons behind the deaths, with poaching-related deaths most frequent in Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Congo whereas industries like mining claiming the most deaths in Philippines, Colombia and India. A country’s rule of law was the key variable that correlated with these death rates, unsurprisingly. 47 of the 50 countries in which deaths occurred could be quantifiably classified as “highly corrupt.” We will come back to this below.

These numbers give me pause. They reflect an unseen war, waged for the most part far from the eyes of the consumers that benefit from it. As in any war, there are collateral victims.

Here I turn to another mind-blowing exposé, this time by Buzzfeed news, that forest guards funded by WWF were responsible for torturing and killing people in their quest to protect wildlife. These were not high-level poachers and traffickers, but poor villagers trying to eke out a living on the periphery of the protected areas that they had long called home. The most damning accusation is that the conservation NGO with the cuddly panda logo was not only aware of these practices, but actively shielded the perpetrators from prosecution for fear of demoralizing the frontline officers. In one instance, Buzzfeed claims WWF staffers were even involved in attempting to facilitate an arms deal.

WWF, the World Wildlife Fund or (AKA Worldwide Fund For Nature) is perhaps the best known conservation nonprofit. But it is not alone – several other nonprofits partner or work very closely with law enforcement agents to patrol and protect wildlife habitats and species. One may wonder why WWF was acting like an “global spymaster” when its personnel are neither trained nor authorized to do so. I think the answer to that is simple – in a corrupt environment, some of these NGOs see themselves as bulwarks against the chaos that would consume and destroy the fragile ecosystems that they are battling to protect. They not only fund, but co-manage reserves that should not be managed by international conservation agencies at all. They fill the vacuum left by weak or corrupt governments. Given the statistics above, it is easy to see why. This does not condone what they have done.

So the difficult question “why” arises again – could it be otherwise? Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who presided over the disastrous Vietnam War, famously wrote about the “Fog of War” when seemingly rational reasoning turns into rationalization in a fuzzy downward spiral of poor decisions that end with disastrous outcomes.

But I tend to think there is a much deeper problem. This is not just about poor decision-making under tough circumstances. It is about a pervasive structural tendency to disregard and discriminate against rights of those the already marginalized. A de-sensitization to the human condition and suffering of others. An interview with one group of villagers near Chitwan National Park in Nepal by Buzzfeed reporters is telling – they are desperate to be spoken to, consulted. Whereas they could have been allies for conservation, they are instead sidelined or worse: caught between the enforcers as much as the traffickers. Both mafias equally terrible.

These types of situations manifest what has been called “Fortress Conservation“. One could also call it militant conservation. It is not without opposition, by those who point out the long trail of human-rights violations that result from the mindset that humans are the enemy, no matter who they are. It is this casual disregard to human life, the end result of a battle-weary and hardened mindset, that is the poison slowly consuming some parts of the conservation community from within. Years ago I found myself bemoaning yet another animal tragedy. It’s easy to slide down a very cold and slippery slope – to think “What is the value of one human life, when there are more than seven billion of us? Should it count as much as that of this other creature, of which there are a precious few…” I caught myself thinking along these lines. But then I realized that to lose empathy for your fellow humans is a numbingly dark and dangerous hole from which you will be lucky to ever recover.  It also makes you a hypocrite; the targets of your disdain are usually groups perceived as “the other.” We all consume the goods produced in the end so let us not consider ourselves any better. We are all responsible.

I can’t help but view everything through a gendered lens. When I see some of my colleagues posing next to armed patrol officers, smiling as though they were all having the time of their lives, I feel an involuntary internal shudder – perhaps they look just a little too happy? Funders are also all too happy to pay for expensive technology – drones, night-vision goggles, etc. even if not the weapons themselves. Boy toys to be displayed with swagger and bravado. Is it just so much more difficult to pay for communication and sensitivity training? It is more difficult to invest in trust and relationship building?  To cultivate a culture in which one learns to listen before speaking? These are so-called “soft skills,” traditionally relegated to the feminine. But they are the essential missing ingredients. The opposite of fortress conservation is community-based (or community-driven) conservation.  Would the latter model even stand a chance of triumph under the most difficult circumstances? I tend to think it would, if only there were more investment in it. There are numerous examples of it – many led by women.  One particularly inspiring example is that of the Mali Elephant Project, which reported that none of the young people recruited as community scouts recruited into their  program joined militants, despite strong economic incentives.  Consultation and dialogue with local communities was the key. The people are powerful allies, if you have them on your side.

It has never been easy and it never will be, but there has to be a better way. I try to remind myself that we are not only fighting for the souls of others, but also for our own – it begins with empathy.

For more about our work with communities, read about The Coexistence Project (#CoexistenceProject).

Support the Coexistence Project here.

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