Against Wildlife Republics Conservation and Imperialist Expansion in Africa

In 1972, pan-Africanist and Marxist thinker from Guyana, Walter Rodney, warned of ‘Wildlife Republics’, calling attention to wildlife conservation in Africa as a new form of imperialist and capitalist exploitation. Today, conservation is still a pretext to dispossess local communities for imperialist expansion and capitalist development.

Global capitalism both caused and accelerated the unprecedented ecological crisis and the resulting global biodiversity loss. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reports that the main direct drivers of biodiversity loss are land use and climate change. In Africa particularly, natural habitats are being transformed for commercial farming to produce commodities (i.e. biofuels and grains) for export to the global North. Nonetheless, Africa still supports one quarter of the world’s biodiversity and the largest assemblages of megafauna. As a result, the continent plays a fundamental role in nature conservation.  

But for Africans the stakes surpass that of saving nature. That the demand for cheap commodities in the global North is driving biodiversity loss in Africa is not a convenient truth for imperialist expansion. Transnational conservation engages the global apparatus that plunders and tramples over indigenous sovereignty as the imperialist core ramps up efforts to allegedly save African wildlife, forests, and rangelands for the world.   

THE COLONIAL MYTH OF BENEVOLENCE

In August 2022, President Kagame received Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, who visited Rwanda as part of his work as President of African Parks. The conservation NGO known as African Parks currently encloses, militarizes, and privatizes over 20 million hectares of land in Africa from which states evicted native communities to ‘protect’ the biodiversity in those spaces. Later in October 2022, Prince William delivered his first speech as Prince of Wales at the United for Wildlife global summit in London, where he announced that the royal family would continue to champion wildlife conservation. Since 2015, British troops have been deployed to fight wildlife trafficking, making this a flagship mission of the British Army. According to the former UK secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, such missions help create a sense that UK is still a world power. We would be mistaken to dismiss these events as just another pompous display of innocuous imperial chauvinism. The West and their State allies have long weaponized wildlife to dispossess, deprive and murder indigenous people globally for the purpose of annexing territories and resources for imperialist and capitalist expansion under the guise of biodiversity conservation.  

Indigenous Africans in many parts of the continent maintained a long and deep relationship with wildlife before and during the colonial era that many carry on in the present. Conservation is embedded within their ways of life. Yet today, Africans are collectively too taken by the daily wretchedness of living under neo-colonial extractive oppression to contend with the plight of wildlife also dying and losing their natural habitats to global capitalism. For many of us, wildlife conservation is an exercise of futility reserved for the white saviour and their African allies too lost to whiteness.  

However, wildlife is as politically and materially urgent as it gets, with real and dire consequences for rural and poor Africans. Public discourse about wildlife conservation in the imperialist core greatly influences land and resource politics in Africa. The recent eviction of 70,000 Maasai pastoralist from Loliondo and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania is a case in point that brought public attention to the violence of conservation in Africa. The Maasai are a classic case, but they are not unique. Throughout the continent, pastoralists, fishers, and hunters are especially vulnerable to state sanctioned violence and social death in the name of conservation.  

The British royals have been a powerful representative of wildlife conservation since the dawn of colonialism on the continent. It’s also well documented that egregious wildlife trophy hunting expeditions partly funded the expansion of British imperialism. As Wandia Njoya reminds us, more than representative figures, the British royal family is part of a cultural system that legitimizes global capitalism. Similarly, the dominance of whiteness and the prominence of charismatic fauna in conservation is a useful colonial myth of benevolence allowing the colonial looting and violence to happen behind the scenes.  

White conservationists like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough helping the good Africans protect wildlife and nature from the Africans deemed disposable keeps the narrative simple and distracting. Talks of empowering communities by giving them meagre rights sidestep demands for land restitution and sovereignty. Thus, our preoccupation shouldn’t lie solely on questions of who should be the face of conservation happening on African lands. More importantly, we should interrogate the function of wildlife and biodiversity conservation within the matrix of imperialism and global capitalism.  

WESTERN CONSERVATION SERVES GLOBAL CAPITALISM

In 1972, long before political ecologists wrote on this issue, pan-Africanist and Marxist thinker from Guyana, Walter Rodney, called attention to wildlife conservation as a new form of imperialist exploitation and domination within the global capitalist economy. In his essay, ‘Problems of the Third World’, he wrote: 

International imperialism was threatening to transform Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania into the ‘Wildlife Republics’. Every effort was made to attract tourists to look at the animals, and the animals assumed priorities higher than human beings […] Certainly, tourism in all its aspects is proving to be one of the new areas of expansion of the imperialist economy. It is a new way of confirming the dependence and subjugation of Third World economies, being seen in its most arrant and vicious forms in the Caribbean territories. 

Rodney was right. The ‘Wildlife Republics’ he referred to are non-indigenous managed protected areas which include national parks, game reserves and the myriad of other places and spaces from which states evict their original inhabitants to provide special protection to wildlife and nature. The Global South accounts for two-third of almost 16 per cent of the world territorial cover of protected areas. African countries such as the Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Guinea have each set aside between 35 to 42 per cent of their national territories exclusively for wildlife and biodiversity conservation. They provide a place for the middle and elite class of the Global North to luxuriate in the African wilderness. Trophy hunters pay thousands to go on wildlife killing expeditions in those places, while Africans are hunted down and criminalized for hunting game meat to feed their family. The most dramatic growth of protected areas in Africa was between 1985 and 1995, which coincides with the continent’s wave of global neoliberal economic policies. Under the coercive grip of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund austerity policies, protected areas became a means to deliver economic development through wildlife conservation and tourism that significantly contributed to the national economy.  

The devastating impacts of protected areas on local communities are well documented including massive displacements from their ancestral lands. It has been estimated that 136 million people worldwide have been displaced from only half of the current protected areas. Yet plans are on the way to double their coverage around the world, by setting aside 30 per cent of terrestrial cover for conservation by 2030 as strategy to slow down global biodiversity loss. The much-touted 30×30 campaign was initially proposed by conservation organizations, pushed by corporate donors, and supported by the UN Environment Programme. Most alarming is the pace and scale at which this plan already materializing on the ground projects to absorb and integrate indigenous lands into the global capitalist structures. It intends to accomplish in less than a decade what it took 150 years to accomplish since the US settler colonial state dispossessed the Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock peoples to create Yellowstone National Park.  

CONSERVANCIES ENTRENCH INEQUITIES

Tourism development has been a major force and ally in the global conservation movement. Wildlife tourism and trophy hunting are often regarded as means to generate funds in support of conservation efforts while channelling economic development in local communities. Conservation and development schemes are founded on community-based natural resource management approaches (CBNRM) also known as conservancies. They open up communal land to external tourism and trophy hunting operators often under public-private partnership (PPP) banners. 

 My research, among many studies, shows that for the most part in Africa, CBNRM without secured communal land tenure weakens communities’ power to negotiate the terms of PPP giving greater advantage to private tour operators. This undermines locals’ resource use practices and entrepreneurial activities, exacerbating structural inequities in tourism and hunting benefit distribution. Namibia, for example, is often heralded as the poster child of conservancy programmes to increase communal resource rights. However, environmental anthropologist, Sian Sullivan’s work unveils how conservancies in Namibia are based on racialized land distribution systems and conservation laws requiring indigenous communities to further cede control of land and resources. While some of the 86 conservancies can access significant income streams from tourism and trophy hunting, the majority gain very little. Furthermore, lands under conservancies are now zoned to restrict communal grazing in areas closed for wildlife, recreational hunting and tourism reproducing devasting consequences for livestock and livelihoods. The Oakland Institute reported similar findings with tourism-based conservancies in Kenya.   

Tourism is by far not the only economic benefactor of wildlife conservation. Environmental social scientist, Tanyaradzwa Chigonda traces wildlife resource management in Zimbabwe and its response to global markets. Chigonda underscores how resource exploitation by commercial operators and consumers outside local communities is greatly influenced by the rising wildlife exchange values on external markets. Among these values is the demand for wildlife meat as an alternative source of protein to beef production. This has led to further devolving of wildlife management to private landowners while undermining indigenous rights. 

DISPOSSESING FOR PRIMITIVE ACCUMULATION

Another critical yet overlooked function of protected areas are their role in the global extractive project allowing corporations to extract resources from conservation lands. In their critical book The Big Conservation Lie, Mordecai Ogada and John Mbaria use the case of Kenya to show that extractive industries and the conservation agenda are increasingly one and the same. Indeed, it’s well documented that concessions for mining, logging, oil exploitation, and water resources are happening at an alarming rate on conservation lands. The Rainforest Foundation’s Mapping for Rights project maps extractive concessions in protected areas of the Congo Basin. Survival International has also reported on diamond mining concessions in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. Likewise in 2016, the government of Senegal issued a mining concession to Petowal Mining Company in the south-eastern part of the Niokolo-Koba National Park.  

These examples are just to name a few. But extraction is not always overt as protected areas have also entered the global carbon market allowing venture capitalists who are leading and working with conservation NGOs to diversify their financial portfolios. Critical geographer, Adeniyi Asiyanbi warns that protected areas are “increasingly enrolled in the legitimation of pervasive environmental destruction elsewhere, through widespread initiatives to ‘offset’ pollution, deforestation and so on.” A recent report by Mongabay news uncovered allegations that ‘conservation’ concessions covering millions of hectares in protected areas and indigenous lands were converted to carbon credit by Portuguese-owned timber businesses. This was yet another story of conservation titles owned by foreign investors raising concerns over the abuse of carbon offsets schemes.  

Conservation has also become the new arena of global security supported by the military industrial complex. Rosaleen Duffy’s book Security and Conservation: The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade, explores the alarming convergence of wildlife conservation and global security as many conservationists have linked poachers to terrorist groups. However, several studies have reported that the links between terrorism and poaching is overblown only to garner support for conservation from Western governments and institutions. Conservation provides a convenient excuse to subdue and evict resisting populations to open new markets for the US and British military, private security and military technology companies to allocate resources for themselves without oversight.  

Presenting poaching as a global security threat completely reshaped conservation policies on the ground by prioritizing shoot-to-kill policies, militarized approaches, law enforcement, criminal (in)justice system, and opening new markets through the commodification of anti-poaching services for private security businesses. Over 63 per cent of global funds to tackle illegal wildlife trade goes towards efforts in Africa and 70 per cent of those funds are directed towards strengthening law enforcement and the criminal (in)justice system.  

In short, non-indigenous-led wildlife and biodiversity conservation, as agrarian sociologist, Max Ajl, puts it, has become ‘a new arena of commodification for capital,’ which means to empty out such lands, to fulfil ‘Half-Earth fantasies and primitive  accumulation’ of lands to support global markets. The linkages that run through transnational conservation, international markets, and the colonial ideological apparatus that sustains imperialist expansion for global capitalism cannot be understated. These ideologies foster the cultural intuition that gives social licence to the state and private sector, backed by international governing institutions to dispossess local communities and heap violence on them in the name of conservation.  

WESTERN CONSERVATION RESTRUCTURES HUMAN-NATURE RELATIONSHIP

This year the world bore witness to the violent evictions of the Maasai and other pastoralists of Ngorongoro and Loliondo in Tanzania. For their bravery in exposing the callousness of conservation, we must honour the Maasai, who in no small part shaped the Serengeti and the areas around the plains that we revere today. To honour them is to also contend with the ideological forces that reproduces such ferocity against indigenous and local communities, in Africa and globally, in the name of conservation.  

It is not coincidental that indigenous lands targeted for conservation are some of the most biodiverse and contain the largest assemblages of megafauna. It is because indigenous people have stewarded those landscapes and the wildlife that roam on it since time immemorial that those places captivate the world. European explorers from the 17th century described and reported the distinguishable land use practices of Maasai with seasonal movement of livestock between lowlands and highlands. Despite the deep social and ecological transformations and contrary to the public narrative, the Maasai remain a beacon of communal land grazing practices that is adapted to the seasonal movement of wildlife.  

Countless Africans across the continent and diaspora like the Maasai in Ngorongoro, the Fulani pastoralists in the Sahel, the Somali nomads,  the Lébou fishers of Ngor, and the Gullah Geechee of South Carolina stood the test of time resisting colonial domination. Their natural world remains deeply intertwined with their cultural identity allowing them to maintain and reinstate non-extractive human-nature relations. It is their resistance to the extractive colonial order that has protected nature and wildlife. That resistance also renders them vulnerable to violence from capitalists and their state allies seeking to extract value from their land, labour and culture.  

There is ample evidence including geospatial data that traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous resource governance systems reproduce ecological resilience and biodiversity abundance. The Rights and Resource Initiative reports that indigenous peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants inhabit and customarily manage at least 50 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial area with some of the most intact forest and rangeland landscapes. They also estimate that up to 80 per cent of existing protected areas and 36 per cent of intact forest overlap with lands indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples inhabit; and Africa, as Garnett and colleagues discuss, has the highest proportion of Indigenous people.  

In Senegal, for example, the Diola people carry on spiritual practices that guide their land and resource use to provide protection for sacred forests, mangroves, and the animals and birdlife that depend on them. The Diola Karone live in and co-manage nature reserves with the Directorate of National Park in the southern region of Senegal, playing a critical role in the protection of endangered species like the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas).  

Examples of conservation areas where indigenous people inhabit and manage abound. But the colonial conservation ideological apparatus has done such insidious work, targeted at decoupling human-nature relations, that we can’t imagine places where colonial socio-ecological systems are not dominant. Western models of conservation are rooted in anti-indigenous ideologies and theories like wilderness and tragedy of the commons. These worldviews are imbued with colonial logic that demands the obliteration of indigenous ways of life while imposing dominant human-nature relationships. Many scholars and indigenous rights activists such as Jessica Hernandez and Stephen Corry  have written on wilderness as the colonial myth that landscapes are uninhabited, ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ by man, thus warranting the need to preserve those spaces separated from humans. Similarly, building from Elinor Ostrom work on indigenous common-pool resource theory, ample scholarship discredits the tragedy of the commons advanced in 1968 by James Hardin for failing to distinguish the commons from open access/private property which favours endless accumulation to maximize profit.  

Yet ideologies and theories like wilderness and tragedy of the commons continue to provide justification for indigenous dispossession, militarization and privatization of the commons. They legitimize Eurocentric and capitalist human-nature relations that continue to animate a host of conservation programs in Africa. In their guide to decolonize language in conservation, Survival International shows how binary terms like bush meat and game meat, poaching and hunting, herders and ranchers, and human-wildlife conflicts versus coexistence, permeate conservation discourses. This legitimizes capitalist consumption of nature while criminalizing indigenous resource use. These ideologies have so impregnated our minds that we consider any resource-based activities as destructive to the environment. The conversations in Kenya around the shamba system exemplify public misunderstandings of indigenous African human-nature relationship because of the ideology of wilderness imposed by colonialists. (Shamba is an indigenous agroforestry system practiced in East Africa that has proven to be viable ecologically and for livelihoods.)

GLOBAL CONSERVATION NEEDS INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY

The live streaming of the Maasai evictions garnered a public rebuke of the violence of conservation unlike any other. It also created the misperception that land theft by conservation needs to be sensational to reproduce violent outcomes and we would be gravely mistaken to hold on to that idea. As Leiyo Singo recounts with the case of the Maasai of Ngorongoro in Tanzania, land theft by conservation in this era is the result of a long and ongoing reordering of colonial environmental and land laws and policies coupled with state-sanctioned deprivation to systematically dispossess native communities. This is more insidious because it reduces the legal ground upon which the natives can reclaim their lands, and when that happens violence remains the only answer to resist dispossession.  

To truly contend with the violence of conservation in the global South we must give it the attention commensurate with its significance in the global capitalist system. Conservation is nested within the same global racial empire as extractive industries. Those who are paying the incommensurable costs of allegedly protecting forests, waters, and wildlife for the entire world are disproportionately located in the global South, particularly in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. Yet, like climate change, the fundamental drivers of biodiversity loss are political and economic structures that overwhelmingly benefit the capitalist core in the global North 

The record shows that even within conservation models aimed at empowering communities to manage their resource, the locus of power remains in the hands of the state, corporations, paramilitary, privatized law enforcement, and elected officials who all work in coordination to control conservation and community members. Conservation areas should be restituted to indigenous communities where they can exercise traditional governance systems of communal lands that have proven to be central to global conservation. The struggle to protect the world’s wildlife, waters and lands is a project of decolonization that is dependent on indigenous sovereignty

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