Decolonising Nature. Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era

review of Decolonising Nature. Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era


Decolonising Nature. Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era

W M Adams & M Mulligan

Earthscan, 2003


In a time where mainstream conservation continues to fade into forgetfulness about its social roots and loses sight of solidarity, politics and struggle, in favour of engagement with corporates, this book, a series of essays, is more than timely. The very fact it uses the word ‘colonialism’ is a good start, but it goes deeper than this, and roams over some wide and sometimes controversial landscapes.


A key question addressed in this book is where modern conservation ideas come from. Unlike many overviews of the environment movement, which tend to defer to US luminaries such as John Muir or Aldo Leopold, Decolonising Nature considers the influence of the early field naturalists, a wonderfully British late Victorian phenomena, but beyond this, places movement history into a deeper political context, noting that because ‘conservation’ as we know it was formed during the later days of the British empire, this indelibly imprinted on how it evolved. It was not until the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s that a new, more political and socially engaged environmentalism became (briefly) dominant.


William Adams notes that the role of Empire (and its underlying rationalist science approach to resource management) has fuelled polarisaton in terms of our understanding the world (for instance, the idea of superior/ inferior species) and this, in turn, fuels human/ nature dualism, and leads us to unhelpful understandings of nature (‘wilderness’ becomes ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’). A colonisation of nature has been built up through various frameworks – physically through invasion and the creation of neo-Europes, and intellectually through Eurocentrism, which justifies the subjugation of the ‘other’ (both first Nations peoples and landscapes). Prominent Indigenous academic, Marcia Langton, considers the role of Indigenous people in conservation, drawing some of her older work into a sharp contemporary focus; especially around the impacts of the global market on the indigenous world. She notes that ‘western conservationists are increasingly aware of the dilemmas for indigenous peoples; and yet, considerations of equity and justice remain peripheral in the delivery of … conservation programs and resources’. Control over intellectual property rights and access to resources have always been pivotal issues for indigenous communities, and so, as greens grapple to deal with these issues, or simply ignore them, new forms of colonisation have come into play along side the ‘decolonisation’ process, including in the realm of conservation.


The Australian environment movement has largely been fairly insular, and tends to look to Northern America for ideas. So it is refreshing to read about conservation in South Africa and Scotland, and the reality of Southern or majority world environmentalism: where key questions hover around how to balance the pressing needs of, in the case of South Africa, a ‘previously disenfranchised, now politically powerful, majority of black people’ with environmental protection. In practical terms this will mean finding the nebulous balance between the protection of wild places in conservation reserves with attempts to achieve ‘sustainable’ resource use. It also takes a good look at the question of land claims in national parks. While in many places, these parks were sometimes created through dispossession of indigenous peoples, in South Africa they are now being ‘targeted for land restitution objectives’. Beyond just academic approaches, one chapter looks at what this conflict is like in the real world, in the Kruger and other parks in South Africa.


Decolonising Nature notes that the contemporary environment movement is in a state of flux, and that it is not yet clear whether it will ‘facilitate the decolonisation of nature’ or whether conventional biodiversity conservation will continue to prevail, thereby maintaining and re-inforcing colonialism, for instance, through ongoing displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands.


There is also the question of Aboriginality and how non-indigenous Australians should relate to land and indigenous cultures. It doesn’t offer a single solution, rather giving outlines of various approaches, starting with Peter Read and his theory of ‘belonging’, and finishing with the suggestion that as humanity, country and conciousness have co-evolved in Australia, all three are ‘inseperable, and have been throughout human history’. A growing connection to place by many in this country has resulted in a shift, over time, even in the traditionally polarised debate over Australia’s forests. The authors say that love of place is a better tool to engender action than the use of fear, and that developing a place responsive culture is (in Val Plumwood’s words) a revolutionary process as it requires changing institutions and practises that are a barrier to understanding and protecting place.


External forces, such as globalisation, are also impacting both on environments and ideas of environmentalism. Penny Figgis outlines some of the responses and the new tools that become available, including international treaties, increased recognition of Indigenous rights, and the gaps created by the retreat of government as market mechanisms and other forms of privatisation become ‘major features of future conservation’.


I enjoyed the fairly unusual combination of attention to spirit of place which was matched with the need to embrace social justice that forms the basis of much of this book. Martin Mulligan notes that the environment movement is going through a period of critical self examination and that the call for a ‘whitefellla dreaming’ makes sense in this context, as there will be limits to how successful ‘rational’ appeals for nature conservation can be. The book ends with a series of suggestions for environmentalists, from the need to build dialogue with indigenous communities and internationalise our work to the need to shift from preservationist ideologies to new forms of ethical engagement with the land.


For anyone concerned with the future of the green movement, or its impacts on indigenous self determination, this book offers some thoughtful and diverse suggestions and perspectives.


Cam Walker

Cam is campaigns co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth Melbourne.



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