Disrupting the Dominant Conservation Paradigm
By Rosemary Alles, GMFER Co-founder and President
Worthy successes are to be found amidst the conservation story of today’s Africa. Still, such successes are scattered, dwarfed by the overarching tragedy dominating the remains of the continent’s wild heritage.
Despite significant resources pouring into Africa on behalf of conservation, iconic wildlife communities continue to plummet from poaching, trafficking, habitat loss, the bushmeat trade and the fallout from human wildlife conflict.
Together with Africa’s wild creatures, her indigenous human communities are also the victims of corrupt governments and the painful legacy of a colonial past that still leans toward privilege, racism and entrenched power structures unwilling to relinquish control.
The dominant conservation ethic governing the continent is colonial.
The dominant conservation ethic governing the continent is colonial. Most influential conservation organizations working in Africa are western or western leaning and largely disengaged from indigenous communities and culture. The boards of these organizations and their power structures do not readily accommodate black Africans. By significant numbers, local communities are alienated from colonial paradigms of conservation. Indigenous peoples and their wild relatives share a common heritage, yet the many stories of Africa—stories about the remains of a once vibrant rainbow, about the intersection at which disenfranchised human and animal communities meet, about Africa’s wild voice, these stories are almost singularly narrated by the western voice, an insulting, and incongruous reality.
The historical context that disenfranchised and displaced black Africans and robbed communities of their resources is often ignored in contemporary conversations about conservation. Approaches that may have contributed to successful conservation practices in pre-colonial times are rarely resurrected within a framework of listening and learning from indigenous cultures. Mythologies, stories and legends that formed the architecture of a distinctive way of life are dismissed as primitive and unsophisticated.
Indeed, only a sliver of indigenous cultures can be held up as poster children for a wiser way of being. Still, a reflexive dismissal of tradition and of those who do not “fit” or comply with the dominant conservation ethic can be experienced as alienating and disempowering, engendering deep-seated and legitimate resentments among the first people of the land.
We forget that there are ways of being in the world and in the company of wild creatures that do not have to mirror the dominant ethos intrinsic to western culture and western modalities of conservation.
At the heart of the overarching failure of conservation in Africa is the disengagement of indigenous communities from the conversation about conservation.
Undoubtedly, global, national and Asian markets for elephant ivory, rhino horn, lion bone, tiger bone, pangolin scales and the virtually infinite list of body parts of endangered creatures trafficked from Africa escalate the demise of iconic wildlife; corrupt governments and futile punitive measures contribute, as does rampant greed. Nevertheless, at the heart of the overarching failure of conservation in Africa is the disengagement of indigenous communities from the conversation about conservation.
If conservation in Africa is to succeed, parity must be established between emerging indigenous voices passionate about Africa’s wild heritage and western voices doing good work. Our conversations about conservation must depart from being didactic to experiential. We must reimagine the dominant paradigms governing conservation in Africa. The animals we love demand it; the humans who are our brothers and sisters call for it.