Want to save wildlife? End Colonial Capitalism

A new story in Buzzfeed has revealed that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been funding and arming paramilitary groups throughout the global South. These militias, ostensibly created in an effort to stop poaching have among other things, killed and tortured indigenous people. We as leftists rightly recoil from these acts of racist and imperialist violence, but the conservation movement has for many years been built on the bodies of indigenous people. This recent expose reveals only a blatantly gruesome, modern form of an old imperialist and racist understanding of human’s role in the ecological world. Indeed, many of the US National Parks, considered by many the most impressive and wide reaching conservation achievement in the world, were once sacred homelands of indigenous nations, who were run out, tortured and killed in the name of “conservation”.

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In retrospect, it is clear that killing and exiling nations which were able to exist in a mutually beneficial relationship with their environment for tens of thousands of years, and replacing them with a civilization which in the span of two centuries has brought Earth to the brink of eco-apocalypse, was maybe not the best move for protecting the environment. However, it was common sense for centuries. Like many of the worst ideas of our culture, the idea that humans, including and especially indigenous humans, must be removed from nature in order to save it, that “pristine wilderness” must be quarantined from “destructive humanity” has its roots in white supremacy. When European colonists arrived in the what is now the United States, they did not recognize the active engagement and management of ecosystems by indigenous nations as “agriculture”. To their eyes, the land was a “virgin wilderness” being “wasted” on “unproductive” peoples, given to them by god to tame and develop. This idea is still invoked in racist notions of the US founding and in the justification for the expropriation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state.

It could not be further from the truth.

The indigenous people of the Americas, like indigenous people all over the world, were engaged in active management of the ecosystems in which they lived. Advanced agricultural techniques like prescribed burning were used to encourage the growth of gardens of edible food within old growth forests or prairies, the purposeful management of herds of Bison and other wild game stood in for (arguably much crueler) European-style animal husbandry. These are just two examples of countless place-specific practices which allowed and allow indigenous people to live in reciprocity with the ecosystems in which their societies developed. They meet human needs while avoiding the destruction and simplification of ecosystems which is a hallmark of colonial capitalist civilization. Even today, international organizations like the UN recognize that 80% of extant biodiversity is located on indigenous lands.

There is a danger of misinterpreting these facts, which is often done, to mean that indigenous people are somehow genetically, racially, even magically distinct from other peoples. That there is an innate or metaphysical connection between the “race” of indigenous people and Earth. But leftists need to reject this essentialist notion as well. Not only is this idea intimately tied to the same white supremacist sentiments that hold indigenous people to be of another kind, perhaps even closer to non-human animals than other humans, it is also useless in terms of constructing a just, equitable and ecological future.

The lesson leftists must take from indigenous cultures is not that this or that group of humans is inherently ecological or anti-ecological. The most basic concepts of evolution belie the claim that any species could evolve to be uniquely unsuited to live among other species. Such a species could simply not have survived, as humans have for hundreds of thousands of years, without wiping itself out. Instead, we must learn that human society evolves out of the strictly zoological world, and is no less a part of the biosphere than are pods of whales or flocks of birds, and we can design it to function in reciprocity with the rest of the natural world, or not. The issue is not humanity or civilization per se, but this particular hierarchical, colonial, capitalist society which, in the name of capital, simplifies and interrupts Earth systems to the detriment of humanity and thousands of other species.

The idea that civilizations are historically or ecologically contingent is anathema to the defenders of the status quo. It is clear on the face of it that a society constructed on ecological principles could not allow for capitalism, which considers non-human nature as nothing more than a collection of commodities to be extracted, or colonialism, which drives the kind of systematic deprivation which drives things like the illegal wildlife trade. John Bellamy Foster talks about ecological imperialism and the global metabolic rift, referencing Marx’s writing on early British capitalism’s severing of the metabolic connection between peasant farmers and the land they worked. Prior to capitalism, plant, animal and human waste were returned to the fields from which the peasant’s food came, so that the peasants were in an reciprocal, cyclical and ecological relationship with the land. Under capitalism however, nutrients extracted from the soil in the form of food are exported to distant locales and disposed of, so that the relationship becomes a unidirectional, exploitative one. This led to what Foster considers the forebearer of today’s resource-extraction colonialism — the mining of bird guano by the capitalist nations from islands off the coast of South America. Today, this exploitative relationship has been exported all over the world, as resources are extracted from the global periphery to the imperial core. We know that poaching is driven by demand from developed countries and exacerbated by economic strife, and the hunting of bushmeat did not become a real threat to wildlife populations until the imperial powers drove these species right up to the brink of extinction through natural resource extraction and habitat destruction.

If we want to conserve biodiversity then, the answer is to return stolen lands to indigenous people and to provide, through reparations from the imperial nations, a path to a comfortable, dignified life. We must learn from these ancient civilizations to reconstruct the global capitalist colonial society into a just and ecological one.