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Western Nonprofits Are Trampling Over Africans’ Rights and Land

Indigenous people are being forced out from so-called protected areas.

By , an assistant professor in parks and conservation area management at Clemson University.
A ranger fires his assault rifle in Congo.
A ranger fires his assault rifle in Congo.
A ranger fires his assault rifle at a target during pre-deployment shooting practice in the Garamba National Park in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on Feb. 6, 2016. AFP/Tony Karumba

The accelerating deterioration of the natural environment has manifested in devastating loss of biodiversity and extreme weather events posing existential threats to our world. As a concerted effort to address the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, climate scientists and conservationists are advocating to double the coverage of protected areas by setting aside at least 30 percent of terrestrial cover for conservation by 2030.

The plan, known as Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, was initially proposed by Western non-profit conservation organizations, pushed by corporate donors, and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Indigenous and human rights activists, however, are sounding the alarm, noting that the plan would further dispossess Indigenous lands for commodification under the guise of conservation. They are comparing the so-called 30x30 plan to the second scramble for Africa and a “colossal land grab as big as Europe’s colonial era” that will “bring as much suffering and death.”

Protected areas are all the national parks, game reserves, forest reserves, and myriad other places and spaces where states evict their original inhabitants to provide special protection from human interference. They already cover 15.73 percent of the world terrestrial surface—and two-thirds of that is within the global south. Within Africa, countries such as the Republic of Congo, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Guinea have each set aside between 36 to 42 percent of their national territories exclusively for wildlife and biodiversity conservation compared to nearly 13 percent in the United States.

The accelerating deterioration of the natural environment has manifested in devastating loss of biodiversity and extreme weather events posing existential threats to our world. As a concerted effort to address the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, climate scientists and conservationists are advocating to double the coverage of protected areas by setting aside at least 30 percent of terrestrial cover for conservation by 2030.

The plan, known as Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, was initially proposed by Western non-profit conservation organizations, pushed by corporate donors, and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Indigenous and human rights activists, however, are sounding the alarm, noting that the plan would further dispossess Indigenous lands for commodification under the guise of conservation. They are comparing the so-called 30×30 plan to the second scramble for Africa and a “colossal land grab as big as Europe’s colonial era” that will “bring as much suffering and death.”

Protected areas are all the national parks, game reserves, forest reserves, and myriad other places and spaces where states evict their original inhabitants to provide special protection from human interference. They already cover 15.73 percent of the world terrestrial surface—and two-thirds of that is within the global south. Within Africa, countries such as the Republic of Congo, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Guinea have each set aside between 36 to 42 percent of their national territories exclusively for wildlife and biodiversity conservation compared to nearly 13 percent in the United States.

Political ecologists Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy point out that 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. During that period, powerful institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, imposed structural adjustment plans all meant to reduce the power, reach, and interference of government and give industry greater freedom and less red tape surrounding natural resource use. As such, protected areas became a means to deliver, under coercive pressure, economic development through wildlife conservation and tourism that significantly contributed to the national economy.

But protected areas come at an incalculable price for local communities, both culturally and economically, from the loss of spiritual practices on ancestral lands to food insecurity when subsistence and traditional resource use is forbidden to the deprivation of water for irrigation or hydroelectricity. In Africa, fortress conservation, a term coined by conservation social scientists to describe the dispossession and militarization of the commons to supposedly protect biodiversity, has reached a pinnacle.

National parks and nature reserves in the global south provide the middle and elite classes a place to recreate and luxuriate in a wilderness emptied of its original stewards. Tourists relish in sightings of the world’s most iconic wildlife and landscapes. For those who want to indulge in some local culture, they can purchase a safari package that includes cultural performances or artifacts from the Indigenous peoples violently evicted from their lands and now compelled to commodify their culture for the Western colonial gaze. If one is lucky, one can catch an environmental education program, where a local tour guide and white scientist team up to sell you their wildlife savior narrative, nudging you to donate funds to support conservation efforts that will allegedly save wildlife while providing meager employment to the dispossessed and impoverished African. Thus, perceptions of national parks and nature reserves as sustainable are reified.

But protected areas are not benign spaces, and their devastating impact on local communities is well documented. Estimates of the number of people displaced vary between 10.8 million people and 173 million people. As people are moved to the buffer zones of parks, their lives are made so unbearable due to the profound shift in their activities caused by displacement that they eventually move away. Conservation resettlement schemes are usually militaristically disciplinary, involving regulations and surveillance to make sure displaced people don’t reenter the park to access vital livelihood resources.

On a large scale, protected areas impose boundaries and fences on top of colonial spatial configurations that have already rendered regions of the global south extremely vulnerable to social and political instability. They change land use patterns for pastoralists, shrinking their grazing lands and exacerbating conflicts among them and cultivators. They drastically cut access to freshwater resources for traditional fishing communities for whom fisheries are their main source of income and protein. They force the criminalization of subsistence resource use essential for the food security of isolated rural communities. Conservation-related arrests and killings of Africans go vastly unreported, but the report of nearly 500 Mozambican men killed by South African park rangers over accusations of poaching coupled with isolated investigative reports give a sense of the scale of the issue. Yet the vast majority of poaching arrests are over subsistence resource use, such as small- to medium-size game meat.

The price paid in human suffering is not recompensed by ecological gain. Extensive scholarship and reports show that protected areas, especially those imposed and stripped off all Indigenous peoples’ rights, fail to protect biodiversity in the global south. A recent study published in Nature found that although protected areas prevent habitat loss, there is a critical lack of evidence for their effect on species’ populations, putting into question their effectiveness in biodiversity conservation. In fact, the steady decline in wildlife populations despite the expansion of protected areas should alert the world of the urgency for alternative conservation models. In contrast, there is a growing consensus that areas where Indigenous communities exercise traditional rights are fundamental to global conservation efforts by slowing down biodiversity loss. Author Stephen Garrett and his colleagues demonstrate through geospatial data that countless Indigenous governance systems have already proven to be remarkably persistent forms of conservation methods—and currently manage many of the world’s most intact places.

These criticisms have been publicly raised with the nonprofit sector and Western governments. But there is little willingness to listen. Plans are still underway to double the territorial cover of protected areas. None of the major international conservation agencies have formulated a coherent, systematic, and effective approach to redress the extreme injustices that local communities have endured ahead of the 30×30 plan. Even more remarkable is that major players in the global arena, like the United Nations and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are backing the plan to further dispossess Indigenous communities for the expansion of protected areas that have historically failed at protecting biodiversity. Although it is not a unique case, the World Wildlife Fund has been plausibly accused of complicity in grotesque human right abuses, including murder, torture, and rape of Indigenous people as coercive eviction practices. Currently, the Maasai peoples are facing violent evictions to expand the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Here’s how this plays out on the ground. In May 2019, African Parks, a nonprofit conservation agency, acquired the management of Pendjari National Park, under contract with the government of Benin. The park is the last refuge for elephants and lions in this subregion and forms part of the transboundary biosphere reserve that includes Arly National Park in Burkina Faso and W National Park, which spans three countries. African Parks embodies the growing influence of fortress conservation driven by Western capitalists and their allies in the African political class. Founded in 2000 by a Dutch billionaire with a quest to profit from Africa’s natural heritage, the agency today manages 19 national parks and protected areas covering more than 14.8 million hectares in 11 countries across West, Central, and southern Africa. Since its beginning, the agency has been at the forefront of the militarization of parks in Africa, recruiting rangers from local communities who receive paramilitary training from South African, French, and Israeli military personnel.

African Parks is not a unique case. There are numerous conservation nonprofits led by Western capitalists who are after their own private interests and bankroll their own platforms, such as Capitals Coalition, to push their ideas about the best way to save the last remaining African wildlife. For example, the Nature Conservancy and its partners put forth a “Financing Nature Report,” where they estimate close to a trillion dollars needed in expenditures “to reverse the biodiversity crisis by 2030.” Although there are many local and well-intentioned conservation nonprofits, weak internal structures and lack of financial support leave them heavily dependent on the support of the largest nongovernmental organizations.

Transnational conservation is dominated by mostly five international NGOs from the global north, with combined assets equal to the gross national product of many African countries and having strong ties to extractive industries and finance institutions. A quick look at the leadership teams of the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and African Parks shows panels full of CEOs, billionaires, and investment bankers from financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Merrill, and Blackstone.

In their groundbreaking book, The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, authors John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada lay out the ways in which NGOs have the financial muscle to effectively achieve state capture in some developing countries, imposing a paradigm of conservation aligned with private interests—with often brutal consequences for Indigenous people.

The Nature Conservancy, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the World Wildlife Fund routinely fund policy discussion meetings, sending Kenyan delegations to international conferences. Most alarming is their lobbying of the U.S. government to increase funding for militarized conservation by presenting wildlife poaching as a threat to global security and pushing southern African states like Botswana to adopt shoot-to-kill policies to fight wildlife crime. Militarized forms of wildlife protection and anti-poaching units are increasingly justified by conservation NGOs, turning to private military companies and former military personnel to guard and enforce protected areas. Duffy explains that the growing number of private companies offering conservation law enforcement reflect wide global changes that have seen a rise in outsourcing security and an enhanced role for private military companies.

Although fortress conservation dominates on the ground, it has been met with pockets of community and Indigenous resistance potent enough to force a paradigm shift in international policy discourses toward community-based conservation (CBC). The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development officially marked the beginning of this paradigm shift by acknowledging the conservation ethos and role of Indigenous people. A wave of institutional reforms in Africa’s national parks ensued to accompany the decentralization of park management authority from the central government to local communities with the intent to create greater space to participate and benefit from conservation.

Buffer zones, a concept first appearing in the 1977 World Heritage Convention, became integrated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Protected Area categories, allowing for limited and closely monitored resource use. They became central to the decentralization process and carrying out CBC programs, making provisions for local people to participate in and benefit from conservation. But as CBC proliferated, so too have the tools of conservation become more sophisticated and obfuscating to come up with innovative ways to dispossess Indigenous communities and accumulate capital as well as extract wealth. Private interests co-opt CBC schemes through legal frameworks and formal channels.

Amid a drastic ecological crisis, the world needs immediate best practices. The Oakland Institute published a report in 2021 showing that many community conservancy schemes in Kenya devastate wildlife and pastoral livelihoods as state agencies and their partners prop up CBC to serve outside private interests. The existence of a legal framework to protect Indigenous rights from state and private capture plays a foundational role in strengthening CBC capacity to deliver positive outcomes for biodiversity and its people. Decades of research—with case studies from Namibia, Peru, and South Africa, where several communities were the beneficiaries of newly defined communal land policy—show that beside restoring justice and promoting development, it also created a stable investment environment while providing communities bargaining power against predatory and ecologically damaging practices. In some instances, this policy granted them tenure rights to include all renewable natural resources on the land, including wildlife and tourist attractions.

Privatizing and militarizing the commons to protect biodiversity should have no place in our world. Instead, land should be restituted to their original owners by birthright, where they can exercise traditional rights that have proven to be central in global conservation. The struggle to protect land, water, and wildlife from destructive forces is deeply entangled with the decolonial struggle. Survival International has been at the forefront battle to decolonize conservation by working with Indigenous communities to protect their land and livelihoods. The Red Deal, a manifesto and movement borne of Indigenous resistance and decolonial struggle, offers a vision that calls for nothing less than a radical transformation of our relationships with one another and the land that we should all draw lessons from to save the last remaining biodiversity hot spots.

Aby L. Sène is an assistant professor in parks and conservation area management at Clemson University.

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