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Are Western Conservation Efforts Causing Famine In Africa?

To save the African wilderness, industrialized countries are wrecking indigenous cultures and contributing to starvation. There is a better way.

As Americans anxiously watch stock market fluctuations, mothers and fathers a continent away are making choices about which of their children to save. In East Africa, worry about one’s retirement investments  is a fairy tale woe compared to the daily struggle for life that many face. 

You may have seen something on the television news about a drought in the horn of Africa. The worst such calamity in 60 years, the lack of rain has decimated farmers in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda. Over the last few months, 390,000 living skeletons have trekked from as far as Southern Sudan to a Kenyan refugee camp, fleeing hunger and war, deprivation and death.

What you may not have seen is that " conservation" efforts undertaken by well-meaning industrialized nations are partly to blame. To save remaining African wilderness, we’ve been impoverishing the very people who have kept it intact. First, we’ve prohibited hunter-gatherers and pastoralists from their traditional itinerant lives and then after we’ve turned them into farmers, we remove them forcibly from their lands.

The exact size of the area designated as protected in the region of this disaster is hard to assess. Somalia boasts 638,750 km of such lands, 11 national parks and 23 reserves. Kenya, an eco-tourism hub, has the most in the region and perhaps the continent: 348 protected areas on 75,238 km. While these may seem happy statistics in the current ocean of tragedy, in creating these preserves, African governments consciously evicted or prohibited from farming an estimated 1.5 million African indigenous inhabitants in the 1990s alone.

Yet the United Nations reported that in Africa the very same cultivation methods these evicted indigenous people always practiced “can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings.” What’s now in vogue as “small-scale mixed-use organic” is just status quo to these unheralded agronomists who know that monoculture and over-cultivation strips the land, and makes communities vulnerable to starvation when their few crops no longer bear fruit.

Traditional practices combining hunting, gathering and organic farming would not have cooled the blazing sun or made the rain fall.They would, however, have ensured the land could better withstand nature’s onslaught and provided alternative sources of food. Instead, narrow-minded policies that fail to see indigenous people as vital to protecting their homes exacerbate the destruction that horrible weather has wrought. Not only do too many of our conservation efforts force whole tribes into refugee camps (or graves along the way), they make preserving lands and wildlife cost more. 

Conservation experts, such as George Washington University’s Michal Cernea, have long recognized that a “park-establishment strategy predicated upon compulsory population displacement has…compromised the cause of biodiversity conservation by inflicting aggravated impoverishment on very large numbers of people.”

Scholars have a name for this: conservation-induced population displacement. That sounds euphemistically benign, but it means forcibly removing people who have lived harmoniously on lands in order to protect these lands -- global-sized proof that we’ll cut off our nose to save our face.

Conservation is big business – the budgets of non-profits involved in such schemes can dwarf the GDPs of the countries in which they work. International groups receive billions of dollars every year for taking over biodiverse areas in underdeveloped regions without regard for the human diversity that is integral to these lands. The prevailing ethos of pristine wilderness may attract tourism dollars but it’s an expensive, human-rights-violating approach that has never been proven to work.

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