A few years ago whilst visiting the arid lowlands of western Kenya, we came across a man who had caught a monkey and was keeping it as a pet. He invited us to pet it, and then pose for a picture with it. After that, he tied it up to a nearby tree.
The monkey looked terrified, and I felt a mixture of unease and sadness: unease that the already frightened little mammal might get spooked and bite someone, transmitting some easy-to-contract and difficult-to-treat disease; sadness because the innocent primate was so visibly distraught and, even if he/she managed to escape or was set free, had probably been traumatised by the experience.
And yet, if someone catches a few dozen monkeys, removes them from their habitat, ships them on a plane and puts them in a cage, we’re delighted and sometimes even pay money to go visit this zoo!
This is a glimpse of the double standard that underlines much of conservation thinking in wealthy countries (and which I had internalised): poor people in ‘developing countries’ can’t be trusted with the well-being of the ecosystems in which they live. They are either too poor and preoccupied with survival to care about their environment and/or not sufficiently educated to appreciate the importance of conservation. Thus conservation, according to the colonial environmentalist, is best left to wealthy people in rich countries who have advanced degrees, and have specialised in the study of other peoples’ habits and other regions’ ecosystems.
Of course, there are many different varieties of environmentalism. Many of the most inspiring environmental movements of the last 50 years started among marginalised communities in developing countries: the Chipko Andolan (the original ‘tree huggers’) in India; the Green Belt Movement in Kenya (whose founder Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize); and the various peoples’ movements that have arisen in Brazil to protect the Amazon, such as Chico Mendes’ National Council of Rubber Tappers.
But despite these, many well-meaning Westerners still view poor people in developing countries primarily as potential threats to the environment. At best, the poor people can be re-educated in order to live more sustainably (wealthy westerners are in a good position to do this, having themselves perfected the art of living sustainably). But when worst comes to worst, colonial environmentalists are prepared to step in and defend the environment from poor people.
This fairytale narrative of colonial environmentalism serves interests far greater than the self-congratulation of educated Westerners with a savior complex. Indeed, the portrayal of poor people as not environmentally-friendly helps to legitimise the transfer of control of land and resources in poor countries to more sophisticated and technocratic managers in rich countries.
This isn’t meant as an indictment of all environmentalists in the West/Global North/Developed World (or whatever it is we call those rich countries that have already cut down their own trees and hunted much of the wildlife in their own countries to extinction). Again, there are lots of different environmentalisms, and lots of Westerners have gotten on board with the idea that people living in “biodiversity hotspots” could be viewed as allies rather than potential threats. Some academics are even willing to admit that indigenous communities that have been living in the same place for millennia maybe possibly know more about their environments than Western researchers who spent a few years doing studies.
It can be very difficult to leave old, colonial environmentalisms behind, not just because they allow certain people to feel better about themselves, but because their logic is so prevalent in Western environmental discourses as to be ambient. But I promise you, once you’re on the lookout, you’ll be able to spot it everywhere.