With no warning, the Batwa people of Uganda were brutally forced out of their forest homes by the Ugandan government in the early 1990s. Along with their land, food, medicine, culture, and the wildlife they had formed intimate relationships with, were suddenly barred from them. In the decades following, their lives continued to be drastically altered to provide space for natural parks. The destruction of their forest not only serves as the destruction of a place of sustenance, but as a place of identity. The trauma caused by the barriers is now becoming intergenerational, and any attempts to go back to their roots are violently punished. However, the Batwa people are determined to return home to the forest they love so dearly. 

Conservation has been pulling people away from nature. The global spread of Western conservation not only  disconnects people from the environment, but also forces them out of their land. Of the 6,000 national parks and 10,000 protected areas across the world, the majority have been constructed upon the removal of Indigenous peoples. Along with the Batwa people in Uganda are the Maasai groups in Tanzania, the Baiga people in India, the Baka people in Cameroon, the Hmong and Karen groups in Thailand, and many more who have been evicted to make way for wildlife, tourism, and people-free reserves.

Professor Kirigia points out that biodiversity depends more on how people relate to the land, since research shows that areas rich in biodiversity also have human populations.

Fortress conservation

The roots of Western conservation have rested on the dichotomy between nature and society that insists on separating humans from the rest of the natural world. Assistant Professor Kariuki Kirigia in the School of Environment and African Studies Centre at the University of Toronto, investigates intersecting issues of conservation, sustainability, Indigeneity, and African knowledge. 

For Professor Kirigia, the concept of separation is influential in Western conservation: “We have what we call national parks, national reserves, which are built off of the idea that we call fortress conservation… conservation is viewed as a practice that can only be successful if you separate people, or humans, from what you may call nature or spaces that need to be conserved or biodiverse.” However, Professor Kirigia points out that biodiversity depends more on how people relate to the land, since research shows that areas rich in biodiversity also have human populations. 

Conservation can be a form of creating profit that, in turn, eliminates practices that hinder or simply do not aid the capitalist agenda. This is why the issues with conservation models and practices can get sinister, and even deadly. 

A giant tenet in profit generation is tourism. 

“Tourism,” Professor Kirigia explained, “is very much built on this old-age idea of the search for wilderness.” He expanded that people attend safaris to escape into nature, but people and livestock are removed to produce a faux experience of wilderness for paying tourists. 

The danger, here, is a devaluation of Indigenous lives. In Kenya, where Professor Kirigia does his research, the Kenyan Wildlife Service criminalizes hunting. Since hunting is important to Kenyan people’s survival as a food source, its criminalization sets the precedent that wildlife is valued more than human life. 

This is what Professor Kirigia called an “embeddedness” in African communities between humans and non-humans, which can be seen in how common it is for Indigenous groups to name people after animals. For the Maasai people in Kenya, clans and age groups are associated with certain wild animals. The group adopts the positive characteristics of that animal. There is an inherent respect for the animal that the group is associated with. 

Connections to animals can go beyond association, and with animals such as livestock in their direct care, the Masaai people form deep relationships with the animals. For example, in a typical case of a wild animal hunting livestock, humans will retaliate. However, the Masaai pastoralists are more than willing to share, as long as the wild animals do not take too much of the livestock. 

Furthermore, their appreciation for domestic animals extends beyond those of wild animals. Livestock are significant in Maasai culture because each livestock animal, like a cow, will have its own name and meaning within the household. The Masaai people also check for their livestock’s health and well-being, and their loss can be emotionally devastating to the community. 

Even animals being hunted are provided respect. As Professor Kirigia put it, it is said that if a hunted animal is seen, it is presenting itself to the hunter to help them survive and provide, making it a “gift to sustain life.” 

Relationships to the land

The Maasai people’s approach to harvesting animals is very similar to the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people in Ontario. Tahohtharátye Joe Brant from Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation Territory is an assistant professor in both the Department of Linguistics and the Centre for Indigenous Studies at the University of Toronto. He is dedicated to the teaching, learning, and revitalization of Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. 

He described a concept, wherein animals are known as kontíryo, which Professor Brant says roughly means survival: “We have a responsibility to take care of ourselves as human beings and use all of these things that have been placed here on Earth for us. And animals… are used for [our] survival, and it’s a natural part of our lives to harvest game animals that have been provided for us and to us.” He explained there is a specific mindset for harvesting in general: one of humility and gratitude for the beings that give themselves to you. 

For the Kanien’kehá:ka people, responsibility is key. As Professor Brant explained: “Some of the teachings that I have are that conservation is about responsibility, and it doesn’t lie in the hands of certain political figures or the criminal justice system. But it lies within us, our physical and our mental and emotional and spiritual responsibilities to this world.” Furthermore, Professor Brant noted that there is no sense of ownership of natural entities, and the responsibility that lies within humans as caretakers is to leave the world just as good, if not better, for the coming generations. 

In Kanien’kehá:ka communities, the entity known as Yonkhi’nihsténha Ohóntsa, Our Mother, the Earth, is understood to be in a reciprocal caregiving relationship with people. First-language speakers of Kanien’kéha will say yethi’nihsténha or “we are a mother to her,” and yonkhi’nihsténha or “she is a mother to us.” This interplay of words represents an embedded reciprocity between humans and nature. 

There is also a practice in Kanien’kehá:ka communities known as Ohéèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen, which means “before anything else, before all the matters at hand.” The practice opens the day, meeting, or a ceremony, and it can create an opportunity for the speaker to join everyone together or for community members to connect to the rest of the world. The speaker asks people to come to a consensus that it is important for everyone to act with respect, love, and support for all people.

The concepts of respect, caretaking, reciprocity, and connection are missing within Western conservation. Instead, Western conservation focuses on concepts of management, containment, and control. These reflect an irreciprocal relationship between the land and people that place individuals in authoritative positions. 

The relationship between language and land is intertwined. In the words of researcher Kelly Whitney-Squire of Acadia University, “the land shapes the language and in turn, the language shapes them.” For some Australian Indigenous communities such as the Butchulla, Gunai, and Keerray Woorroong communities, the relationship between land and language is so intimate between land and language that it would be inappropriate to teach and speak one language on the land of another. 

Personal connections and context

Tyler Pennock — a two-spirit (reconnected) adoptee from a Cree and Métis family around Alberta’s Lesser Slave Lake region, and a member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation — is a writer and assistant professor at the Centre for Indigenous Studies at the University of Toronto. They tell their students that, “it’s not whether or not one’s relationship to land is integrated in language and oral tradition, but rather how it is embedded.”

Stories are built into a web, as they refer to one another within a greater context of knowledge. One story can lead a listener to more stories and to seek out more storytellers. In this process, community and culture are created.

In Indigenous literature, the specific relationships individuals have with the land is a persistent theme. Jeannette Armstrong, Joy Harjo, and Leslie Marmon Silko are among the Indigenous writers who Professor Pennock notes have mentioned how dialect is an expression of land. Definitions, interpretations, context, and the cadence of our communication and language are rooted in our spaces. 

Specifically, language and language practices are how knowledge is transferred. Professor Kirigia explained that land, like a library, contains knowledge, and if disrupted, it also disrupts the intergenerational of that knowledge. Since many African Indigenous teachings are transferred through oral tradition — which contains multitudes and depths of knowledge — the land is necessary for that knowledge transfer. Professor Pennock refers to Silko, who said stories are built into a web, as they refer to one another within a greater context of knowledge. One story can lead a listener to more stories and to seek out more storytellers. In this process, community and culture are created. 

There is also an acknowledgement of subjectivity within Indigenous knowledge and oral traditions. As Professor Pennock said, personal experiences are “put front and centre” of Indigenous knowledge, “not to obfuscate the knowledge” but to acknowledge the transmission of knowledge. Thus, experience and context are interwoven into the knowledge.

On the other hand, Professor Pennock noted that the relationship between science and society is fractured because “too often in science… we let our values destroy any sort of observation about anything, or what we think we understand about something [that] will lead us to ignore shit.” This can be seen in the case of science and conservation, to recall the dichotomy with capitalism. 

Moving forward 

Western conservation and science have colonial values, and their exploitative legacy continues to this day. However, it is important to challenge the separation from nature to reconnect with it instead. Reconnection starts with honouring languages and knowledge beyond the West. Professor Kirigia wants readers to know that, “African indigenous knowledge is valuable, it holds a lot for our future, a sustainable future, and even a future of both human and other than human life.” 

Professor Pennock also calls for a celebration of different ways of practising science by including various perspectives and languages in the scientific methodology. They said: “We’re not so removed from the land that it’s impossible for us to change our ways to support it. Your personal subjective context matters and has a part to play in things like cultural reproduction and scientific method.”

The process of decolonization in Western conservation can be complicated and daunting. But language, land, and knowledge are intertwined, so reclaiming land and relationships with land can also mean the revitalization of language. 

Professor Brant discussed his journey with the revitalization of Kanien’kéha and identified his personal cultural knowledge gap as coming from “the fact that we can’t possibly convey the authentic knowledge and experiences of Kanien’kehá:ka people in another language other than Kanien’kéha.” From there, he began learning the language and developing his proficiency. He believes the knowledge of the Kanien’kehá:ka people is inherent within the community, and must therefore be transmitted through Kanien’kéha. 

Professor Brant now feels a responsibility to transfer that knowledge and culture down the generations through the language: “Language is really the perpetuation — a way of sharing the accumulated knowledge and experiences of our people for millennia.”

There is still a lot to be dissected about Western conservation, academia, and the role of colonization in those spaces. Separation has been executed in many ways. That being said, the knowledge, languages, and voices of Indigenous peoples across the world are not lost or in a vacuum. As Professor Kiriga put it, solutions are found by “not operating as an enclosure, but relating with the rest of the world whilst standing on our feet of Indigeneity.”