books conservation human rights

The Invention of Green Colonialism, by Guillaume Blanc

A few years ago we visited the Lake District as a family. We walked in the hills and visited Ambleside and Keswick, two small towns located within the National Park and UNESCO world heritage site. This is not uncommon in Britain’s national parks. There are certain restrictions on what you can and can’t do, but people live in them. They drive their cars, run their businesses. Farmers graze their animals on the hillsides.

If that’s how things are done in Britain and in many places in North America and Europe, why were the people driven out when Simien National Park was created in Ethiopia’s highlands? Why did UNESCO strip it of its world heritage status when they returned?

That’s the starting observation of Guillaume Blanc’s book The Invention of Green Colonialism: “In Africa, a national park must be empty.” Across the continent people have traditionally been cleared from wildlife reserves, often with violence. A million people have been displaced. Nomadic tribes are excluded. No farming or grazing is permitted within the parks. Locals are forbidden to hunt the wildlife, though visiting foreigners can pay for the privilege.

To investigate this inequality, the French historian Guillaume Blanc tells the story of the ‘discovery’ of Africa’s wildlife by western explorers. From early expeditions onwards, Europe became captivated by the notion of Africa as a wild and unspoiled landscape. The megafauna that had been exterminated elsewhere still thrived on the continent. It was like the garden of Eden.

This is often how Africa is conveyed in movies and documentaries, though as Blanc argues, it was always a fantasy. Africa was occupied. It’s just that its occupants weren’t valued. Where national parks of the global north might see human settlements as belonging in the landscape, culturally appropriate and perhaps ‘part of the charm’, the presence of African people and culture was seen as ‘spoiling’ the untouched wildness. And so as colonial powers began to create and designate national parks, they cleared the residents.

In order to justify the evictions, a narrative emerged that framed farmers and herders as destructive. It was the people that cut down the trees and killed the animals. No doubt this was sometimes the case, but often this was based on assumptions about nature that didn’t necessarily translate to an African context, says Blanc. For example, large parts of Europe were once forested and would naturally revert to forest if left alone. Colonial authorities often assumed this was true in their African territories, and wrote about the ‘lost’ forests that had been cleared by careless locals. “These savages,” said Theodore Roosevelt on visiting Uganda, are “wastefully destructive of the forests.”

The reality was more complex. In most places people lived alongside wildlife, which had of course survived for thousands of years before white people showed up. In some places the imperialists might be looking at the remnants of a forest at risk, but in other places it was the opposite – the land would naturally be dry scrubland, but human settlements had created the conditions for trees and woodlands. Regardless, local people and traditional lifestyles still got the blame – even when deforestation had been caused by colonial expansion and crops grown for export. Initially spoken and increasingly unspoken, the underlying logic was that “the modern and civilised world must continue to save Africa from the Africans,” writes Blanc.

The ground rules for conservation in Africa were laid down without scientific land and wildlife surveys, at a time of white supremacist colonial rule. This pattern and its injustices survived the end of empire, locked into the workings of western institutions. Independent African governments often did as they were told in order to secure funding, often under the guidance of foreign experts. The legitimising of violence and displacement in the name of wildlife also gave corrupt local elites a valuable tool. Dictators could declare a reserve and then oppress tribes that didn’t vote for them. Socialist governments used conservation as an excuse to dispossess farmers and centralise land ownership. All approved and signed off by western institutions that valued the wildlife and not the people.

The book’s historical overview goes through a series of eras, from colonial times to early independence, to the age of sustainable development and community conservation. Across them all Blanc shows how racist hierarchies and paternalistic approaches persisted. It’s detailed, full of case notes and statements from letters drawn straight out of the archives of UNESCO, the WWF and the IUCN. This direct and original research makes the racism and double standards explicit and indisputable. It’s there in the conservationist’s own words, like the rapporteur who concluded that it would be necessary to “extinguish all individual and human rights” within the parks in order to keep locals out.

This attention to the archives is the book’s strength, and its biggest contribution. I also liked the way Blanc grounds the book in Simien in Ethiopia, avoiding generalisations. He writes about other places, but regularly returns to Simien, where he includes the voices of local people and evicted farmers, and also park rangers and foreign tourists. The Invention of Green Colonialism is a stinging critique of conservation in Africa, but Blanc is not blind to the compromises and complexities on the ground.

What can be done about it now? That’s not something the book gets into, and the book was criticised for this in its original French edition. I understand why it doesn’t go there. As a historian rather than a conservationist, Guillaume Blanc is telling the story of how it went wrong. You’ll have to look elsewhere for more hopeful approaches. The task of this book is to present the history so that we can understand contemporary tensions in conservation. We can learn from history and do better in future.

  • The Invention of Green Colonialism is published by Polity and is available from Earthbound Books UK.

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