Environmental Colonialism: "Saving" Africa from Africans

By Nelson, Robert H. | Independent Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Environmental Colonialism: "Saving" Africa from Africans


Nelson, Robert H., Independent Review


Religious ideals have always been a central element in the interaction of the Western world with African society. Religion was a major motivation for the original fifteenth-century Portuguese explorations to discover the coast of Africa. Henry the Navigator was seeking to reunite European Christianity with the Christian kingdom of "Prester John," known to have survived in isolation for approximately a thousand years in Ethiopia. In the nineteenth century, David Livingstone opened up the interior of Africa in hopes of bringing Christianity to these domains. Yet the results of these religious missions have not always been very "Christian." Indeed, the spread of slavery and other forms of exploitation of ordinary Africans frequently followed in their wake.

The greatest current efforts to "save" Africa are associated with contemporary environmentalism. The results have not been as devastating as the experience of slavery, yet they have often served Western interests and goals much more than the interests of ordinary Africans. In some cases, local populations have been displaced and impoverished in order to create national parks and to serve other conservation objectives. Under the banner of saving the African environment, Africans in the last half century have been subjected to a new form of "environmental colonialism."

Many informed observers have held the view, although not well known to the general public in Europe and the United States, that environmental activism exhibits a neocolonial character in Africa. Raymond Bonner, for example, came newly to the African scene in the early 1990s from a long career in investigative journalism. He found that most of his preconceptions about African wildlife management--typical of popular attitudes shaped by conservation organizations and an uncritical Western media--were wrong. Indeed, he would write that "the longer I stayed in Africa,... the more I realized that the issues weren't so simple.... I realized that the way I, a Westerner, looked at wildlife wasn't necessarily the way Africans did" (1993, 7). As Africans achieve greater political maturity, however, Bonner thought, they will no longer "allow themselves to be dominated by Europe and the United States" (286). "They threw off colonialism" once, and Bonner now predicted that "one day they will throw off eco-colonialism" (286) in the management of their wildlife and other aspects of the environment.

In further exploring the neocolonial character of Western environmentalism in the African setting, I draw here on an impressive body of recent scholarly research. Many of these studies are by people who would be placed on the traditional left of the political spectrum. As seen from their perspective, it is no longer businessmen who are today most likely to be exploiting Africans for their own gain (most current capitalists are actually almost entirely indifferent to Africa, preferring to put their money elsewhere, where the returns are higher and more predictable), but rather the activities of the environmental movement.

I am not suggesting that the problems of environmental colonialism have gone entirely unnoticed until now; some observers, even some within important components of the environmental community, have noticed it. Indeed, for at least a decade international conservationists based for the most part in southern and eastern Africa have led a strong movement for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) (Hulme and Murphree 2001; Western, Wright, and Strum 1994). The CBNRM advocates have argued that successful wildlife conservation requires the assistance of local African populations (Child 1995; Murombedzi 1992) and have emphasized the importance of local economic benefits in order to create positive incentives for the protection of wildlife.

The efforts of such African conservationists, however, have often been undermined by their European and American counterparts (Hutton and Dickson 2000).

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