Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Primitives" and Protected Areas: International Conservation and the "Naturalization" of Indigenous People, Ca. 1910-1975

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Primitives" and Protected Areas: International Conservation and the "Naturalization" of Indigenous People, Ca. 1910-1975

Article excerpt

In 2012, the publishing house of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a book on a hunter-gatherer population inhabiting the Philippines: the Tagbanua. The book straightforwardly glorifies the lifestyle of the group under consideration. During the book launch the Tagbanua were hailed for having "kept their forests, rivers and coasts in an almost pristine state for thousands of years." The Tagbanua, so it was argued, "have shown the world how people can steward nature without destroying it."1 The image is a familiar one. Since the 1980s it has been common in international conservation circles to talk about indigenous people as a resource. In this rhetoric, they are ascribed elaborate ecological folk knowledge, while being represented as successful stewards of the earth.

Such presentations of indigenous people (and particularly huntergatherers) have not been uncontroversial. Since the early 1990s an important number of anthropologists and ecologists have been debating whether hunter-gatherer populations can truly be typified as "Ecologically Noble Savages." Many participants in the debate have stressed that this idea reduces these populations to a romantic cliché that fails to acknowledge their actual cultural complexity and ecological footprint.2 This, however, has not stopped leading international conservation organizations-such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), and the WWF-from continuing to stress the importance of the stewardship of indigenous populations for their own conservation work.3

This positive view of indigenous people (and an engagement to "protect" their ways of life) might be read as a rhetorical break with an unpalatable past. Much of the existing scholarship about the pre-1980 period has, after all, stressed how Western conservation organizations have constructed a nature ideal in which there was no place for humans at all. Anthropologists, critical geographers, and research journalists have argued that this wilderness ideal is responsible for the well-documented conflicts with indigenous populations throughout the world, sometimes resulting in large-scale evictions from national parks. Seen as a threat to unspoiled nature, so the argument goes, indigenous people had to be displaced. The practices involved have been described as "enclose-and-exclude-conservationism."4

The discourses of exclusion in nature conservation have been well studied. This article, however, focuses on a discursive tradition within international nature conservation that has received far less scholarly attention. In this tradition (which dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century) the argument is made that "traditional" groups of indigenous people should be allowed to live in the areas the conservationists deem "natural." It is a discursive tradition of inclusion. This article will analyze the shifting composition of its argumentative arsenal.

In this analysis three conservationist arguments will be discussed. A first argument stated that "primitive" people were threatened with extinction and therefore required similar measures of protection as endangered plants and animals. Depending on the author, this protection could concern "races" or "cultures"-with the latter variant slowly out-competing the first. A second reasoning went that "primitive" people had a completely sustainable lifestyle and therefore did not alter the natural balance. In both arguments traditional cultures are "naturalized." They are not presented as exterior to wilderness, but as part of it. Next to these arguments, however, a third, more historical argument for defending some peoples' presence in nature reserves has been deployed. This argument does not originate in conservationist circles, but rather in the colonial legislation according to which indigenous people held customary rights in the areas they traditionally inhabited. These included, among others, rights of residence, hunting, fishing, harvesting fruit, and pasturing livestock. …

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