Are Conservation Organisations Complicit in Ethnic Discrimination?

Answering this question with an example of blatantly racist and coercive imagery endorsed and propagated by two large players in the conservation world, both internationally and in India.

The main entrance to Manas national park. Credit: Sougata Sinha Roy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

The main entrance to Manas national park. Credit: Sougata Sinha Roy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Note: A response from the Wildlife Trust of India, received shortly after this article was published, has been reproduced in full at the end.

Global wildlife conservation efforts have advocated the exclusion of local people from ‘parks’ and areas considered to be of great value to biodiversity, often supporting coercive means to achieve this goal. Among the coercive measures often suggested, some don’t shy away from even recommending violence towards ‘offenders’.

Governments, conservation agencies and aid donors have further legitimised this exclusion by frequently invoking the narrative of an expanding human population destroying ‘pristine’ landscapes, often ignoring the role of over-consumption by urban actors or of states and corporate interests extracting resources. Such coercive conservation measures often base their actions on blatant racism, since it is almost always the poor populations of colour that are blamed for environmental degradation throughout the world.

The subject of racism or of ethnic discrimination in conservation is often avoided in most privileged conservation circles, putting most conservationists on the defensive. Many believe that conserving biodiversity concerns itself with a future that is common to all and is hence neutral to class, race and is neither left nor right. However, there are numerous examples of conservation interventions worldwide that belie these claims.

The usual approach of blaming poor populations of colour for environmental degradation can be traced to the advent of the Sierra Club, a large environmental conservation group in the US founded by John Muir, arguably one of the founding fathers of modern day environmentalism, in 1892. Many modern states have used the human-free-nature concept in their projects of nationalism, ethnic differentiation and repression. For example, one of the reasons behind South Africa establishing the Kruger National Park was its acting as a symbol of a unified white national identity and as a part of the process that contributed to the systematic domination of black Africans.

In India, instances of ethnic discrimination and racism in the environmental conservation movement are extremely under-researched, overlooked and often intentionally ignored despite many reports of race- and caste-related oppression of marginalised communities throughout the forested landscapes of India. However, in India’s northeastern state of Assam this takes a more politically motivated and sinister form.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during one of his pre-election rallies, had suggested that rhinos in Kaziranga are being killed to make room for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. It is important to mention here that those seen as ‘illegal’ happen to be only Muslims. Hindus and immigrants of other religions are in fact supported by the current government, which even introduced a bill in Parliament to amend the citizenship act of 1955 to offer citizenship to immigrants of all religions except Muslims. More recently, on the orders of the Assam High Court, ruthless selective eviction drives were carried out against Bengali-speaking Muslims in Kaziranga; this even involved using armed security forces and led to the death of two people.

Creating a new ‘other’

To the northwest of Kaziranga and in the western part of the state, the Manas Tiger Reserve, a world heritage site, is recovering from a decade-long insurgency by armed Bodo groups. The Bodos are an indigenous community from Assam who initially demanded secession from India. Eventually, however, the main insurgent groups – Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) – agreed to a peace accord in 2003 and 2005 respectively. This created an autonomous territory, with the former rebels becoming the leaders of the government-created Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).

Since the accord, Manas has been managed jointly by the BTC and the Assam Forest Department, wherein BTC exercises a virtual veto over management decisions. Throughout the insurgency years, conservation groups, the government and the media almost uniformly painted the practices of Bodos as being detrimental to the conservation cause and the environment. However, with the creation of the BTC and the subsequent increased conservation efforts in Manas, the narrative of Bodos being the perpetrators of environmental degradation has waned, even though Bodos continue to follow the same agricultural and resource extraction practices (on many cases as is their right) that they always did. But with the Bodos having gained more representation and power within the government, a new villain has been created.

With the rise of a Hindu nationalist discourse throughout the country and in Assam, it is now the Bengali Muslims who are increasingly being marked out as the new ‘other’ – a threat to conservation and the root cause of encroachment and forest degradation. Most Bengali Muslims around the Manas tiger reserve eke out a living by doing menial labour work in tea plantations, farms or building projects. They have been subjected to violence from armed Bodo militants. In 2014, 38 people, mostly women and children, were killed in Khagrabari-Narayanguri a few kilometres from the main gate of the Manas National Park by militants of the NDFB (Songbijit), a breakaway faction of the NDFB that opposed the peace agreement and decided to continue the insurgency.

Groups like the NDFB (S) believe in ethnic cleansing of the Bodoland region and aim to wipe out non-Bodo populations, mainly Bengali Muslims and Adivasis (tribals from mainland India’s central and east-central states who were brought to Assam during the colonial era as indentured labour in the province’s many tea gardens). Across Bodoland, there is a very palpable atmosphere of hate and resentment against marginalised communities such as Bengali Muslims and Adivasis. This resentment often transpires into selective coercion and exploitation of these groups.

The ongoing restoration of the Manas is often held as a yardstick to measure the success of the BTC, and a host of national and international conservation organisations are now working on large conservation projects. Ideally these organisations and individuals should remain politically neutral and not be selective in their conservation interventions towards particular sections of the society. However, does that actually happen on ground? Or is there collusion between conservation organisations, the government and the larger political discourse of the region. Do conservation organisations take advantage of dominant political and social narratives?

An offensive poster

What follows is an example of blatantly racist and coercive imagery endorsed and propagated by two large players in the conservation world, both internationally and in India.

Source: Authors provided

Source: Authors provided

The image above is of a poster being used for “awareness communication” in the fringe villages of the Manas Tiger Reserve. Apart from the BTC logo, the poster bears the logos of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the largest animal welfare and conservation organisation in the world, and of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a large conservation NGO from India. A careful observation of the poster reveals some extremely disturbing details.

First, notice the coercive actions illustrated to showcase the illegality of certain practices (defined in the text as encroachment, trespassing and logging), uniformed forest guards beating shabbily dressed men, an elephant in the background destroying a deemed encroachment and a terrified villager running away with his essential belongings.

Second, and more importantly, notice the stark difference in the skin colours of the law enforcers and the apparent lawbreakers. All forest guards, including the mahout on the elephant, have been shown to be fair-skinned, while the men getting persecuted are noticeably darker, in all likelihood an imagery for the Adivasi minorities who are dark-skinned. This amounts to a textbook case of racism and ethnic discrimination.

Serious questions over complicity

While this poster highlights a case of obvious racism and discrimination, the real lesson will be lost if we only focus on the political incorrectness of the poster. The heart of the matter is that this poster is symbolic of the ground realities in Manas, and perhaps this ‘slip’, as we would like to believe it is, on the part of these organisations has only peeled the carefully crafted veneer of political correctness and inclusivity that these groups preach to their global audience.

This also raises serious questions over the complicity of these organisations in the discrimination and targeted persecution of a particular community. Moreover, as we would like to believe would be the case, even if IFAW and WTI authorities higher up in the hierarchy would dissociate themselves from this poster and condemn the use of such imagery, their cadres on the ground clearly don’t seem to have any such notions. These large conservation organisations would do well to immediately stop using these posters around Manas and issue a public apology for the same, while simultaneously sensitising their ground cadres on the inclusive conservation that they otherwise publicly preach.

This act should also serve as a lesson to the larger conservation community on how such negative imagery only propagates a sense of further alienation within the persecuted community – even as it amplifies existing social divisions and inter-community conflicts, all of which eventually politically destabilise the region. It also highlights the fact that there is an urgent need for calling out the wrongdoings within our conservation community without fearing ostracism by the group for such criticisms. Not speaking up can and will only lead to further cases of unjust conservation methods that eventually jeopardise both conservation efforts and the interests of local communities.

We truly hope that this critique will aid towards democratisation of conservation with broad-based consensus among all stakeholders, which in our view is the only hope for long-term conservation of species and landscapes, both in India and around the world.

Trishant Simlai, doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge, is interested in the links between armed conflict, militarisation and conservation in India. Raza Kazmi, a Jharkhand-based conservationist, is interested in conservation militarisation, intersection of forest rights and conservation needs, and conservation in India’s conflict-ridden ‘Red Corridor’ landscape.

Response from WTI (also available here)

This has reference to a report dated 13-11-2017 in the online news publication The Wire, titled ‘Are Conservation Organisations Complicit in Ethnic Discrimination?’.

First, and unequivocally, we at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) acknowledge that the design of the poster mentioned in the report is indeed problematic, particularly in terms of the overwhelmingly punitive relationship it conveys between enforcement agencies and local/migrant populations that live on the outskirts of Protected Areas. However, the article seems to level a charge of conscious racism and / or ethnic discrimination in a systemic sense. To this, however, we as a responsible conservation organisation must protest.

WTI has long understood that the long-term success of any conservation initiative hinges on the support and active participation of local communities. We firmly believe that conservation cannot be successful by making poor people poorer: in the ongoing antipathy between people and wildlife it is the poor that most often lose lives and livelihoods; we cannot require them to also disproportionately bear the costs of conservation.

In our field projects around the country, we work with and not against local communities, to reduce dependence on wildlife or wild habitats – and we do so not through coercion, but by fostering ecologically appropriate livelihoods and people’s participation in conservation.

This poster was designed and printed locally. We acknowledge that the responsibility for its content lies with us, not our international partner organisation IFAW or the local forest department, both of which played no role in its production.

The poster is in contravention of our fundamental attitudes towards wildlife conservation. We offer a wholehearted apology for its production and undertake to sensitise all members of our local staff as well as the individuals who were contracted to develop this collateral.

Trishant Simlai and Raza Kazmi reply:

We are glad that the WTI has issued a public apology and realises the problems posed by the poster. This reinstates our faith that the organisation is serious about working with local communities towards conservation interventions that are equitable and fair. We also wanted to add that we have very clearly mentioned in our article that WTI or IFAW as organisations may not be consciously and/or systematically racist or discriminatory, and that we assume that their senior officials did not clear this poster from their end. Moreover, by no means is our criticism of the organisations a blanket judgement on all projects across various landscapes supported by these organisations. We know capable and sensitive conservationists within WTI who we believe would have been as disturbed by this poster as we were.