August 31, 2011

Parks evict tribes from "wilderness"

Two Different Approaches to 'Wilderness'

By Joanna EedeThe concept of "wilderness" has long existed, in Western culture, as a place of pristine natural beauty--unpolluted by human life: an Eden sanctuary, an antidote to urban living. During the 19th century such ideas were reflected in art of the time. "In wilderness is the preservation of the world," wrote Henry Thoreau. For naturalist John Muir, communion with nature served to wash his spirit "clean," while the photographer Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite national park famously contained no sign of human life.

In attributing other-worldly qualities to nature, however, and in seeing them as sacred spaces where God lives but man must not, ideas developed which were arguably at the root of conservation policies. "For decades, the idea of 'wilderness' has been a fundamental tenet of the environmental movement," wrote the historian William Cronon. Such policies adversely affected the indigenous tribal peoples for whom such "wild" places were merely "home."
And:It was in Yosemite that the world's first national park, which had been cared for by the Ahwahneechee people for generations, was established. Yellowstone National Park was subsequently created in 1872, when the government evicted the Indian tribes who are thought to have lived there for more than 11,000 years.

Today there are an estimated 120,000 protected areas worldwide, covering nearly 15% of the world's land surface. Conservation is undoubtedly vital when the biological diversity of the planet is so threatened. But the sorry backdrop to these statistics--the story that is overlooked in the desire to preserve the "wild"--is one of intense human suffering. For in the creation of reserves, millions of people--most of them tribal--have been evicted from their homes.
Eede's conclusion:Tribal peoples continue to be left out of discussions concerning the protection of their homelands, despite the fact that so often it has been they who, in the words of Davi Kopenawa, "preserve the flood plains, the hunt, the fish and the fruits." Corry thinks that the conservation of biodiversity should only be promoted with the consent of the indigenous. "Protecting ecosystems does not mean protecting them from the people who have always been their guardians," he says. "Conservation rights shouldn't trump tribal rights."

There may also be room for a broader cultural objective; one which lies in reshaping the popular idea of "wilderness" in western thinking, by acknowledging the ancient interrelationship of man and the natural world. For destructive attitudes are born partly of dualistic ideas; in emphasizing the separateness of man and nature. "Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from it is likely to reinforce irresponsible behaviour," says William Cronon. The world's tribal peoples still intuitively grasp this symbiotic relationship better than most; in the words of Davi Kopenawa, "The environment is not separate from ourselves; we are inside it and it is inside us."
Comment:  This is an interesting essay because it flips the Western notion of wilderness on its head. According to Eede, there's no such thing as "untamed wilderness" and there hasn't been for millennia. There are only well-tamed or badly-tamed "wildernesses." Indigenous landscapes generally belong in the former category and Western landscapes in the latter.

For more on national parks, see Indians Left Out at National Parks, Before There Were Parks, and Maasai Evicted Like Indians. For more on Indians' relationship with the environment, see What a Native Utopia Looks Like, Natives Understand Nature's Value, and Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian.

No comments: