Eco-colonialism and our land

by Glyn Roberts, FUW President

In recent years, farmers and others in Wales have begun to use the term ‘eco-colonialism’ to describe the attitudes of some individuals and charities to the land we have farmed for millennia, especially as the rewilding movement has grown in popularity and influence, and when people are really angry they sometimes even use the term ‘eco-fascists’.

On the 3rd of June, a live panel discussion organised by the Extinction Rebelion (XR) Youth movement entitled The Eco-Fascist History of Conservation (available to watch on YouTube), discussed the shocking ways in which conservation movements continue to treat indigenous populations in many parts of the world.

Amongst the speakers were ecologist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada, who spoke about conservation in Kenya from the 1950s to the present day, and Stephen Corry and Fiore Longo from Survival International, a charity which fights for the rights of indigenous people around the globe.

Ms Longo spoke of families in the Congo threatened
and beaten by armed men, intimidation at such a scale
that villages have been abandoned and one woman
being forced to give birth in the forest after fleeing her village to escape the persecution.

Many more harrowing stories from the area are presented in a United nations Development Programme report leaked to The Guardian earlier this year, but what many will find shocking is that the violence, intimidation, burning of forest camps and worse was carried out in the name of conservation, and that the armed gangs were in fact ‘ecoguards’ paid for in part by the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF).

Such horrific scenes could not be further from the relative comfort of our Welsh homes, but a statement given to the Un by one of the people affected will start to ring a few bells for some: “WWF came to tell us that they are going to make a new park and that we will no longer have the right to go in it. But that is our forest and we do not want this park.”

And when you listen to what Dr Ogada told the Extinction Rebelion audience about the colonialist attitude of conservationists and conservation bodies in Kenya, the picture starts to look more familiar: “It’s a powerplay”, he says. “When you find people who are specialists in producing livestock at the moment and you remove livestock from the scene, you’ve disempowered them and you’ve created dependency [on tourism], which is the aim of conservation right now.”

Dr Ogada also points out that “The coronavirus crisis we are currently going through has ruthlessly exposed the myth that tourism is a valid basis for conservation. There are no tourists coming now, and the indigenous communities who retained their livelihoods like pastoralism or agriculture are doing fine, but those who have found themselves in these microcolonies called wildlife conservancies are suddenly relying on relief food handouts.”

And in his closing remarks, Survival International Director Stephen Corry says: “It’s actually getting worse… And it’s a battle which does not just involve tribal peoples and indigenous peoples. The big conservation organisations want to turn 30% of the globe into protected areas. They say this is to do with climate change and biodiversity. In fact it will have exactly the opposite effect…It will be a complete disaster. It will entail the eviction of tens of millions of people. It would bring widespread starvation…

“All these places, including the most apparently wild, are in fact human creations created over thousands of years. The grass plains of East Africa are the result of thousands of years of pastoralism by the local people so what we see as wild nature just doesn’t exist…

“There is huge money at stake. Why do they want to do this? Why do they want to push these 30% protected areas? It’s mainly about money, power and control of land. They can sell carbon deals…look at the boards who control these things – they’re all from the big polluting industries and at that level it’s nothing to do with conservation at all.”

“…there comes a time when people stand up and say enough is enough.”

In Wales, we enjoy rights, legal systems and privileges that most indigenous people around the globe can only dream of, but the arrogant, dismissive, colonialist and sometimes xenophibic attitudes of certain environmentalists and environmental bodies referred to by the speakers are all very familiar to us – and there is certainly no shortage of people who, despite living hundreds or even thousands of miles away, have serious plans as to how our lives and landscapes should be utterly changed to make way for their version of conservation and solving the climate change problem.

When it comes to a community reaching “a time when people stand up and say enough is enough” and demonstrating that we in Wales can challenge and change these projects, there is no better example than what happened in the vast Summit to Sea project area around Pumlumon last year.

Readers of Y Tir will recall that Summit to Sea was Rewilding Britain’s flagship scheme launched in October 2018, which aimed to rewild on a scale never before seen in Britain, creating ‘core areas’ supporting “low-impact tourism and recreation” that would be extended over time (or as Dr Ogada described them, ‘microcolonies’).

The project, which also aimed to influence and change the Welsh Government’s post-Brexit support policy in favour of rewilding, targeted some 160,000 acres of land in Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion, an area earmarked by George Monbiot as one where farming should be replaced with a rewilded environment in his book Feral, back in 2013 (Monbiot’s has since become an advocate of laboratory grown food replacing all farming).

So it was hardly a surprise that the original application for funding for the Summit to Sea project was sent from George Monbiot’s home address in Oxford, in the name of Rewilding Britain, a charity he was instrumental in setting up and of which his partner is the Chief Executive.

It was very clear to residents in the area from the outset that the Summit to Sea project was little more than a sugar-coated version of the extreme plans for the area described in Monbiot’s book, and when FUW Caernarfonshire member Owen Pritchard identified that funding for the project came from Arcadia – a charity set up by billionairess Lisbet Rausing, who is also a founder and non-executive director of Ingleby Farms and Forests which produces some 61,000 lambs and 300-400 tonnes of wool annually on farms in new Zealand and Australia – this galvanized the local farming community against the plans.

Following a meeting in the area last July, attended by more than 100 locals, and the subsequent establishment of Cymunedau Oll Pumlumon a’r Ardal (COPA) to oppose the plans, the end result has been the departure of Rewilding Britain from the project and a substantial change in the project’s approach and leadership which has been welcomed by the group.

The departure of Rewilding Britain marked a major victory for the local community, but with the partnership now including none other than the World Wide Fund for nature the group will no doubt continue to be vigilant.

And let’s not forget that, important as the victory was, it comes against a background of huge and constant pressures from individuals and organisations to change landscapes and displace traditional people and activities with urban ideas of wilderness – pressures which are as present in the UK as they are in Africa and other parts of the globe.

It’s also no secret that the appetite for such plans is as common in the corridors of power as the powerful environmental lobbyists who peddle them, and hints of this appetite can be seen in numerous government policy documents published both in Wales and England.

There’s even evidence of overt colonialist attitudes that should have died out in the 19th Century: In a Twitter message earlier this year relating to the actions of locals in the Summit to Sea area, Defra Board member Ben Goldsmith referred to a “…small band of trolls in Wales who’ve been running around whingeing to MPs and God knows who else that someone had the temerity to question the way they see things”, prompting the FUW to call for Mr Goldsmith’s resignation.

The COPA group – which actively promotes and supports conservation as part of, not instead of a farming landscape – has shown that we can fight back effectively, and in Wales we are lucky enough not to have to do this by challenging armed militias paid for by environmental charities. But our politicians and environmental groups must also wake up to the colonialist attitudes within their own circles – attitudes which are neither a thing of the past nor only a feature of projects in far-flung parts of the world.

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