Journalist Mark Dowie was speaking at an environmental conference in Ottawa, Canada, in 2004 when he was approached by Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee and the founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide. She began telling him how conservationists were mistreating indigenous tribes around the world. Intrigued, Dowie decided to look into the subject and write about it.

He traveled for four years to remote parts of the globe, and what he found troubled him. Everywhere he went, native people were being kicked off their ancestral lands to make way for national parks or protected wilderness areas. Dowie wrote a book and titled it Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. He estimates that over the past one hundred years there have been 20 million such refugees worldwide.

He also discovered that the large conservation organizations were partnering with corporations that wanted to build oil wells or gas pipelines or mine for minerals on these lands. Originally conservationists were opposed to drilling and mining, but, Dowie says, the lines between the conservation giants and the corporate giants are being blurred: “International conservation organizations remain comfortable working in close quarters with some of the most aggressive global resource prospectors.” These extractive projects are far more environmentally destructive than the presence of indigenous people, he says. In fact, it’s indigenous traditions that have protected these biologically rich lands, often for millennia.

Dowie was born in Toronto, Canada, and spent his formative years in Wyoming. He calls himself a “Wyoming cowboy,” and his son and ex-wife still own a ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Dowie worked for Mother Jones magazine from 1975 to 1985, first as general manager, then as publisher, and finally as editor. In addition to Conservation Refugees, he is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century and American Foundations: An Investigative History. During his nearly forty years in journalism, he has won nineteen awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and contributed to the Times of London, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation. He is currently a contributing editor at Orion and has taught environmental reporting and foreign correspondence at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

I visited Dowie at his home on Tomales Bay in Inverness, California, to discuss the fate of the conservation refugees. Inverness sits on the eastern shore of Point Reyes Peninsula, a protected national seashore. Dowie lives there with his wife — the artist Wendy Schwartz — and their yellow lab, Gracie, who welcomed me with a volley of barks as I crossed the yard on my first visit.

Dowie invited me to follow him through the reeds to his shore-side observatory, a small structure on stilts in the inlet. Six foot three and bowlegged, he stooped a little as he guided me past the poison oak. At seventy-four Dowie is silver haired, broad shouldered, and quietly assertive. When questioned, he answers quickly and without meandering. When challenged, he smiles as if appreciative of the chance to clarify his meaning. He emphasizes that the conflict between native peoples and conservationists is not a story of good guys versus bad guys but “good guys versus good guys.”


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© Steve Skoll

Whitney: Your book starts close to home with the story of Yosemite National Park.

Dowie: The creation of Yosemite was a long process that began with its “discovery” by white European Americans. Native Americans, of course, were already there. John Muir, forefather of the American conservation movement, is often cited as the park’s founder. He wrote and spoke lyrically about the spiritual renewal urbanites experienced when they entered places like Yosemite Valley — which he defined as a “wilderness” despite its long-standing human population.

If you’ve ever been in Yosemite Valley, you know that it is absolutely stunning. So when the European settlers found this place, they thought it should be preserved. Then they discovered that the valley was occupied by a mixed band of Miwoks, Mono Paiutes, and Ahwahnechee who migrated in and out of the valley by the seasons; it’s a pretty inhospitable place in the winter. The natives cultivated the valley, but not in the way we think of cultivation, with fences and tilling and crops planted in rows. They planted trees and harvested game and fish and grew semiwild crops.

So although Muir and the other wilderness romantics who fell in love with the place saw it as wild, it was actually a cultured environment. Nevertheless they decided to run these Native American tribes out, believing there was no place in wilderness for human beings — particularly human beings they found repulsive. These were people who ate grubs and insects and who dusted themselves with mud to cover the scent of their bodies so they could hunt — a common practice among indigenous tribes. Muir described them as “dirty diggers.” But he was not behind the actual military removal of the natives.

Whitney: Who was?

Dowie: The governor of California at the time, Peter Burnett, had made it a policy to eliminate all Native Americans in the state — literally to kill them all. Battalions created by local sheriffs would go into places where they lived and wipe them out. There were several attempts made by the Mariposa Battalion to kill the native people of Yosemite, but they failed because the Ahwahnechee were clever and knew where to hide in canyons that were unfamiliar to the battalions. The natives managed to stay in the park so long that eventually the National Park Service accepted a certain number of them as residents, but they were treated as indentured servants by the park rangers and forced to live in a segregated camp, with eight people to a house the size of a small trailer. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Park Service got the last Native American out of Yosemite. Meanwhile that model of land without people became the dominant model for conservation in the world.

Whitney: Where did this sense of wilderness as a place without people originate?

Dowie: It was brought here from Europe by people like Muir, who romanticized wilderness even where it didn’t exist. It was reinforced and popularized by artists: painters like Albert Bierstadt and photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams would spend hours with a camera trained on a particular scene that he wanted to shoot, waiting for it to be clear of native people before he clicked the shutter. He created the impression that Yosemite Valley was and always had been unoccupied.

Muir saw wilderness as akin to a cathedral where weary urban people could go and rest and regenerate their souls. But he thought that nobody should be residing there, or cultivating the land, or killing the animals or the fish. He had no problem, however, with Europeans hiking in, camping, and hiking back out. And that policy is reflected in the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as an “untrammeled” place where people may enter but not stay.

Whitney: How many parks and protected wilderness areas are there now around the planet?

Dowie: By my count there are about 108,000 worldwide, covering an area equal to the total landmass of Africa.

Whitney: How did the U.S. model of national parks travel to other countries?

Dowie: I don’t think Americans actually intended to export the concept at first. My sense is that British tourists visited the U.S. and saw these parks. And then, wherever they came across a similar amount of wild land and charismatic wildlife — mostly in Africa and India — they formed organizations to do what had been done here.

Since then, however, the U.S. has spawned huge organizations that spread conservation around the globe. The four biggest conservation organizations in the world are American: the African Wildlife Foundation — which is headquartered in Washington, DC — the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International. The World Wildlife Fund was started by Europeans, but its largest chapter is now in the U.S.

Whitney: You’ve accused the American Left of supporting these organizations’ inhumane conservation practices.

Dowie: The Left supports the environmental movement, which essentially started out as a conservation initiative. The movement has expanded its concerns to pollution and environmental justice and global warming, but the original impulse for environmentalism was to protect wilderness and wildlife. So the Left has embraced some organizations that have, over the last hundred years, tended to favor wildlife over human life. That’s not a humanist position. I would think the Left would take the side of the powerless indigenous people, 20 million of whom have lost their land and their livelihood in the name of conservation.

Whitney: Don’t we need to protect pristine natural places?

Dowie: Sure, but the conservation organizations that are allegedly protecting those places are now forming smarmy alliances with corporations that are doing a lot of environmental damage as they extract resources from protected areas. And of course the Left is aware of that and protests it, but the Left should also be aware of the human displacement that has taken place in the name of conservation — or, rather, a particular conservation strategy I would call “exclusionary conservation” or “fortress conservation.”

I do think conservationists are starting to realize that any land worth conserving — because the biological diversity is high, the soil is fertile, and the original endemic species are still there — exists only because native human populations have been good stewards of it. The trick is to preserve the land and leave the stewards there.

Whitney: So for the most part the Left has been on the side of conservation even when it goes against the rights of indigenous groups?

Dowie: The environmental movement, based as it is in Washington, DC, has assiduously avoided embracing the notion that clean water, clean air, and arable land should be considered human rights. There are people in the movement who believe that, but the leadership does not support the idea.

Keep in mind that, if you look at the boards of Conservation International or the Sierra Club, half of the members are Republicans. They like having a healthy environment too, but they also like big business. That makes the environmental movement different from the labor movement, or the women’s-rights movement, or the lesbian-and-gay-rights movement. I wouldn’t call the environmental movement “conservative,” but it certainly has conservatives in it.

Whitney: Where do conservation organizations get their funding?

Dowie: A lot of them started out just taking small donations from their members, as the Sierra Club still does. Then they turned to larger philanthropic foundations. Then they started receiving government funds. Next came money from international banking organizations such as the World Bank, which created the Global Environmental Fund.

More recently these organizations have started receiving corporate support. That’s where the problem shifts. In order to get corporate donations, they have gone into the “greenwashing” business — making corporations look environmentally friendly by forming partnerships with them. It’s a back-scratching arrangement: the corporations get a green image by supporting conservation projects, and the organization gets to claim that it’s helping reform the practices of extractive industries like oil and mining. And it gets the donations, of course.

Muir saw wilderness as akin to a cathedral where weary urban people could go and rest and regenerate their souls. But he thought that nobody should be residing there, or cultivating the land, or killing the animals or the fish. He had no problem, however, with Europeans hiking in, camping, and hiking back out.

Whitney: Can you give a specific example of an extractive corporation partnering with one of the big conservation organizations?

Dowie: In the 1990s Mobil wanted to drill for oil and gas in the Madre de Dios rain forest in southern Peru, down near the Bolivian border. There was a lot of resistance, as there always is to drilling on indigenous lands. Then Conservation International came in and brokered a deal between Mobil and the Peruvian government’s oil-and-gas company, PetroPeru. The agreement said Mobil could drill only in an environmentally sound way; they couldn’t contaminate the land, the way other oil companies had in Ecuador. Mobil agreed and wrote a million-dollar check to Conservation International.

That’s just one of many such deals. If you go to the websites of The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund, they brag about their partnerships with some of the worst offenders, like British Petroleum [BP], claiming that they’re going to teach these corporations the right way to do business. And of course BP will happily provide the organization with a few million dollars, which is chump change to an oil giant. And indigenous people will suffer because their land will be fouled up, even though this is all supposedly being done under the rubric of conservation.

Whitney: You mentioned Ecuador as an example of such fouling of the land. Sixteen million gallons of oil were spilled there, contaminating the local water supply.

Dowie: Yes, the project in Ecuador resulted in a massive lawsuit that went back and forth between courts in the U.S. and Ecuador. The plaintiffs were awarded $19 billion, but the oil companies are still fighting it hard, because if it is upheld, it will set a devastating precedent for them. Similar environmental catastrophes have occurred around the world. The Niger delta in Nigeria is worse than the Cuyahoga — the infamous Ohio river so polluted it would catch fire in the fifties and sixties.

Whitney: How can you fund the preservation of these huge areas of land without having corporations put up big money?

Dowie: Around 75 percent of charitable donations come from people like you and me giving twenty-five or fifty dollars to an organization that we like. So the notion that conservation cannot survive without corporate money is just not true. But big money is easy money. If you go to the Ford Foundation and get a million-dollar grant, you’ve saved yourself a lot of work. The same money and more can be had collectively from people like you and me, however. In 2011, during a recession, individual donations in the U.S. were up 4 percent. So individuals are generous. I think any organization that purports to be grassroots should be getting its money primarily from the public. And, to their credit, a lot of these organizations, such as the Sierra Club, do get the lion’s share of their funding from their rank-and-file membership. But Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy go mostly after the big grant money, and it affects their policies, their values, and their priorities.

Whitney: What happens to “conservation refugees” who are removed from their ancestral lands?

Dowie: They are forced to the perimeter, shoved to the bottom of the local economy. They’re not skilled workers, so what do they do? They go back to the land that they know, maybe to visit the graves of their ancestors but sometimes to cultivate food or to use the hunting grounds where they get their protein. In other words, they go back in and poach. So exclusionary conservation is creating a criminal class, if you will.

The Maasai people in Kenya are so upset about being denied their grazing rights that they’ll go into the Serengeti park and kill lions and throw the bodies into a tourist lodge to protest what’s happened to them. And the conservationists will use this as proof that they have to keep these people out of the parks to protect wildlife.

Whitney: Isn’t big-game hunting still allowed in places like the Serengeti if you’re able to pay top dollar?

Dowie: Well, conservation organizations are fighting that, but these wealthy Saudi hunting clubs will buy up land and stock it with animals that people can come in and kill for huge fees. And they’re kicking back a lot of money from these hunting businesses to the governments, which makes it rough for conservation.

Of course, there was a time when conservation groups were allied with big-game hunters. The World Wildlife Fund was founded by Prince Philip of the United Kingdom and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, both big-game hunters who wanted their hobby preserved. In the early history of the conservation movement, that’s what most of the land was set aside for. Now the camera is used much more frequently than the gun to shoot animals in the Serengeti, which reminds me of a Susan Sontag quote: “When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.”

Indigenous tribes understand biological diversity as well as any ecologist in the Western world. They just have a different motive for preserving it: food security. They have to harvest food sustainably, or they’ll die out.

Whitney: You say in your book that the indigenous groups, once removed, sometimes become “enemies of conservation.”

Dowie: I heard that phrase used in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2004 at a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is a huge umbrella organization based in Switzerland. There were six thousand people at that meeting. While environmentalists and conservationists were talking about a project, a Maasai named Martin Saning’o Kariongi stood against the wall. When the time came for questions, he gave a moving critique of the way conservation was being done in Kenya. The Maasai had stewarded the Great Rift Valley for thousands of years before conservationists had come in and disrupted grazing patterns and screwed everything up. And at the end of his speech he said, “We were the original conservationists. Now you have made us the enemies of conservation.” The room was a sea of guilty white faces.

Whitney: Was he ignored?

Dowie: No, his observation has spread through the conservation movement, and it’s certainly spread among indigenous communities. It’s a sentiment shared by people on every continent who have been victimized by this process in which conservationists come to the ironic conclusion that the best way to preserve biological diversity on a body of land is to get the people out. Indigenous tribes understand biological diversity as well as any ecologist in the Western world. They just have a different motive for preserving it: food security. They have to harvest food sustainably, or they’ll die out.

To my mind, if native people are living in a place, all the better, because when you pull them out and start cutting down trees to put in eco-lodges for tourists, you reduce biological diversity. The conservation organizations’ efforts often make things worse, not better. If they hadn’t forced the Maasai out of Serengeti National Park, the Maasai would have likely moved out on their own, because the multimillion-head wildebeest herds — a major tourist attraction — were making it almost impossible to graze domestic livestock there. Wildebeest calves leave a pathogen on the grass that’s harmless to wildebeests but kills cattle quick.

I’m not saying that all indigenous people are great stewards of the land; they’re not. The idea that indigenous people live in utopian societies is as much a romantic notion as the concept of wilderness as a place without people. But, by and large, when conservationists find unprotected land that has high biological diversity, it’s because there are people living there who possess traditional ecological knowledge that protects not only biological diversity but cultural diversity. And I believe the two are inseparable. We don’t have to choose between them. Both are essential to the survival of the human species.

I should say that the national parks in Africa are extraordinary places to be — when there aren’t fifty tourists in Land Rovers all racing to see the same leopard in a tree. But the grazing land has been turned into wildlife-viewing land. The Maasai do own some parks, like the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya, where they can graze their livestock, and a lot of conservationists are upset about that arrangement.

Whitney: You write in your book about how Adivasi pastoralists in India were removed to create a park. After they were gone, the grass grew so thick that it dried up the water supply and downgraded the ecosystem. And in the Serengeti, after the Maasai were removed, it eventually became clear that their practice of burning the grasses, which had initially been seen as destructive, was good for the environment.

Dowie: This has happened in many places. In India the Adivasi and their livestock had kept the plant growth under control. Without them all the wrong grasses started growing. And setting deliberate wildfires has been an indigenous practice for thousands of years in the Serengeti and elsewhere. If done properly, the fires are healthy for the land. They burn off unwanted brush, leave rich ash in the ground, and help trees grow. Natives know how to do controlled burns so that they don’t kill the trees, only the underbrush that chokes the trees. The natives of Yosemite frequently burned the whole floor of the valley to fertilize the soil. In our culture, on the other hand, we tend to be against fire under any circumstances. We even put out wildfires that should be allowed to burn.

Whitney: In places where indigenous grazers have been removed, scientist Allan Savory recommends restoring grazing as a way to prevent desertification. I take that as an instance of Western science confirming the ecological wisdom of traditional people.

Dowie: Yes, I cite him in my book, and both my family in Montana and the ranch I work for here in Chileno Valley practice the Savory method of rotational grazing.

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Badlands National Park, © Courtesy Of The National Park Service

Whitney: Speaking of farming methods, in your book you describe a fascinating mound-farming technique used by natives in Brazil.

Dowie: They plant crops in these huge termite hills called apates. The hills are rich in humus, which is the termites’ food, and also in insect excrement, which is high in nitrogen. All you need to do is start putting seeds in one of these mounds, and you’ll soon have a garden. There are many places in the Amazon basin where the natives’ entire nonprotein food supply comes from apates. They’re a sight to behold: six or seven feet tall and covered in beautiful, nutritious plants.

Whitney: You’ve come under fire for your attempts to broker agreements with indigenous people that would allow them to return to their native lands.

Dowie: Yes, I would interview indigenous leaders who had been pushed off their land or had their way of life limited by conservation, and I would ask them to sign a new social contract that said they could move back, but only if they agreed to control their population growth, to harvest only what they need for their own use, to kill animals only for their own consumption, and not to sell trees or bush meat on the open market. The contract would also ban the harvesting and selling of illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin. Coca leaves, which are part of the diet of many Indian tribes in South America, are OK, but turning them into cocaine is off-limits. Same with opium: it’s OK as a local medicine, but it can’t be turned into heroin.

Whitney: And how did that get you into trouble?

Dowie: The indigenous people all said they’d be willing to abide by the contract. I got into trouble with their white supporters, who objected to placing any limitations on the way indigenous people live. And my response to those supporters is that we should all be living differently and limiting our exploitation of the land and its resources. We need conservation contracts in the so-called modern world, too, to shrink our carbon footprint.

Only recently have Western scientists begun to understand — with the help of anthropologists and ethnologists and ethnobotanists and ethnobiologists — that traditional ecological knowledge is as scientifically sound as what you find in any ecology textbook.

Whitney: In his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon describes how humans have been misdefining nature and wilderness as separate from themselves, something outside of the human realm. He writes of a “dangerous dualism” that sets humanity apart from nature and poses a serious threat to environmentalism.

Dowie: I agree, and parks aren’t wilderness anyway. Most national parks have, somewhere in their mission statement, preserving wilderness as an objective, of course, and a park may possess very small wild pockets where one can stand, turn 360 degrees, and see no signs of human civilization. But biologically diverse wilderness, which includes large predators, requires a landmass much larger than any park in the world. Also wilderness does not contain blacktop highway, manicured trails, tramways, outfitters, armed rangers, restaurants, and resorts. Parks do. You’re as likely to find true wilderness in Gramercy Park as you are in Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Maasai Mara. So save yourself the airfare.

Whitney: So parks are not improving biodiversity?

Dowie: No, they’re not. And that has been well documented in a retrospective study done of the original Grinnell study of Yosemite from 1920, which found that almost every species in almost every ecosystem in the park had declined in number. Parks are not really useful for wildlife conservation, because their tiny wilderness areas aren’t good for much other than eco-tourism. To be fair, some help decelerate the loss of biodiversity, and that’s important.

Whitney: So we want wilderness around as an escape from the ugly nine-to-five world of industry that pollutes and adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We view nature as a separate realm.

Dowie: We are in denial about the totality of nature. We have forgotten that oil, for example, is a natural substance, and burning it is no different than burning wood. All the things we have produced and manufactured, even the most synthetic materials, are products of nature. War is as “natural” as sex. If the entire Earth and everything on it were suddenly to disappear from the universe, nature would still exist — at least, as I define it.

Whitney: Isn’t that a bit nihilistic?

Dowie: I suppose you could say there was a hint of nihilism in that remark. I just get tired at times of the notion that everything “natural” is good. It only encourages industries to market their products with the word natural in hopes that the consumer will assume it means “untainted with oil-based chemicals,” which would not make the item any less natural.

Whitney: You referred to corporate greenwashing earlier. What about another kind of greenwashing: namely, when human-rights-abusing governments use conservation projects not just to soften their reputation but to double down on those abuses?

Dowie: Almost every government greenwashes itself by bragging about conservation, protecting species, and all that. In most cases they do it for the money, not to save wildlife. But every now and then an exception arises, as in Kenya when environmental activist Wangari Maathai became the assistant minister of the environment. She made a big difference, not just in the parks and protected areas but in the environment of the entire country. And she protected the Ogiek people and others who’d been kicked out of the Mau Forest, which is the watershed of Kenya. Maathai got a Nobel prize, and she deserved it. She reminded us that you can protect both wildlife and people.

Whitney: Your book paints a grim picture of the fate of indigenous people, but it seems as if the tide might be turning.

Dowie: For a long time conservationists believed that their science was superior to traditional ecological knowledge. Only recently have Western scientists begun to understand — with the help of anthropologists and ethnologists and ethnobotanists and ethnobiologists — that traditional ecological knowledge is as scientifically sound as what you find in any ecology textbook. They’ve begun to take the time to observe native people in the Southern Hemisphere at work.

And conservationists are discovering that the more you involve local populations in conservation, the more successful a project is going to be, and that the more you alienate the locals, the more difficult it’s going to be to manage conservation. The trend now is to help local communities initiate conservation projects. Don’t give the money to the big organizations and wait for it to trickle down into the community. Give the money directly to the community, and let it run its own conservation project.

Meanwhile a lot of indigenous leaders have gotten enough Western education to realize that we have something to contribute as well: that our ecology is, to a degree, sound. So what we’re seeing now is a synthesis of these two scientific disciplines: Western textbook conservation and traditional ecological knowledge. They’re developing respect for each other. And the end result is a shift to conservation that considers the rights and wisdom of native people.