Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
6 Mar 2023
Written for Paperback
This is a searing critique of wildlife conservation in Africa. Establishing national parks often means the forced eviction of poor people, all to recreate an unspoilt version of African nature that never existed in the first place. This thought-provoking book has already ruffled quite some feathers but forces critical reflection.
These accusations—levelled explicitly at the IUCN, the WWF, and UNESCO—might seem heretical. However, it is no secret that the first national parks were game reserves and that today's conservation organisations were established to protect and support them. Also, Blanc is not alone in his criticism, other books have voiced similar concerns.
Blanc's main bone of contention is that wildlife conservation in Africa is deeply rooted in colonial clichés. A century of books, travel magazines, and nature documentaries have portrayed Africa as the world's last remaining wildlife paradise. To support his argument, Blanc discusses nature conservation in Africa from 1850 to today at two levels. First is the history of Ethiopia, and that of Simien National Park in particular. Second is a comparison to the situation in Africa more generally. I will dip into Blanc's chronology to pick out some of the moments that support his claim that colonialism never really went away, instead acquiring a shade of green.
Colonialism and racism were blatant in the 1850s. Europeans caused immense environmental destruction and wildlife decline but deflected the blame on rural Africans. Even scientists concluded that the natives just did not know how to properly manage their environment. Colonial governments happily accepted this explanation to justify continued exploitation. This is the context in which game reserves were established where rich white men went on safari and hunting by Africans was called poaching. Attempts were made to evict local farmers and herders, encouraged by doling out fines and prison sentences for everyday subsistence activities such as farming or chopping firewood.
As time passed, fortress conservation and colonialist notions of Africa as a Garden of Eden remained the norm.
It remained true when, by the start of the 20th century, game reserves transformed into national parks.
It remained true when UNESCO and the IUCN cooperated on the 1960–1963 African Special Project that sought to halt wildlife decline by putting conservation on the African political agenda. One of the countries that requested assistance was Ethiopia and three UNESCO missions concluded—as they did for many other African countries—that its unspoilt nature was under threat.
It remained true in the 1960s when some African countries gained independence. Many former game wardens found new employment as consultants or international experts, inculcating a new generation of African conservationists with colonial notions of nature.
It remained true in the 1970s when UNESCO drew up its brand-new World Heritage List. The Ethiopian Simien Mountains were amongst the first sites to be added, on the condition that local agro-pastoralists would be relocated.
It remained true in the 1980s when international frameworks changed. We entered the era of sustainable development that promised we could have our cake and eat it. This went hand-in-hand with community-based conservation that is dressed in such respectable-sounding technobabble "that it can no longer be challenged" (p. 132). Though the language was sanitized, on the ground it remained a case of fortress conservation. Local people were relocated from core zones inside national parks to nearby buffer zones.
It remained true in 1996, when UNESCO put Simien National Park on its List of World Heritage in Danger, hoping it would force Ethiopia to get its act together. The government dangled various carrots in front of the agro-pastoralists in the form of new infrastructure, financial compensation, and training, hoping to tempt them to resettle voluntarily. Because of regime changes and civil wars, relocation was delayed until 2016, and still involved brute force.
A new afterword allows Blanc to respond to some of the criticism of the French original. Unsurprisingly, both UNESCO and the IUCN swiftly condemned his work. I will take their response with a grain of salt as I think Blanc convincingly shows that there is a seedy side to today's wildlife conservation. However, despite writing on page 12 that he does not want to denigrate the environmental cause, the danger with critiques like these is that authors get so caught up in making an incendiary argument that they forget to provide some balance, and I was left with some unanswered questions.
One response by three French researchers pointed out that the IUCN uses seven national park categories, some of which are less restrictive and allow for economic activities. Blanc does not address this. Though his critique applies to Ethiopia and several other countries, are there really no examples of wildlife conservation done right? Is the whole enterprise flawed? Although Blanc does not explicitly say so, he also does not explicitly disavow it, leaving him open to accusations of overextrapolating his findings.
The second question is: what is the solution then? Should the West just get out and leave Africa alone? Is this just, given the mess we have left after centuries of colonialism? Blanc opts for a more general solution. "The blame lies with consumerism and the capitalism that encourages it" (p. 184), and thus "only a radical reform of the world capitalist system can offer a solution to the current ecological crisis" (p. 185). That is obviously an ambitious goal, though there are many other good reasons to pursue it. However, what exactly he means by this and how he thinks we should achieve it are questions left up in the air. I was rather hoping to hear his thoughts on whether the developed world, given its past track record, can tell the developing world what to do. Who are we to take the moral high ground?
The last question is whether national parks work. Blanc skirts around this question but, reading between the lines, my impression is that he thinks it they are are a palliative solution to a systemic problem, i.e. the environmental destruction inflicted by capitalism. But could they be an interim solution? And what to do when species are genuinely at risk of extinction?
By not working out his proposed solutions, nor considering wildlife conservation's positive achievements, this book will undoubtedly upset some readers. That does not take away that it highlights uncomfortable realities and forces critical reflection, something for which I will happily make time. One does not have to solve a problem to point out that there is a problem. I laud Polity for making this book available to a broader, English-speaking audience.