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A guide to decolonize language in conservation

Book presentation

Sunday 16 October 2022, by siawi3


A guide to decolonize language in conservation


This guide, which is not meant to be exhaustive, is a basic resource for anyone who writes or talks about conservation, climate change and nature protection.

Scientific evidence shows that Indigenous people understand and manage their environment better than anyone else: 80% of Earth’s biodiversity can be found in Indigenous territories. The best way to protect biodiversity is therefore to respect the land rights of Indigenous peoples – the best conservationists.

Nevertheless, the mainstream conservation model today is still, just as in colonial times, “Fortress Conservation”: a model that creates militarized Protected Areas accessible only to the wealthy on the lands of Indigenous peoples. This “conservation” is destroying the land and lives of Indigenous peoples. But this is where most of the Western funding for nature protection is going.

Why? Because the myths that sustain this model of conservation are reproduced in school texts, media, wildlife documentaries, NGO adverts, etc. The images we have seen since our childhood about “nature”, and the words we use to describe it, shape our way of thinking, our policies, and our actions.

We tend to assume these words and images are the reality, as if they were neutral, objective or “scientific”. But they are not.

Conservation has a dark history, and it’s rooted in racism, colonialism, white supremacy, social injustice, land theft, extractivism and violence. Today, the main conservation organizations (like WWF and WCS) not only haven’t questioned this past, but keep perpetuating it. Conservation is an industry, a business, often “partnering with” (i.e. taking money from) big polluting companies and turning nature into something to consume, mostly by white and rich people. This is part of a process of commodification of nature in which it is “valued”, traded and can be profited from. But our “nature” is other people’s homes. It is the basis of their way of life, the place of their ancestors, the provider of most things that sustain them.

It is essential to think about the words and concepts we use when writing or talking about environmental issues. The violence and land grabs faced by millions of Indigenous and other local people in the name of conservation stem in large part from these concepts.

It’s time to decolonize conservation!

Defining some basic concepts

Fortress Conservation
Colonial Conservation
The Conservation Industry

Terms to revisit

The pairs of terms below are racialized, that means different terms are used depending on whom they are referring to: relatively positive or neutral terms are used for white people and their activities, while negative or pejorative terms are used for Indigenous and Black people. They show how conservation language is rooted in, and continues to perpetuate, colonial and racist beliefs.

Game vs Bushmeat
Hunting vs Poaching
Exploring vs Encroaching
Ranchers vs Herders
“Travelers” vs Nomads
Human-wildlife coexistence vs conflict

Clichés and controversial concepts

Below are some examples of problematic and fallacious concepts that, when used superficially or when inadequately defined, are misleading. These concepts require special attention and a precise definition from the author when used.

Protected Areas
Wilderness, pristine/untouched/intact nature
Carbon offsetting and carbon credits
Nature-Based Solutions (NBS)
Sustainable use of resources
“Voluntary relocation”