Redefining Conservation Practices and Challenging Colonial Legacies
by Robert Petitpas
Indigenous ecologies allow us to reflect on the modern and colonial relationship with other beings, a relationship based on an idea of nature as distinct and controllable by humans. By delving into the Pewenche ecology of the pewen tree, this piece reflects on the problems and injustices of a colonial way of inhabiting the world and its related conservation approaches.
We are facing pressing environmental challenges that demand substantial solutions. However, it is crucial to recognise that the choice is not simply between taking or not taking environmental action. The type of action holds tremendous importance. Like any other decision, environmental actions are not neutral; they come with costs and benefits that are often distributed unequally.
For instance, agreements have recently been made between the Chilean government and the European Union to produce and export lithium and ‘green’ hydrogen. These agreements are seen as significant steps towards the production of sustainable energy and addressing climate change. Nevertheless, the production of lithium and hydrogen will have substantial socio-ecological impacts, which will most likely be borne primarily by local communities and their environments.
Lithium batteries and developing renewable energy to produce hydrogen involve the extraction of natural resources from developing countries like Chile for export to wealthier countries within the European Union. As the extraction is justified in the name of environmental solutions, these kind of industries have been labelled as eco-extractivism or green extractivism. This situation has reconfigured the traditional conflict between development and the environment because now damages are being inflicted in the name of environmental protection. It is important to note that these extractivist industries are also aligned with highly profitable capitalist exploitation, albeit co-opting the public reputation of environmentalism. An issue that extends to biodiversity conservation, where negative and unjust outcomes often hide behind the guise of ‘saving nature.’ However, what is considered saved and how it is defined (including the very concept of nature) is often determined by a particular group of people from a specific social and historical context, namely Western ideals. Acknowledging alternative perspectives, such as those found in Indigenous ecologies, can help to expose the frequently overlooked injustices within conservation and its colonial origins.
This brings to mind the concept of a double fracture in the modern world, as cogently described by Malcom Ferdinand in his book Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World. This double fracture represents the separation between colonial history and environmental history, evident in ecological movements that neglect the legacies of colonialism and slavery.
To illustrate this point: in my PhD research I examined the case of pewen ecologies in Chile. Pewen (also known as Araucaria, Monkey-Puzzle, and Araucaria araucana) is a tree found in the mountainous landscapes of Wallmapu, the ancestral Mapuche land spanning areas of present-day Chile and Argentina. Pewen is not only a sacred tree but also a staple food for the Pewenche (that means, people of the pewen).
I explored three different approaches to conserve pewen, each based on distinct understandings of the tree: the conservationist and the geneticist approach – both of which regard nature as something external to humans, replicating colonial ideals – and Pewenche ecology. Conservationists identify human-induced fires and seed collection as the primary threats to pewen. They promote protected areas, as conservation solutions, especially national parks, where most human activities are prohibited. This approach sees humans as the source of threats and believes that separating humans from forests is the solution, reflecting a human-nature dichotomy.
Geneticists, on the other hand, consider climate change and new diseases as the most urgent threats to pewen. Their proposed solutions involve ex-situ conservation, reproducing and planting new forests in locations far from the current pewen distribution, with the help of technology and resources provided by industrial forestry companies. Thus, nature is regarded as a dynamic entity that undergoes changes, which humans can adapt and control according to their interests. While the geneticist approach doesn’t explicitly support a human-nature dichotomy, it still distinguishes humans from nature, assuming that humans are independent beings capable of controlling nature for exploitation or conservation.
In contrast, Pewenche ecology regards pewen trees and other beings, both human and non-human, as interconnected with and belonging to the land. Pewenche have historically relied on this tree for sustenance and warmth, and as a protector from colonial invaders in the cold Andean landscapes. Parents and grandparents teach their children to respect and be grateful for this sacred plant, reinforcing social bonds and passing down traditional knowledge during summer visits to the forests when its seeds are harvested. In this manner, pewen becomes an integral part of the Pewenche peoples’ material and spiritual identity. Moreover, just as pewen has been essential in becoming Pewenche, Pewenche has played an important role in what pewen is today. They have protected the forest from fires and timber companies and have actively participated in seed dispersal and planting, thereby influencing the becoming of the forest. Pewen forest would not be the same without this relationship with Pewenche, who have been an agent in what the forest has come to be. This third conservation approach is rooted in reciprocity and mutual care between tree and people.
By neglecting the pewen-Pewenche ecology, the other approaches, as Ferdinand argues, perpetuate the double fracture by disregarding the colonial legacy of conservation. Pewenche land dispossession has persisted from colonial invasion to the establishment of national parks. The forestry industry has profited from pewen and other native forest exploitation, and later by establishing forest plantations in Mapuche lands. These new capitalist forests are a legacy of the colonial grabbing of Indigenous lands.
Both exploitation as well as well-intended conservation practices, when based on a colonial/capitalist view that regards nature as ontologically distinct from humans, risks reflecting and disrupting Pewenche ecology, perpetuating processes of land dispossession. Current crises call for a decolonial ecology which is attentive to the connection between colonial and environmental processes. Indigenous ecologies provide this attention, based on respect and care for the land and its inhabitants. This perspective advocates for a conservation approach that respects Indigenous rights to maintain and/or recover peoples’ ability to care for the land.
ROBERT PETITPAS studied Forestry in Chile before completing an MSc in Environment, Science and Society at UCL. Currently a PhD student in UCL’s Geography department, he is researching the political ecology of conservation. He is also a member of the Chilean Society of Socioecology and Ethnoecology.
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