by Lisa Campbell
Published on: Jul 27, 2007
Type: Opinions

Racism is defined as systematic discrimination against a group of people based on social constructions of race. This type of discrimination often plays into the power and privilege that one has in their larger community, city, municipality, or country as a whole. This means that when it comes to environmental decision making, often communities of colour are left out of the dialog, and thus inherit a myriad of problems, including being subject to toxic waste dumping, resource exploitation, expropriation of lands, and lack of disaster relief infrastructure.

According to Robert Bullard, one leading expert on Environmental Racism, the "environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can't separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. We have to talk about making sure that justice is integrated throughout all of the stuff that we do." The environmental justice narrative solidly rejects the mainstream assumptions that the environment is solely empty green space.

The same forces that effect social injustice are at work when we examine environmental injustice. Often people of colour are left out of environmental discourse. The mainstream environmental movement is largely white, while the communities that face environmental problems are largely people of colour. Justice is often left out of the environmental equation and there are many movements emerging within mainstream environmental groups which advocate racist policies.

The "Not In My Backyard" syndrome experienced with many environmental issues creates systems where those who have the least recognized political voice shoulder the problems of the status quo. It is not those who consume the products who face their environmental impact, but those who live in the communities where they are manufactured, and afterwards discarded. Overwhelmingly, it is communities of colour who are carrying the brunt of environmental destruction, from global warming to over-consumption. Environmental Racism doesn't only inflict environmental destruction, it also limits the range of solutions. The environmental solutions that have traditionally been practiced by the Third World Majority, are often ignored, or appropriated without due credit.

Not only are the communities that people of colour reside in polluted and exploited, they are also expropriated, often in the name of the nation state for so-called environmental motives. Many nations work to dismiss indigenous land rights, and a popular method of doing this is by creating a national park land base, which can later be privatized as the state sees fit. This takes away sovereignty from First Nations peoples, while at the same time dismissing their existence. Often the most pristine land is expropriated, and native peoples are delegated to live in lands which have already been depleted of their resources, and/or contaminated with toxins. Displaced from their traditional relationship with their bioregion, their culture becomes fragmented and this creates an increase in dependence on the state.

Links between Western land conservation and discrimination have a history that dates back to pre-colonialism. The European epistemologies of words like "nature", "park", and "protected areas", have been exported on a global scale, and have thus become normalized in daily discourse. Landscape painting is a good horizon form which to approach the construction of meaning around the idea of “nature” and “natural”.

Often, the people that worked in natural landscapes were excluded on the one hand or, on the other hand, were idealized and exoticised. The exclusion of the lower-classes from landscapes deemed natural dates back to the first parks in England. These parks were not a public affair, but were the elite fenced-off hunting grounds used by the King and the urban aristocracy in England. The people who were allowed to visit these parks, benefited with an increase in social status and power, as do many of the nature-lovers of present day. Going on a Safari in Africa, or climbing a mountain, is certainly one way to impress your friends and show those around you that you have personal motivation and interesting character traits. One could also compare it to having a cottage in the present day situation, one’s own little private nature retreat.

According to recent American telephone polls, white people are much more likely to engage in public parks than people of colour. Being able to retreat from the city is a luxury that few working class people of colour have the privilege to afford. On top of this history of exclusion and colonial discourse, National Parks cater to the status quo by providing history from the winner’s perspective, and excluding intercultural dialog.

Many times the history of those who traditionally lived in the park is idealized and shortened, with little mention of how the land was expropriated. An example of this is at Eugenia Falls in Grey County, Ontario, where a placard talks of the European settlers’ discovery. Really, the land which is labeled a Canadian Park existed before the European settlers arrived, and was known and visited by the First Nations Nawash tribe, and others who frequented the area. There are many examples of this phenomenon on a global scale, with little existing literature to link up this largely systematic problem. By examining National Parks through the frame of Environmental Racism, one can draw obvious links to how this seemingly benign process is in fact greatly linked to colonialism and cultural genocide.

And now, for our tour: to start off our tour of the Global Apartheid of National Parks and Recreation, we will bring you to our first stop, Brazil. Within the State of Acre, the Naua Tribe, thought to be disappeared, raised it's voice in one last effort of despair. "They said they should not have to leave their land, since they had always been there. They said they were Naua," Antonio Pereira Neto spoke from the headquarters of the National Indian Foundation. "We thought there were no more Naua," he said. "Our job now is finding them land... No humans are allowed in the park, just the forest and the animals."

While the Naua were once the most populous ethnic group in the Acre region, the last recorded document of their existence was in 1906, in a newspaper article with the headline "Last Naua woman marries." Currently, theatres, streets and even a popular soft drink bear the tribal name. Interestingly enough, even though Brazil has shifted their policy in indigenous rights to a somewhat more progressive stance, they are still intent on moving the Naua tribe from their traditional lands, in the name of their protection. The reason that the tribe emerged out of hiding was to prevent their lands from being turned into a national park. The existing tribespeople are now largely rubber-tappers, and hunters, and their existing economies are prohibited on the land that they have traditionally inhabited. Often, the establishment of a National Park comes with the subtext of preserving the "natural" while at the same time prohibiting its use by the people for economic benefit. Without the means to make a living on their traditional bioregion, the Naua people are left in a situation where they have to choose between survival and honoring their ancestors' territory.

The next stop on our tour is the traditional Maasai territory along the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Africa is popularly seen by conservationists as home to some of the last wild places left to be preserved. 1950s conservationist Bernhard Grzimek characterized Africa as “the ultimate and last paradise of all our yearnings” and commented that its “national parks must remain primordial wildernesses to be effective. No men, not even native ones, should live inside its borders.” For the Maasai people this meant that their traditional grazing and hunting lands were deemed protected zones, in other words, free of natives.

Since the beginning of European colonization, the Maasai have been relocated and had their environments "managed" by the authorities. At first their hunting ground was expropriated for European planters and by the 1940s the Maasais’ main form of economic production shifted to grazing cattle. Eventually the parks were set apart for Safari hunting adventures for the Europeans, and even grazing on parkland was restricted. As wildlife tourism increased in the 60's, the National Parks became more extreme in their rules on "non-humans". Of course there were plenty of humans visiting and hunting in the park, but local "poaching" was prohibited. When the 90's rolled around the Maasai were living more modern lives, and the argument that they were not a part of the natural bioregion seemed more potent in conservation circles. The WWF even provided weapons to the local government to enforce conservation, which in the end were really used for means of ethnic violence.

Over one hundred thousand Maasai have left their traditional homelands as a result of the restrictions that conservationists have enforced (Dowie). At the 2004 World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, Maasai leader, Martin Saing'o, declared, "We are enemies of conservation." That same year the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping passed a declaration signed by all two hundred delegates stating that, "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands." It is obvious in the case of the Maasai that conservationists have completely changed the locals’ traditional lifestyles by re-zoning land in order to prevent economic activity. While many Maasai do live within the park, their activities are still extremely restricted.

Journalist Mark Dowie states that, "It’s no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)."

Currently, in Canada, we have our own battles going on. We are now at the last stop of our tour, our home and "native" land. For First Nation peoples, this line of our national anthem may seem ironic, as, to this day, they continue to face attacks through the expropriation of and entrenchment on their traditional territory. Crown land, land that, according to the Canadian State, belongs to the Queen, is lent out to private forestry corporations as they see fit. This land does not belong to the Canadian Government, and much of it remains treaty free.

To this day Native people are using their traditional hunting, timber, and fishing rights on so-called Canadian land. While the environmental impact of their actions is small, there have been a myriad of racist attacks from conservationist groups against Native land rights. In addition, the government has continued to forfeit the land rights that indigenous people have on treaty-negotiated land. Currently, in Caledonia, Six Nations protesters have occupied a local housing development in protest of this. In a press release titled "To her Majesty the Queen" the native protesters stated their demands: "Therefore, we the clan mothers command the agents, representatives and officers of the said British corporation to be at peace and refrain from any acts of violence to spill blood or interfere with the rights of the Onkwe'hon:we."

The land on which they have been building the subdivision is a part of the Haldimand tract, which was deeded to the Six Nations in 1784. The tract covers 9.6 kilometers, was never voluntarily transferred to third parties and is still their territory. The Housing Development Company denies all charges of building on stolen land. This is a perfect example of land that is seen as "natural commons", is too easily privatized and then sold off to developers. While the land may appear to be empty and ownerless, the government seems to have little regard to the pacts they made in years past.

All around the world native peoples have faced encroachment on their traditional territory in the name of National Conservation projects. Most often, those declaring the areas to be "protected zones" are foreigners, taking it upon themselves to manage environments, thereby freezing them in time for their own pleasure. While the current landmass of protected areas is now larger than all of the African continent, global biodiversity continues to decline. On top of this, 90% of the world's biodiversity exists beyond these conserved areas.

Contrary to popular belief, humans are a part of ecosystems, and coexisted in harmony with flora and fauna for thousands of years before the industrial revolution. The human/nature divide artificially posited by conservationists is a false one, based on Western environmental narratives such as the “landscape“. While conservationists demand that natives move out of National Parks , they seem to have no objection to having environmentalists, foresters, rangers, and campers come in. European colonial narratives about how humans interact with nature are elitist, and often discriminate against those who work in nature. Nature has been molded into a hobby, therefore destining herders, hunters, scavengers, and others who create their survival through natural landscapes to a second-class, unwelcome status. This racist discourse of what behavior is allowed in National Parks also glazes over important issues around land-use, and land-rights. To this day, many National Parks continue to exist on stolen land.

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