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Nik Petek, Reflection 08.09.2014
Ecology and Empire – Libby Robin
Today’s seminar was really interesting and was a reminder of the work written by Gunnel Cederlöf, the seminar of which I unfortunately missed. People do not usually combine the terms ecology and empire, but as a quote Libby mentioned said: “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” (slightly paraphrasing). The dominance is already evident from that quote, which comes from an Australian context, but is equally applicable in Kenya, where I work, and in other formerly colonised countries. In fact, even though Kenya has the preservation of the environment as one of its top priorities, with several institutions looking after it and environmental programs being strong at many universities, the great majority of the research which requires lab equipment and expensive fieldwork is done by researchers from developed countries. These are also the researchers that publish in “high-end” journals, whereas the research done by Kenyans is hidden in institutional libraries.
How conservation and biodiversity are white men’s terms is particularly visible in the history of Baringo, the region I am working in. Since the colonial government was established in the early 20th century, the region has been subject to a great number of conservation and landscape-rehabilitation projects due to the extreme erosion, common droughts and low soil fertility. The government blamed the local people, saying that their herding practices and the high number of livestock (particularly goat) destroyed the landscape. The officials in the government considered the landscape once a breadbasket, because whole trading caravans could be fed. These conservation projects have not stopped with Kenya’s independence, but continue to the present day. Conservation stopped being the white man’s word, but became the word of the rich government officials and the NGOs (national and international).
Even though a lot of money has been pumped into conservation projects in the region, literally all of them failed, and the region is no better off than before. Moreover, the conservation projects used one-size-fits-all templates, although in the late 18th century the locals managed to have a thriving agricultural centre in a landscape that was already eroding. But how the locals managed that was ignored by the conservationists and government officials. People in Baringo are aware that the sediment is eroding extremely quickly, the evidence literally surrounds them on every step of the way, but can do very little about it.
However, even though the people are blamed to have caused this great degradation of the landscape in the past 150 years or less, research has shown that it has been happening for at least the past 400 years (so it is highly likely that it has been happening for longer) and the type of sediment there is naturally loose. This means the erosion could be natural and the human factor is just accelerating it.
That conservation is a white man’s word is also visible in other spheres of life, like the supermarket, where food labelled “organic” or “bio” is significantly more expensive and the general audience cannot afford it. So in countries like Slovenia, where 99,9999999% people are white (slightly exaggerating the number), conservation and biodiversity also become the rich man’s word. That is not to say that they are not concerned with the environment and do not want to/cannot participate in actions and organisations that take care of the environment. But you become excluded from certain spheres of society. Moreover, the cynical folk that we are, we think that “organic” and “bio” are just marketing schemes. That the conservation and biodiversity markers are organised under a market economy, like Michael is researching, does not help it.
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