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Conservation Refugees: The misanthropy of ecological “restorations”

February 7, 2012

Hawaiians protest confiscation of public lands

We recently told our readers about the controversial “restoration” projects in Hawaii.  Now our colleagues in Hawaii have sent us photographs of a public protest in Hawaii and The Hawaii Reporter tells us why they are protesting.  Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is fencing the public out of another 17 square miles of prime forest on the Big Island.  All the non-native animals—sheep, goats, pigs—will be exterminated and all their non-native food—strawberry guava, passion fruit, etc—will be eradicated in that fenced enclosure.   The people who hunted the animals and gathered fruit in the forest are protesting the loss of this source of food. 

In addition to the loss of food, the protestors also object to the loss of an activity that is central to the Hawaiian culture of foraging and hunting for food.   DLNR’s response to that particular complaint is that the historical record indicates that Hawaiians didn’t hunt prior to the arrival of Europeans because they raised animals as their own. 

In other words, not only does DLNR wish to stop the biological clock, they also wish to freeze-frame the Hawaiian culture to a pre-European standard.  They don’t seem to have considered that the Europeans essentially confiscated the land of the Hawaiians when they arrived, which deprived the Hawaiians of the land needed to raise animals.  That’s too bad.  The Hawaiians are not allowed to hunt now because they didn’t hunt 250 years ago.   As absurd as creating botanical museums seems to us, the suggestion that culture must also be prevented from evolving strikes us as utterly ridiculous.

Hawaiians protest loss of access to public lands

Conservation Refugees

Hawaii’s cost of living has always been one of the highest in the country because virtually all of its food must be imported.   And now Hawaiians are being deprived of an important source of food by the confiscation of public lands.  Will these Hawaiians join the ranks of the millions of conservation refugees all over the world who have been displaced in the name of conservation?

We were introduced to conservation refugees by Mark Dowie in 2004.  He told us that the belief that wilderness is not compatible with human community originated with John Muir, who demanded that Native Americans living in Yosemite be removed from the valley.  Native Americans were also removed from Yellowstone when the National Park was created.  These Native Americans were the first conservation refugees, but not the last.

Dowie told us that the worldwide official protected areas—parks, reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, biodiversity corridors—had expanded from 1,000 in 1962 to 108,000 in 2004.  The total number of indigenous people displaced by the creation of these protected areas is not known because most countries make no attempt to quantify the impact.  In Chad an estimated 600,000 indigenous people became conservation refugees when the amount of protected areas increased from 0.1 to 9.1 percent of total national land in the 1990s.  India admits to creating 1.6 million conservation refugees as a result of creating new protected areas and the Indian government estimates that 2 or 3 million more will be displaced in this decade.

Dowie visited some of the communities that have been displaced by the confiscation of their ancestral land.  The loss of their land is also the loss of their way of life.  Hunters/gatherers are deprived of their source of food.  Likewise, farmers lose their croplands.  They wander into shanty towns where they lack the skills to survive in the modern world.  They create shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of their homeland where they live without sanitation or water.  The fabric of their communities is shattered.

Emma Marris* observes the irony of these evictions of traditional cultures which have tended these remnants of the wilderness for generations.  These places were targets for conservation because they had been preserved by traditional cultures that had learned to co-exist with nature.  This is how they are rewarded for their stewardship of the land.

What is accomplished?

What is gained when Hawaiians are thrown out of their public lands, depriving them of a source of food?  Are these projects successful?  Are the plants and animals that existed in Hawaii several hundred years ago returning to the fenced reserves that have been created for them?

Emma Marris visited one of these projects in Hawaii.  A small test plot was cleared of all non-native plants, requiring the removal of about half of all the vegetation.  That process took about a week per thousand square feet and then “epic bouts of weeding thereafter.”

 The theory was that the removal of all the non-natives would enable the natives to thrive without the competition for sunlight and water.  Five years later, there is little evidence that native plants have benefited from the eradication of all non-native plants:

“Disappointingly, the mature native trees had grown very little.  As [the project directors] put it, ‘The native trees may either be responding to the treatments very slowly and still undetectably, or they may be unable to respond at all.’”

The directors of this project also told Marris, “I think that people that are interested in protecting Hawaii’s flora and fauna have resigned themselves to it being in postage-stamp sized reserves.”   Apparently Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources hasn’t gotten this message.  They are now creating another 17 square mile reserve with the intention of eradicating everything non-native in it.  Nothing is likely to be accomplished by all that death and destruction and some Hawaiians will also go hungry.

The slippery slope of nativism

Perhaps we should be grateful that the “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area aren’t depriving us of our homes and our livelihoods.  We are just being fenced out of our public parks.  We are just losing our trees.  Our public parks are just being poisoned with pesticides.

But we watch these projects all over the world and we listen to the demands of local native plant advocates and we wonder where this is headed.  In San Francisco, for example, native plant advocates are demanding that all of the public lands in the city be managed as “natural areas.”  In addition to destroying the trees in our parks, would we lose the trees on all our public properties?  We also know that native plant advocates want plant nurseries to quit selling to the public the approximately 200 plants that they have categorized as “invasive.”  Will we lose the right to plant what we want in our own backyards?  Given what we see happening around the world, it doesn’t seem farfetched. 


* Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aho'i permalink
    February 7, 2012 2:25 pm

    The behavior of the new wave of “conservationists” migrating to Hawaii has been repeated many times in the past. Many, if not most of the non-native species folks are from the mainland and fail to consider they themselves and all European descends before them are the worst of the invasive species. They are the ones primarily responsible for introducing non-native species to the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, there are precious few true native species and it could be argued, since Hawaii was barren volcanic rock at one time, there are no native species.

    Every wave of these so-called conservationists has made serious mistakes. The mongoose was introduced to kill off the rat (brought in by Europeans and European descendants). Unfortunately one is nocturnal and the other diurnal so today they live and thrive side by side. The soil and climate being so very conducive to rapid growth non-native plants and trees have been eradicated only to be replaced by something far worse. Ironically some of the poisons used by these conservationists have come from Monsanto.

    Not only have many of the species under attack been in the islands a very long time but they have become a primary source of food for many people struggling to survive in an economy driven by outside interests and migration. Most European descendants, haoles as they are called back home, rich mainlanders have driven the cost of living so high local people cannot survive in their own homeland and there are currently more Hawaiians living on the west coast of the United states than live in Hawaii.

    Conservationists have managed to have the wild pua’a, which, along with bananas, coconut, papaya and taro, were carried to the Hawaiian Islands by the brave first peoples who discovered the islands around 400 AD, classified as a feral animal. This has in turn enabled them to establish reason to destroy them as a non-native species. Are the Hawaiian people also non-native? It appears to me the conservationists care little about what becomes of them. Their families and ohana have been broken and displaced by American confiscation of land beginning with the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 and now food sources are being eliminated as well.

    Manifest Destiny continues with new disguises.

    • November 3, 2016 7:35 pm

      Your comment contains several serious errors. First off, your charge that Europeans first introduced rats to Hawaii is false. The Polynesian settlers that arrived around 400 AD introduced rats. Second, it was not “conservationists” who were to blame for the introduction of Indian Mongooses to combat rats. It was the doing of sugar cane farmers, who were trying to combat a pest. Third, you appear to contradict yourself when you say early on that “In fact, there are precious few true native species and it could be argued, since Hawaii was barren volcanic rock at one time, there are no native species.” Then, you seem to make multiple allusions to the “fact” of “Hawaiians” (I use quotes because they are the descendants of Polynesians, and not, in fact, native) being a native species. Fourth, (And this is an honest question, actually), what is the thing that is “far worse” that is replacing the invasive species? Fifth, it seems to me that, just as Hawaiian culture has evolved in the past (As mentioned in the above article), so too can it evolve now, to perhaps find other food sources. And, after all, food sources like feral pigs aren’t going anywhere. Finally (Another honest question), why do you use the phrase “families and ohana”? As far as my (admittedly limited) understanding goes, ohana literally means “family”, so there seems to be little use in using one of those words.

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