The Invention of Green Colonialism: Book review

By Bob Newland

Students of colonialism will be familiar with the oft repeated justification that colonialists simply took over and developed land that was unoccupied. To make this a reality required the wholesale expulsion of indigenous peoples from their land in America, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Africa.

Blanc concentrates primarily on Africa and in particular Ethiopia. He argues that National Parks are based on the colonial era idea of ‘Eden’. An Africa consisting of vast forests and green spaces occupied by flora and fauna. This idea, a myth which never existed, was developed by colonial era ‘experts’ who creating international organisations such as UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Under the banner of Conservation and Naturalisation, Blanc argues, these organisations are involved in ‘a process which involves turning territories into National Parks, banning agriculture …evicting people from their homes and … grazing lands.’ Once again, the idea is peddled that the natural land of Africa is made up of forests and animals but not people.

In order to save the natural environment these colonial ‘experts’ and their offspring organisations claim that Africa is virgin territory threatened by the ignorant and destructive local people. UNESCO is the main offender demanding the forced removal of agro-pastoralists whose activities pose ‘Threats to the integrity of the Parks (through) cultivation and soil erosion’. They are supported in this by the WWF who claim that the local populations pose a risk to threatened species.

The reality is very different. While claiming that excluding the original inhabitants would save the forests and wildlife, the colonialists issued hunting licences to rich foreign visitors(in one year alone 65,000 elephants were killed for their ivory) and elsewhere stripping forests bare to provide the timber to build ships and construct the framework of Empire.

Facts and figures mean little to these ‘experts’ and the organisations they created. In Ethiopia it is claimed that forests which covered 40% of the land have reduced to 4%. These have no basis in fact and historical data and aerial photos provide a very different picture.

Like many other progressives I have always considered the National Parks and their conservation agenda to be a good thing. This book powerfully challenges that idea.

Despite this, the false statistics continue to drive the National Parks movement. Sadly many African Governments have been co-opted to the idea. Persuaded of their responsibility to save nature and of the financial benefits of eco-tourism they have been forced to employ otherwise redundant colonial ‘experts’ in running the Parks and developing policy.

UNESCO requires African Governments to expel the inhabitants of the Parks, by force if necessary, in order for them to be granted World Heritage Status – a critical requirement for attracting eco-tourism.

The author interviewed local residents. Some are convinced that the National Parks are a dying environment. They argue that during their stewardship they helped the forests grow, terraced the land providing irrigation and planted crops to prevent soil erosion. Although accused of killing indigenous animals, they claim to have protected the natural habitat in which the animals thrived.

Blanc considers how sometimes the expulsion of local populations coincided with the interests of local Governments. Opposition to the post Haile Selassie socialist Government was strong in the National Parks. Tanzania’s socialist Government thought it necessary to relocate subsistence farmers to new towns and retrain them with skills for their developing economies.

He highlights contradictions between the approach to National Parks in Europe where UNESCO argues that ‘the Cevennes landscape is the heritage of 5000 years of agro-pastoralism’ incontrast with their approach in Africa where the opposite is claimed.

Blanc argues that the National Parks movement in Africa in particular is part of a process where the underdeveloped world has to make sacrifices in order that capitalist predators can continue to exploit the world’s resources at will. These policies were recently further developed by a consultancy company widely employed by mining and Petro-chemical giants Rio Tinto, Total and ExxonMobil. In conclusion he suggests only a radical reform of capitalism can offer a solution to the current ecological crisis.

Blanc adds an afterward to the original French edition responding to criticisms. He acknowledges this is a controversial area and stresses that he does not oppose efforts to protect endangered species. He simply argues that the finger is being pointed at the wrong people. Elephants and other endangered species are not being hunted by agro-pastoralists but rather by internationally organised gangs of poachers using the most sophisticated modern technology.

I can only hint at the vast range of information which the author has gathered. The book challenges some otherwise comfortably held opinions, is sometimes harrowing and often controversial. It deserves a read.

The Invention of Green Colonialism Guillaume Blanc. Published by Polity, £15.99

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