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Book Review: Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples by Mark Dowie

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

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Wilderness: The word evokes ideas of a land pristine, where native flora and fauna thrive untouched by humans. But Dowie, an investigative journalist, argues that the notion of virgin wilderness is largely a fantasy and shows how efforts to preserve land have upset the lives of millions of indigenous people around the world.

This thought-provoking book traces the story of ecological protection from its early days in the late 19th century. That’s when naturalist John Muir lobbied to evict American Indians from their ancestral lands in today’s Yosemite National Park, arguing that they threatened the land’s “natural” splendor.

The Yosemite Park model — which held that human activity and biological diversity are almost always mutually exclusive —became the standard philosophy of conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, Dowie writes.

As a result, a number of indigenous peoples have become “conservation refugees.” The Maasai hunters of the Serengeti, the Adivasi people of India’s forests and the Karen people in Thailand all faced eviction or severe restrictions after their land was declared a park or a reserve. Divorced from ancestral land and traditions, many societies have slid into poverty. Some even face extinction.

Dowie sympathizes, but he doesn’t romanticize these peoples’ lifestyles or capacity as land stewards. Not all indigenous societies have cared for their homes, just as not all conservationist groups prioritize biological diversity over human culture, he notes.

True ecological conservation requires balancing both interests, he writes. “If we really want people to live in harmony with nature, history is showing us that the dumbest thing we can do is kick them out of it.”

MIT Press, 2009, 336 p., $27.95.

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