The next Big Green Lie: 30-30 plan displaces to conserve

The UN plans to turn 30 per cent of the earth into protected areas by 2030, but what about the people who live there?

In Summary

• UN plan would displace hundreds of millions of people allegedly to save biodiversity

• Dr Mordecai Ogada says this would worsen land-grabbing, profit-driven conservation

'The Big Conservation Lie' co-author Dr Mordecai Ogada poses with children
'The Big Conservation Lie' co-author Dr Mordecai Ogada poses with children

At its next summit in Kunming, China, later this month, the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity is set to agree on a plan to turn 30 per cent of the earth into protected areas by 2030. A letter to the Convention’s secretariat, signed by 128 human rights NGOs including 11 based in Kenya, has warned that this drive is likely to lead to severe human rights violations and cause irreversible social harm to the remaining sustainable cultures in the world. Stephen Corry of Survival International has called the move ‘a colossal land-grab as big as Europe’s colonial era, [which] will bring as much suffering and death’.   

Among signatories of the letter are the Kenya National Human Rights Commission and the NGO Conservation Solutions Afrika, whose director, Dr Mordecai Ogada, has long been an outspoken opponent of the ‘fortress conservation’ concept that the signatories have roundly condemned. Ogada, a Kenyan carnivore conservationist, correctly traces the 30-30 Plan back to Harvard sociobiologist Edward O Wilson, whose idea that ‘half the earth should be protected in its primordial state to save biodiversity’ he considers not only ‘ludicrous’ but also ‘racism clothed in academic mumbo jumbo because it is obvious to any observer that the target of this ‘protection’ is the tropics, which are home to black and brown people. There won’t be any biodiversity gains by turning London, New York (or Boston) into … protected area[s].’ 

Ogada’s book, The Big Conservation Lie – The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, written together with award-winning journalist John Mbaria, is a powerful, articulate and timely expose of the crisis of conservation in Africa, which resulted directly from colonialism. Published in 2016, the book was widely reviewed outside Kenya but is only just beginning to be taken seriously in the country itself. 

The Big Conservation Lie is an unrelentingly honest, revisionist work that Ogada and Mbaria hope ‘will unmask the true challenges that threaten the existence of Kenya’s wildlife and our ownership of our national heritage’. The strictest definition of conservation, they point out, implies benefit to wildlife and biodiversity, whereas in Kenya, as in most African countries, conservation is generally a money-making, land-grabbing business. It involves exploiting iconic wildlife and ecosystems for the benefit of a small minority to the detriment of the indigenous people in whose traditional homelands the colonial fantasy of ‘wildest Africa’ is being acted out. 

‘Fortress conservation’ — the fencing off of wildlife areas and the proliferation of barbed wire, armed guards, SUVs and sophisticated surveillance equipment — is based on a concept imported by colonialists. Its roots lie in feudal Europe, where wildlife reserves were earmarked for the sole use of the aristocracy. The peasants, to whom the land had originally belonged, were debarred as trespassers and poachers and ferociously penalised by the nobles. So heinous was the crime of poaching in medieval England, for instance, that it could be punished by hanging, castration, blinding, or being sewn into a deerskin and hunted down by ferocious dogs. These measures did not prevent the extinction of local wildlife species, but such was the mentality imported by colonialists to African shores. 

‘The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it,’ say Ogada and Mbaria, adding that the feeding frenzy of tourism has encouraged a general amnesia regarding the affinity indigenous people traditionally felt for the wild animals, whose landbase they shared. Foreign tourists now occupy the niche enjoyed by the nobles in medieval Europe, and, as in those days, the local population is often excluded from areas of their homelands set aside for tourist use.

Book cover
Book cover


The ideas that resulted in The Big Conservation Lie began for Ogada with an epiphany he experienced one hot afternoon in Kitirua, an extension of Amboseli National Park. As newly appointed manager of the Kenya Wildlife Trust, he discovered it was his job to build a school, cattle dip, water point and other amenities for the local Maasai community behind a nearby hill. Inquiring why this was necessary, he was informed that it was ‘so that they would move there and their manyattas would not sully the tourists’ view of Kilimanjaro.’ It was at this moment, he said, that the iniquity of Kenya’s conservation system became clear to him. He had devoted many years to the study of conservation biology, and put great energy into earning his PhD, only to find himself used as ‘a black face’ in the displacement of compatriots whose land he was standing on. His job, he saw, was to ease an arrangement that had nothing to do with the well-being of wildlife and everything to do with making a large profit for a private company, by providing a spectacle for which tourists would pay a high price.

Historically, the problem began in 1945, when the colonial government annexed land for use as national parks, requiring the immediate exclusion of local communities from their ancestral lands. Ogada notes that the colonial project still continues but ‘has passed out of the formally protected areas and created new monsters called ‘wildlife conservancies’, where success is measured by the number of locals who can be persuaded, coerced or bribed with donor subsidies to give up their livelihoods, birthrights and other forms of identity to serve tourism.’  In these conservancies, he says, vested interests have created a container into which the fabulously wealthy are pouring vast amounts of money to ‘subvert systems, grab lands and plunder resources’.  

The 30-30 Plan can only make things worse by giving official UN sanction to what is already an ongoing and destructive process, and one that is likely to work to the detriment of biodiversity in the long run. It is no coincidence that Survival International’s Steven Corry compared the project with European imperialism. ‘Let's not be fooled by the hype from the conservation NGOs and their UN and government funders,’ Corry said. ‘This has nothing to do with climate change, protecting biodiversity or avoiding pandemics — in fact, it's more likely to make all of them worse. It's really all about money, land and resource control, and an all-out assault on human diversity. This planned dispossession of hundreds of millions of people risks eradicating human diversity and self-sufficiency — the real keys to our being able to slow climate change and protect biodiversity.’

The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it
Ogada and Mbaria


Like Corry, Ogada believes that in a world beset by the sixth mass extinction and imminent disaster from climate change, the intimate relationship indigenous cultures achieved with their landbase over a vast time-scale provides a better model for protecting biodiversity than the colonial one. Nomadic pastoralism, for instance, is a sustainable adaptation to the rangelands, known from rock art and other archaeological evidence to have been around for at least 9,000 years. Yet capitalist interests persist in suggesting that pastoral communities are anachronisms standing in the way of development, while conservationists add that the nomads are ‘overpopulating’, ‘overgrazing’ and ‘degrading’ land they have considered sacred and preserved intact since the earliest times.

‘This creates the absurd logic that conservationists somehow have to ‘take over’ and ‘manage’ the land on their behalf,’ Ogada says, noting that these verbs are both euphemisms for ‘exploit’. The worst aspect of this kind of transaction, he adds, is that it is dishonest, perpetuated by capitalist wolves in conservationist sheep’s clothing, who brandish the word ‘conservation’ as a sacred banner to silence opposition, and disguise avarice as feigned concern.  

Ironically, images of Maasai morans in full regalia are an instantly recognisable tourist icon for Kenya, while in reality the sustainable way of life of Maa-speaking pastoralists has been consistently undermined. Offering ‘alternative livelihoods’, interested parties attempt to suggest that working as a waiter, dancer, bead-maker or curio-seller can provide proud nomads with the sense of meaning and identity their ancestors derived from herding livestock untold ages before colonials arrived.

Once the herds are gone, the culture itself disintegrates and communities no longer have the power to resist. Those who do are condemned as ‘bandits’, ‘raiders’ and ‘poachers’, confirming a prejudice carefully nurtured since colonial times that indigenous Africans are the enemies of wildlife. The idea that conservation is ‘some kind of war’ that must be fought against the natives, reminiscent of the Indian wars in the US waged to displace Native Americans and push them on to reservations, has become the norm. Ogada points out that conservationists have deliberately perpetuated these ideas of conflict, endangerment and crisis to galvanise support and elicit funding. ‘The magnitude of [their] support is amazing,’ he comments, ‘ranging from individual pockets to the government coffers of the USA … extraordinary effort is put into maintaining it at fever pitch.’ While he admits that poaching is part of the problem, he says it has been blown out of all proportion: current statistics support his assertion that ‘to the honest observer, it is a minor part’. 

In precolonial Africa, killing for sport was unknown and an anathema to some societies since it was seen as an affront to the deities that provided the resource
Dr Mordecai Ogada


The main cause of the crisis, Ogada says, is the nature of the colonial conservation system itself, which deliberately alienates local people from the land. The idea that locals are responsible for the decline in wildlife populations and the degradation of habitats is belied by history. In 1800, for example, there were about 26 million elephants in Africa. By 1900, this number had dropped to about 10 million: almost all of the missing 16 million had been killed by white men with guns. Conservation proposals advanced in 1903 were aimed at limiting big game hunting to colonials and white settlers, and these groups continued to be the main killers of large animals up to the 1980s. That their ‘fortress conservation’ methods were ineffective is clearly illustrated by the fact that wildlife numbers have continued to decline, with less than one million elephants in the wild today. The fact that wildlife populations had remained vibrant, and ecosystems intact, for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years before colonialism, indicates clearly the superiority of indigenous conservation approaches over imported ones.

While sharing the land base with nonhuman species, indigenous peoples regarded them as relatives rather than objects, maintaining a narrative of connection in which humans and nature were one. Local communities had strict regulations regarding wildlife, with taboos on killing some species, which were regarded with veneration and respect. Killing any creature without good reason was frowned upon and considered likely to expose the community to drought, famine or disease. ‘In precolonial Africa, killing for sport was unknown,’ Ogada says, ‘and an anathema to some societies since it was seen as an affront to the deities that provided the resource.’ 

In these traditions, by which wildlife shared the land in harmonious balance with human pastoralists, cultivators and hunter-gatherers, lies the best solution to the conservation crisis. Instead of the European style of ‘conservation apartheid’, local people should be given an opportunity to re-establish their cultural, spiritual and historical interconnectedness with the landbase.  ‘Kenya does not need experts nurtured in the European education system,’ Ogada says, ‘… [local] elders can provide solutions the West can never offer to Africa.’  

It is an opinion shared both by Stephen Corry and by Joshua Castellino of Minority Rights Group International, who both endorse the letter objecting to the UN’s proposed 30-30 Plan that Ogada signed. ‘Urgent measures are needed to arrest the imminent breach of planetary boundaries,’ Costellino said. ‘This requires reining in those responsible for its continued destruction, replacing them with those responsible for its safeguarding. Making indigenous peoples pay the price for destruction that took place in the drive towards overconsumption for profit by others … reifies the quest for profit over the traditional knowledge it subjugated, dominated and nearly destroyed on the path to this precipice.’

This, in a nutshell, is the message of The Big Conservation Lie. More protected areas with more barbed wire, guards and machine guns, more alienation of the indigenous, will not save the planet: they can only hasten its violent demise.

Edited by T Jalio

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