Neo-Colonialism: The Dark Side of Today’s Conservation

Editor’s note: this article is longer than usual, expect a 7-8m read

Behind the creations of protected areas often lay horrible stories of exploitation and ostracisation of indigenous and rural people, which continue to date. Behind the masks of poachers are often the faces of those very marginalised people. This blog explores how these issues can be traced back to the economic and cultural hegemony of the Global North on the South.

Wildlife is declining at unprecedented rates. News of declining populations of charismatic animals such as lions, rhinos or elephants particularly resonate with us. While today these species are threatened by issues such as habitat loss and climate change, their decimated populations are also the legacy of the western colonisers of the 19th and 20th centuries, who overhunted these animals for sport and trophies. Upon realising that they were driving these species to extinction, the colonisers created national parks and implemented hunting bans, dispossessing local pastoralists of their grazing lands, subsidence hunters of their hunting grounds, and more in general indigenous people of their homelands1.

Rural dwellers were perceived as “uncivilised” or “barbaric” by the colonisers who thought they could not be trusted near the wildlife that needed protection. Yet, these communities had been coexisting with that very wildlife for thousands of years. Another reason behind the forced evictions was that in the imagination of the western colonisers, nature was a pristine place free from any kind of human influence. Nature and people were two separate things and the conservation of the former could not occur but through the exclusion of the latter. A vision that is only a western cultural construct, as we have been co-shaping ecosystems together with other wildlife since our very first appearance as a species.

This romantic notion of a pristine nature untainted by people is nevertheless still vivid in the views of many western societies today and, despite the decolonisation of Africa in the 1960s, it is a core reason why the marginalisation, exploitation and abuse of rural and indigenous people still take place in modern times. The hegemony of the Global North on the South has in fact never ceased. Rather, it just took on a different form: neo-colonialism. “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside”. “Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress”2. These were the words lamented by Kwame Nkrumah, revolutionary Ghana prime minister, a decade after the country declared independence from Britain in 1957.

National parks attract a great deal of international tourism and are a main source of income for African countries. Brochures advertised by multinational tourism agencies often portray images of African landscapes as untouched heavens and sell them as an antidote to modernity for people in the North3. This vision is further engrained in the minds of westerners by countless documentaries that emphasise the notion of pristineness but never mention how rural people are forcibly evicted from their homelands for the creation of such wilderness areas. These issues continue to see local African governments ostracising local people whilst promoting western ideals of conservation and conceptions of nature. Furthermore, the increasing economic power of international NGOs and their links with people in high places, means that they have great political and cultural influence on the management of African wildlife, even though their headquarters are in the North4.

The restrictions imposed on indigenous and rural inhabitants on accessing natural resources, alongside the unequal distribution of economic revenues from ecotourism and activities alike, produce poverty landscapes. The marginalised people have little or no access to good grazing areas, reliable water sources, workable and fertile agricultural grounds, or even to the wildlife they once used to hunt for subsidence or trade. Meanwhile, climate change, whose foremost cause is western consumerism, further aggravates the impoverishment of the displaced communities by causing more recurrent droughts and extreme weather events. These critical conditions are the circumstances that make local people particularly vulnerable to coercion by criminal gangs, who are in better positions to lure them into engaging in acts of poaching, such as those targeted at rhino horns. While gangs only share a fraction of the value of the horn with the local people, the global economic inequality is such that this is still enough to turn around the lives of entire communities.

Poaching jeopardises the conservation of already threatened wildlife populations, and it is rightly of great concern to governments, NGOs and conservationists in general. However, rather than tackling it at its roots (e.g., addressing economic inequality and poverty), efforts tend to be focused on building anti-poaching teams. Meanwhile, international media contribute to a narrative whereby the poachers are dehumanised and portrayed as amoral barbaric people – not much unlike the colonial representations of the past. A recent study5 examined the comments of online (facebook and twitter) users on rhino poaching updates, evidencing extreme calls for violence addressed to the poachers. The type of comments that appeared most regularly included: poachers should be “left to starve and stay thirsty” or “have their body parts removed” or “fed to wildlife” or “shot and killed” or “hunted”. Crucially, this violence is not merely contained within an online world. Rather, it comes to matter by authorising a militarised approach to commercial poaching. The public and wealthy donors, who are in largest part located in the North, can directly fund NGOs campaigns to arm and train rangers for anti-poaching. This also creates a war-like political environment which allows governments to draft policies such as “shoot-to-kill” when it comes to poachers5. Such militarisation of conservation may also be surreptitiously used by governments to further exercise their power on rural people and get hold of new resources for their own gains and profits6.

Allowing rangers to arbitrarily kill suspected poachers without a trial – in another word: executions – means that rural communities are not only dispossessed of their homes, but are also squished between the threats of armed criminal gangs on one side and armed rangers on the other. Rangers may in fact abuse their powers. A recent example is WWF trained guards raiding villages and torturing people in national parks across Asia and Africa7. Indigenous people and villagers have been shot, beaten unconscious, sexually assaulted, and whipped by armed guards in parks in places like Nepal and Cameroon, a recent BuzzFeed News investigation has revealed.

Community-based approaches have been emerging in the recent decades to ameliorate this situation. However, only little improvements are discernible. Most of the ownership of tourism remains in the hands of multinational companies, and only few percents of tourism income trickle down to local people. Rural communities also tend to be coerced into deals that are bad for them. The following interaction between foreign investors and Maasai villagers, borrowed from the report of the research conducted by Akama et al.3, illustrates not only the rhetoric and discourse employed to lure local people to agree to unfair economic conditions but also the still prevalent relations of power and domination that are common in postcolonial states:

Tour operator: “We are here to submit a proposal to the Maasai. Right now (tourism) is not working well for you and us. For the Maasai, there is still poverty, disease…. This is a new thing we want to do; a new beginning…. A good portion needs to go to management…But our goal is for everybody to benefit from tourism….It is your choice. We need to discuss the consequences if you don’t agree with the proposal…Tourists won’t come here if you don’t agree with the lease. On the other hand, if we make an agreement, we ensure that the Maasai get enough revenue.”

Requests for fair partnerships were made by the Maasai:

“In order to achieve this proposal we need to have an equal partnership, not special conditions. What you want is a better life for tour operators, not for us, for them…. We are poor, millions of shillings are going to the tour operators. We are not benefiting from tourism…We have been pressed a lot…. The agreement needs to reflect plans for the people…We need to establish our own conditions…We are always been left with leftovers. We need capacity building.”

Despite the plea for equitable economic benefits, foreign investors continued to pressure the Maasai attendees to sign the agreement:

“You have three options: you leave it as it is; develop wildlife tourism; or develop agriculture. We are proposing to find tourists, guarantee a fee as a lease for the whole area; a management company will manage the area under strict guidelines. You benefit from money from the park fees.”

Furthermore, foreign tour operators and lodge owners in this case had specific rules that the Maasai were to agree upon once the lease agreement would take effect:

“We need you to respect the rules; let the cattle go and stick to the contract…. We may repossess the village to make it more attractive, paint it green, but it will be yours. There will be no cattle; we are looking to control what happens on the land. Let me explain. We are paying for this site but we are seeing more cattle and goats… I paid and the cattle did not move away. We even have dogs here!…. We have brought tourists from all over the world. I don’t know much about your culture and land but I know about my colleagues around. They don’t want to see the cows; they come to Kenya to see wildlife…. To make money in tourism for many years to come, we have to make sure tourists don’t encounter crowds of men and that we can separate wildlife from your community.”

As seen above, cultural domination is not always coercive as enacted by colonial regimes in the past. Rather, it is facilitated through hegemonic practices and policies in communication, development initiatives and commerce, including tourism.

The hegemony of North on the South continues to be a source of violence, injustice and inequality which sees the poorest African communities on the receiving end. The politics of conservation in the South need to be representative of the local voices. A conservation that protects its wildlife via brute force, violence and exploitation whilst embracing neo-colonialist values is not my conservation, and I would like to hope it is not yours either. We can and should do better than this.

If you enjoyed this read, and would like to receive a notification every time a new post comes out, enter your email address below and subscribe to Conservation in a Click.

Join 48 other followers


  1. Adams, W.M., 2013. Against extinction: the story of conservation. Earthscan.
  2. Nkrumah, K., 1969. Neo-colonialism: Tha Last Stage of Imperialism. Heinemann.
  3. Akama, J.S., Maingi, S. and Camargo, B.A., 2011. Wildlife conservation, safari tourism and the role of tourism certification in Kenya: A postcolonial critique. Tourism recreation research36(3), pp.281-291.
  4. Holmes, G., 2011. Conservation’s friends in high places: neoliberalism, networks, and the transnational conservation elite. Global Environmental Politics11(4), pp.1-21.
  5. Lunstrum, E., 2017. Feed them to the lions: Conservation violence goes online. Geoforum79, pp.134-143.
  6. Peluso, N.L., 1993. Coercing conservation?: The politics of state resource control. Global environmental change3(2), pp.199-217.

Cover image credits:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.