A Tragedy (of the Commons) Wrought by Good Intentions

Investigative reporter Mark Dowie, a Senior Fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, has sent along the following dispatch based on his recent reporting and travels:

What is accomplished when a commons is stolen to create a larger commons? This has been happening at a fairly rapid pace since the middle of the 19th century when Miwok and Ahwahneechee Indians were evicted from a homeland they had shared with the Paiute and Yokuts for four thousand years to create a commons in Yosemite Valley for Euro-American settlers thirsting for wilderness. The theft of land from Native Americans, for the “preservation” of nature and the recreation of urbanites, spread from Yosemite to Yellowstone to Death Valley to Mesa Verde and on to eight or nine other rural parks across America. Then it was exported, as part of a well intentioned global “conservation” strategy to every continent on the planet save Antarctica — no one there to displace.

It’s happening right now in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley where the Mursi are being removed from a brand new National Park run by a Dutch non-profit, in Republic of Congo where Baka pygmies have been displaced from a gorilla reserve managed by the same people who own the Bronx Zoo, and in Gabon where at least eight tribes are being coerced from ancient hunting grounds so that eco-tourism can flourish in thirteen new parks and wildlife refuges funded by US AID.

Yes it can be argued that creating a hundred thousand or more “protected areas” around the world in some respect expands the global commons. And in some of those reserves biological diversity really is being protected, and biodiversity can arguably be considered an aspect of the commons. Again, the intentions are noble. But why must a land mass larger than the entire African continent be expropriated from indigenous peoples, most of them having held the land in common for centuries, often millennia?

It is, I believe, because we only recognize a commons when it is ours, or when we somehow share in its ownership, even though the commons in question may be in Africa, India or Southeast Asia. It’s not as if Indians ever kept us out of Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy or the Mariposa Grove. They may have chuckled at our strange clothing and prissy ways of camping as we wandered through Yellowstone in pith helmets and high leather boots to admire the elk and beaver and observe the lifeways of its human inhabitants. But we were welcome. There is no record of the Baka, Mursi or Bushmen ever attacking a colonial settler. So why separate them from land they have cultivated sustainably for uncountable generations, from their hunting and fishing grounds and from the graves of their ancestors?

It can’t just be, as is so often claimed, to protect the diversity of wild species. Where biodiversity is low conservationists have little interested in protecting it. It seems, almost perversely, to be because its traditional occupants regard the area as a commons. Why else would the Native Lands Act of New Zealand have denied the right of collective land ownership to more than ten people per area? Why would the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 have denied American citizenship to Indians who refused to accept a quarter section of their once-common land as private property? And why would George Bush and Tony Blair both publicly repudiate a UN Resolution protecting the land rights of indigenous peoples because in Blair’s opinion there is not, nor should there every be, such a thing as collective human rights “i.e., common land ownership”?

By initiating and seeking official recognition of protected areas on their traditional homeland, indigenous peoples have found a way to achieve conservation without enclosing their commons for the sake of a larger one. And by creating smaller national parks and publicly accessible wildlife reserves within their territories, as so many are today, are they not in fact expanding the global commons available to us all?