A network for all who care about the conservation of our world and who want to see it achieved with justice, compassion, dignity and honesty.

Racism and Conservation

Towards a better understanding human-wildlife conflict: Re-visiting common assumptions. A contribution for discussion from Clare Gupta

This article stands as a critique of the neo-colonial attitudes of many conservation scientists, but it also serves as a call for members of the conservation community to recognize that those who care about conservation need to pay as close attention to the intricacies of social life as to the complexities of wildlife ecology in places where humans and wildlife co-exist.

When I first arrived in Botswana, fresh out of college with a biology degree and a desire to “save African wildlife,” I looked at the villagers living and farming near the national park I was studying and couldn’t understand why I saw weeds growing in their fields, sloppily- made corrals and cows wandering aimlessly. If these farmers were complaining about the destructive presence of wildlife, why couldn’t they just put more effort into caring for their animals and crops? As a conservation biologist living in a research camp, lacking any Setswana skills, and feeling (at the time) most comfortable around my fellow expat conservationist friends, I didn’t bother to go visit a local farmer and actually ask. I just observed what I saw—a low level of animal husbandry and tending to fields—and assumed that it was the result of some national cultural phenomenon of laziness. It didn’t help that this superficial and generalized assumption was constantly reinforced by my peers, many of whom frequently made racist assessments of the typical “character” of Motswana person. I look back now and I am shocked and embarrassed at how quickly I adopted the common expat sentiment that human-wildlife conflict could be drastically reduced if only Batswana farmers could bother to take a little bit better care of their crops and animals.

Six years later, I am now finishing an environmental anthropology doctoral graduate program that involved living for nine months in one of those rural villages I had previously been so quick to judge. Studying agrarian livelihoods in villages around Chobe National Park intensively for five years turned my pre-conceived notions of Batswana farmers on their head. I learned about the structural reasons that make Batswana farming practices make “sense,” both by avidly reading the literature about Botswana and more importantly, taking the time to speak with dozens of farmers, in causal conversations, interviews and focus groups.

Rather than document yet another case of social injustice in which the interests of conservationists and the safari tourism industry have won out over those of a rural community with little bargaining power (which many scholars have already done quite well—e.g. Dan Brockington and Roderick Neumann amongst others), I want to use this short article to investigate the mechanism through which often well-intentioned conservationists hold beliefs and take actions that lead to these situations of social injustice. In my experience, conservationists who come to places like Botswana often assume that local people cannot manage their own resources properly, a belief that is not only demeaning but also can lead to scenarios in which local communities are disempowered as their control over their own resources is taken away. In some cases, communities are prohibited from engaging in everyday long-standing livelihood activities and are told how to “improve” their farming practices to be more environmentally friendly. How is it that well-educated conservation scientists can be so dismissive of local knowledges and practices? The short answer is because they do not take the time to figure out the internal logic to certain practices that become “legible” when one begins to develop a deeper understanding of local complexities—the socio-economic and political factors as well as the historical legacies and geographical conditions that make things the way they are.

The common attitude amongst environmentalists towards swidden agriculture or what is often derogatively referred to as “slash and burn” is the most obvious example of this phenomenon. Visitors (either short or long term) often from the global North assume (and have assumed since the colonial era) that rural farmers in places like Indonesia and Madagascar are ignorant of sustainable farming practices and use land wastefully. This assumption often translates into the creation of state laws (frequently backed by aid and conservation organizations from the global North) that prohibit swidden agriculture, despite evidence showing that it can be an appropriate land use technique in certain eco-regions.

In the Chobe area as well, foreign conservationists are quick to criticize local agricultural practices, though not because farmers practice swidden agriculture. Farmers in Botswana have been described to me repeatedly as “lazy” because they may not invest a lot of capital or labor into their growing of crops or rearing of livestock. They get blamed for predators attacking their livestock or elephants attacking their crops because they are seen as too lackadaisical or ignorant to corral their animals properly or fence and guard their fields adequately.

My point is not to counter the observation that agriculture in Botswana is a low input low output activity. Indeed, the low agricultural productivity that characterizes much of subsistence farming in Botswana is certainly connected to the low level of investment, in terms of finances and labor, which Batswana farmers put into farming.

What I do find problematic and frankly unacceptable is the fact that outsiders observe local farming practices—usually in the context of studying human-wildlife conflict—and quickly assume farmers to be lazy, incompetent and in need of a better work ethic. They don’t take the time to think about the structural reasons why it may be that farmers in Chobe and in much of Botswana have evolved this low-input, low-risk approach the farming. A geographic and historical explanation for why people farm the way they farm is never considered, as conservationists fall back on blaming “Batswana culture” for the apparent lazy behaviors that they observe. To me, this is racism, pure and simple—assuming a certain behavior to be “innate” to a person or group of people based on race or culture rather than taking the time to understand why, given local context and environment, people do the things they do or think the things they think.

Through my studies, I have come to understand that the prevalent low input-low output farming approach in Chobe (and much of the rest of the country) is a rational response to both labor constraints and the risks involved in farming in an ecologically marginal landscape. First of all, many households are either not willing or do not have the labor to tend to their fields during the interim period before harvest. This situation reflects the history of migration of men out of the villages to the South African mines in the early 1900’s that reduced the amount of available labor for full-time farming and resulted in lower yields and a switch to less labor intensive crops. In my own interviews, Kachikau villagers gave a number of reasons for the decline in arable land husbandry—youth prefer to look for jobs in the village (or nearby town) than stay out at the household agricultural outpost, children are now in school and can’t help with farming, residents are drawn to the village where social services are available and as re-iterated to me repeatedly, in Chobe farmers see no point in tending to their fields when the chance of substantial crop destruction by elephants despite their best efforts to deter them is perceived to be high.

Second, erratic rainfall and flooding mean that there are high risks to farming, and dissuade farmers from putting too much investment into a livelihood activity that is heavily dependent on unreliable weather and environmental conditions.

Third, most “farmers” maintain a diversified livelihood portfolio, meaning that a household is engaged in a number of livelihood activities at any one time. Farmers are hesitant to put all their eggs into one basket, so to speak, and so mitigate risk by hedging their bets and pursuing a variety of potential income streams. However, this means that they devote a limited amount of time and money to any single livelihood activity, including farming. For some farmers, farming serves as more of a “safety net” than a primary source of survival. May households in Chobe have sent a family member to town to serve as the “bread-winner” while other families rely upon money from the state in the form of pensions or government-subsidized work programs as their primary source of income, for example. For many, these transfers and remittances form a safety net that allow people to “indulge in arable agriculture only on a minimum-effort-maximum-return-to-labor basis” (Jones 1981)*. Ultimately, farmers do not pursue a livelihood strategy of labor-intensive field maintenance because of both its opportunity costs (missed opportunities for stable employment elsewhere) and the high risk of failure—not because they are lazy.

This article stands as a critique of the neo-colonial attitudes of many conservation scientists, but it also serves as a call for members of the conservation community to recognize that those who care about conservation need to pay as close attention to the intricacies of social life as to the complexities of wildlife ecology in places where humans and wildlife co-exist. A future of just conservation does not stand a chance if we do not devote time to understanding people as much as wildlife and give them the respect that they deserve. We do not accept cursory “off-the-cuff” assessments of wildlife populations; nor should we accept simplistic evaluations of local peoples and their cultures.

*Jones, David. 1981. "Arable Agriculture in Botswana: a Case for Subsidies." In
Papers on the Economy of Botswana, ed. Charles Harvey. London:

15th August, 2011

blog comments powered by Disqus