Ecocriticism: Conservation in East Africa

The following piece of writing is an essay on ecocriticism adapted by the author from McGill’s student journal, Environmentalist Movements in the Global North and Global South – Roots, Character, Connections, to form a feature-length article.

What is the environment? What is nature? And how do we – as humans – fit into all of it? Carl Sagan’s famous excerpt from Pale Blue Dot includes an image taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990, and a line that reads: That’s here. That’s Home. That’s us. Indeed, this profound message has also consolidated our relationship with planet Earth as something we possess. As humans, we have long considered ourselves removed from nature. Entities that may own, exploit, manage and rejuvenate the natural world as we please. Around 10 000 B.C., the First Agricultural Revolution introduced humans to the systematic domestication of animals and plants to accommodate their needs; around 1760, the Industrial Revolution manufactured human’s dependence on chemicals and fossil fuels, which would accelerate the depletion of natural resources; around 1960, the Environmental (Green) Revolution has been a reactionary process through which humans must actively find alternatives to pollution-causing technology to avoid a seemingly unavoidable trajectory into an uninhabitable earth. This revolution has collected the attention from every realm of study and individual. Nonetheless, this has also been a highly challenging revolution to undergo as issues, such as skepticism and the collective action problem, have made the transition into a “green world” seem unreachable. Worse still, it has been a fight by and for a select few, as intersectional environmentalism acknowledges the limitations of this revolution on the most vulnerable communities. In essence, environmental progress will only begin when we begin considering ourselves equal to the people, plants and animals that surround us. This entry for JHR, an excerpt from McGill’s student journal Environmentalist Movements in the Global North and Global South – Roots, Character, Connections, explores some of the notable elements of our Green Revolution in the East African rangelands from a critical perspective. From the origins and proliferation of environmental movements, to resource management and environmental ethics.


There is an intrinsic incompatibility between conservation and economic growth which has challenged environmental policies’ success in East Africa[i]. Since the colonial period, imperial foreign policy has been criticized for its adverse effects on target populations[ii]. For example, throughout the conquest, European intervention in Africa was justified by a discourse which sought to enlighten non-Europeans through Eurocentric assimilationist policies[iii]. Contemporary consensus, however, agree that these initiatives were harmful as they largely erased African history, traditions and pride[iv]. Travel through to 1949, when a new responsibility emerged after WWII and President Truman urged world leaders to make the scientific and industrial “benefits of the West” available to the “underdeveloped world”[v]. This would include prescriptions by multinational corporations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to install capitalism and neoliberalism in the name of economic development[vi]. This was also harmful as it contributed to the African debt crises of the 1980s[vii]. Finally, by the 1990s, environmental degradation gained international recognition and created a new problem[viii]. NGOs run by world hegemons proclaimed the expertise and authority to manage global environmental restoration and preservation[ix]. However, the imposition of environmentalist policies has since had adverse effects on local populations. In 2000, the United Nations codified the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Among eight others, MDG 7 aimed to “conserve and protect terrestrial ecosystems”, while MDG 1 aimed to “end poverty in all forms everywhere”[x]. This initiative pressured governments in the Global South to simultaneously develop economically and conserve land terrestrially – which ignores the inherent contradiction between conservation and development[xi][xii]. Indeed, while development implies change and progress, conservation implies the maintenance of things in their original state without external influence[xiii]. In 2017 Anthropologist Professor, Katherine Homewood, criticized these goals for following the historic pattern of imposing a mold on the Global South without enough consideration for local populations[xiv]. In essence, while environmentalist policies demand populations limit their needs, development insists they strive for more.

Conservation versus growth in Kenya. The incompatibility between conservation and development can be illustrated by community-based-conservation programs in Kenya. Tourism collects approximately $1 billion USD per year in Kenya and is a primary contributor to national gross domestic product[xv]. Popularized by wealthy classes in the late twentieth century, seeing land and animals in natural environments grew in attractiveness[xvi]. Soon, Indigenous peoples that had inhabited East African rangelands and wetlands for thousands of years were disenfranchised – only to be turned into subjects of Western environmental expertise [xvii]. Thus, community-based-conservation emerged in the 1980s when local communities began protesting neoimperial invasions by international organizations that prioritized biodiversity over Indigenous land rights and livelihoods. This influenced non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to sign partnerships with local communities – such as the Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and Mursi – to pay them in return for not cultivating their land[xviii]. This “conjunction of biodiversity, poverty and tourism” is presented in an idealistic way. It aims to serve the region with economic and environmental prosperity; yet, community-based conservation programs have since had adverse effects on local populations[xix]. For example, Julie Taylor, Professor of Development Studies at Oxford University, criticizes such programs for remaining “top-down and coercive”, as well as for failing to “devolve authority and rights to the local level”[xx]. Indeed, community-based conservation programs limits peoples’ right to use nature, which demonstrates that conservation programs have a history of coming at the expense of locals’ agency – which has caused entire communities to lose control over their land, practices and privacy[xxi]. Instead, it seems that such programs are more interested in objectifying the unique local communities as “part of the tour”. Finally local populations that retain revenue from community-based-conservation programs desired institutional development. Leaders have expressed that their people want to use their new revenues to invest in modern-day schools, banks and houses. This, however, has been denied to them by the development programs as that would contest the premise of conservation. Thus, not only have they been forced to sacrifice the rights over their own land, but also their right to development and creating a modern trajectory.

Conservation and displacement. The preceding paragraph demonstrates varying degrees of the social, cultural and economic impacts that conservation sites have on inhabitants. Another pressing issue regarding environmental development programs is forced removal and resettlement of local populations[xxii]. In fact, forty percent of the environmentally protected areas strictly prohibit humans and their activities[xxiii]. Displacement is an issue that is increasingly being criticized alongside the history of conservation programs. While “central governments bear the ultimate responsibility for THE displacements occurring within their boundaries”, powerful actors – such as NGOs and conservationists – are greatly responsible for pressuring local and national governments across East African to implement such policies[xxiv]. In 1994, the World Bank published an account on the “Involuntary Resettlements in Africa”, a document created to acknowledge the displacement associated with projects that they financed to accelerate environmental land management across Africa. In the 1990s, development projects financed by the World Bank in Kenya and Rwanda displaced over 10, 000 people[xxv]. Additionally, staff from the projects explain the economic and cultural impacts that displacement had on affects people’s ability to cope in the new environments[xxvi]. This is narrative for thousands of local communities that are forced to surrender their native land to foreign conceptions of environmentalism. Indeed, it is one of the many consequences of prioritizing intervention over domestic sovereignty. 

Environmental racism – beyond being disproportionately exposed to the consequences of environmental degradation

International-scale environmental projects have induced critics to explore contentious questions, such as, (1) who has the authority to manage the environment, and (2) is this an international authority which overrides state sovereignty? Indeed, the most influential international environmental organizations are based in the Global North. To name a few, Greenpeace is based in Amsterdam and operates in 40 countries, Conservation International is based in Virginia and operates in 29 countries, and the World Wildlife Fund is based in Switzerland and operates in 100 countries[xxvii][xxviii][xxix]. Thus, while environmental NGOs operate internationally, their head offices represent the interests of the Global North. In fact, Pascal Husting, one of Greenpeace’s senior members, “works in Amsterdam but flies between the city’s offices and his home in Luxembourg several times a month”[xxx]. This not only environmentally hypocritical – as airplanes produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases –, but also reflects the wealth that such NGOs concentrate. Furthermore, such single-issue organizations have been criticized for their undemocratic, bureaucratic and hierarchal presence in host states. For example, from 1971 to 2006, NGOs such as Greenpeace were not held accountable to any legal documentation to ensure transparency or accountability[xxxi]. Furthermore, there lacks any modern documentation that requires environmental NGOs to work with and maintain transparent relations with host governments[xxxii]. This demonstrates that the institutions have been able to work on their own agendas and may explain their lack of consideration for local populations. For example, Julie Taylor describes that NGOs do not formally require “traditional leaders to be involved in conservancies and there is no requirement for conservancy committees to be sanctioned by local or regional political structures”[xxxiii]. This is part of a greater trend that dates back to colonial perceptions of hegemonic superiority. Environmental racism describes a dynamic through which one race feels the need to impose environmental policies on another based on perceived scientific and executive superiority[xxxiv][xxxv]. It is a social phenomenon through which international actors judge socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged nations for issues, such as “population explosions” or “dirty habitats”[xxxvi]. In essence, President Truman took a responsibility to prescribe harmful economic policies on Africa in 1949 based on a perceived lack of their governments’ monetary and fiscal capacity. Likewise, NGOs since the late twentieth century have followed the same trend based on perceived lack of African’s environmental consideration and knowledge[xxxvii]. This has led to a loss of state sovereignty over land, traditions and dignity.

Environmental voluntourism. Humans have long considered themselves separate and above the environment in which they live[xxxviii]. Since the 15th century, nature has been regarded as merely a resource to be exploited[xxxix]. Europeans controlled waterways, land and people across Africa, which allowed them to develop on resource extraction – including spices, clothes and gold[xl]. Beyond colonialism, however, is the contemporary issue of gentrification of nature in Africa. While tourism accounts for a majority of the state’s GDP in East Africa, volunteer-tourism can also have adverse effects on local populations. Indeed, environmental programs are of the most popular forms of voluntourism[xli]. Since the 1990s, environmental voluntourism has become institutionalized for youth from the Global North. These programs are largely run by Western NGOs that promote the simplistic ideal that development is something that can be accomplished by “non-skilled, but enthusiastic, volunteer-tourists”[xlii]. Evidence, however, suggests that these projects lack sustainable success, professional input and strategic planning. Kate Simpson, Professor of Development Studies and author of “Doing Development”, studies environmental programs’ social media platforms to demonstrate the idealistic attitudes that westerners have towards development. For example, one of the NGO’s slogans was “CONSERVE THE FOREST”. Simpson criticizes this “get on with it” attitude by suggesting that it assumes westerners have the skills and motivation that target populations do not. Indeed, this contributes to internalized disempowerment for local communities who view Western voluntourists as models of modern success – culturally, materially and environmentally[xliii]. Additionally, it establishes an externalization of environmental development. Wherein local populations view foreign stakeholders as the source and stimulus for positive change. For example, programs such as Kenya Xperience! enables youth – as young as fourteen years old – to participate in an “altruistic and idealistic” fight for environmental protection[xliv]. One of the primary issues, however, is that the majority of participants are “acting out of self-interest” [xlv]. Additionally, “It is unrealistic to expect such youngvoluntourists to have the capacity to provide information or skills to locals, or to be agents of change in the host communities”[xlvi]. Again, these activities reinforce the discourse that the Global South requires aid from Global North’s youth, who have the superior ability to fulfill their needs. In essence, these environmental programs are profit-driven, lack the ability to contribute to sustainable development, and have adversely contributed to the disempowerment of locals.

Featured image by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


[i] Lewis, David, Gardner, Katy. 2015. “Anthropology and Development: Challenges for the Twenty-first Century”. London: Pluto Press.

[ii] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[iii] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[iv] Zachernuk, S. P. 1998. “African History and Imperial Culture in Colonial Nigerian Schools”. Cambridge University Press.

[v] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[vi] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[vii] n.n. 2001. “Silent Revolution: The IMF 1979-1989: The Debt Crisis Erupts”. International Monetary Fund.

[viii] Dowie, 1995.

[ix] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[x] n.n. 2020. “UN Documentation: Development: Introduction, 2000-2015”.

[xi] Homewood, Katherine. 2017. ““They Call It Shangri-La”: Sustainable Conservation, or African Enclosures?” Palgrave Macmillan.

[xii] Sachs, Wolfgang. (2010). “The Development Dictionary: Environment”. ZED Books Ltd.

[xiii] n.n. 2020. “Conservation”, “Development”. Merriam Webster Dictionary

[xiv] Homewood, 2017.

[xv] Homewood, 2017.

[xvi] Fox, Graham. (March 11, 2020). “Conservation”, McGill University: ANTH 212.

[xvii] Homewood, 2017.

[xviii] Homewood, 2017.

[xix] Homewood, 2017. Pg. 93.

[xx] Taylor, Julie, 2012. Pg. 35.

[xxi] Homewood, 2017. Pg. 99.

[xxii] Agrawal, Arun, Redford, Kent. 2009. Conservation and Displacement: An Overview” Conservat Soc. Pg. 56.

[xxiii] Agrawal, Redford, 2009. Pg. 57.

[xxiv] Agrawal, Redford, 2009. Pg. 57.

[xxv] Cleaver, 1994. Pg. 21.

[xxvi] Cleaver, 1984. Pg. 23.

[xxvii] n.n. 2008. “Greenpeace Organization”.

[xxviii] n.n. n.d. “History”.

[xxix] n.n. 2020. “About Conservation International”.

[xxx] Vaughan, Adam. 2014. “Greenpeace Losses: Leaked Documents Reveal Extent of Financial Disarray”. The Guardian.

[xxxi] Grant, Wyn, Rush, Michael. 2003. “Pressure Politics: The Challenges for Democracy”. Oxford Academic. Pg. 58.  

[xxxii] Grant, Rush, 2003. Pg. 58.

[xxxiii] Taylor, 2012. Pg. 45

[xxxiv] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[xxxv] Tiffin, Huggan, 2009.

[xxxvi] Tiffin, Huggan, 2009.

[xxxvii] Tiffin, Huggan, 2009.

[xxxviii] Fox, Graham. (March 11, 2020). “Development and the Environment”, McGill University: ANTH 212.

[xxxix] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[xl] Lewis, Gardner, 2015.

[xli] Simpson, Kate. 2004. ‘Doing Development’: The Gap Year, Volunteer-Tourists and A Popular Practice Of Development”. Journal of International Development.

[xlii] Simpson, 2004. Pg. 685.

[xliii] Simpson, 2004. Pg. 685.

[xliv] Simpson, 2004.

[xlv] Schneller, Andrew. 2017. “For-Profit Environmental Voluntourism in Costa Rica: Teen Volunteer,                Host Community, and Environmental Outcomes”. Taylor and Francis. Pg. 883.

[xlvi] Schneller, 2017. Pg. 883.

By Sophie Crawford

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