28 November 2010

UNESCO Plays a Zero-Sum Game with Africa

You know it's gonna be bad, just from the title:

UNESCO to Africa: Don't Swap Heritage for Progress

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The top official from the U.N. body in charge of preserving historical sites says the development of economies in Africa should not be made at the expense of nature and culture.

Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, was responding to a question on Monday about a plan by Tanzania to build a highway through Serengeti National Park.

The 260-mile (420-kilometer) road would bisect the northern Serengeti, potentially jeopardizing the 2 million wildebeests and zebra who migrate in search for water from the southern Serengeti into Kenya's adjacent Masai Mara reserve.

Conservationists says the road could devastate wildlife and should be built in a different location. Tanzania's government says it's necessary for development.

I want to scream whenever I read one of these 'conservation vs. development' stories. It's the WRONG MESSAGE. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bokova is well-intentioned but it sounds like she's doing that 'white person scolding the ignorant blacks' thing that they used to do back in the colonial days. Oh wait, actually, that IS what she's doing. Preserve your land so white tourists can enjoy looking at wildebeests! That's the bottom line, folks, the wildebeests! It's a paternalistic, colonialist type of sentiment, and therefore NOT EFFECTIVE as an argument for conservation. What the Director-General of UNESCO needs to say is something like this:

This road is a bad idea if you want to develop your country. You guys are throwing away money by developing this area. Not only could the ecological impacts of roads have serious side effects (unplanned development happens along roads, and can be sickeningly expensive for developing countries) but you're going to lose a lot of tourist dollars if people think this area is 'ruined'. Let UNESCO help you figure out a plan that achieves your goals for MODERN DEVELOPMENT and also makes you MORE MONEY to develop your economy in ADDITION to protecting these animals.
The message has to be that conservation and development are not enemies - it's not a zero-sum game - but that when they're done right they reinforce each other. They should be additive! Gotta make the pie higher, as a great man once said. Conservation has to be presented as something positive for people, alive, today. Because the fantasy that heritage places, or natural places, are innocent fragments of the past that have to be defended against the big, bad present-day world is a stupid lie anyway. Conserved areas reflect our post-post-modern global power structure just as much as any road, skyscraper, or however many internets you can fit into one computer these days. Conservation has to speak to relevant social problems, or it becomes a kind of oppression.


  1. The problems with conservation run pretty deep. The whole mindset of creating 'pure' wilderness areas with the concomitant expelling and often killing of native peoples is both cruel and racist as well as being ultimately counter-productive to the goal of maintaining some sort of ecological viability. The reality of how conservation operates on the ground needs to change not just its PR. The current model in Africa developed from the glorious combination of the US conservation model (big parks sterilized of humans and turned into a sort of pilgrimage destination) which was bound up with the indian genocide and European colonialism (more genocide) and today maintains itself in a hostile relationship with much of the surrounding population, relying on armed paramilitaries and funded by rich western donors and tourism. That needs to change, though changing it probably would require addressing a lot more than just conservation policy.

  2. I agree completely. The idea of conserved spaces as places for pilgrimage is really deeply ingrained but creates a lot of problems (even in the US!). Africa is an especially hard case - even today us white folks have a hard time seeing Africans as fully human, even though we love the landscapes and pyramids and elephants and whatnot.