Updated: Mar 12
(photo by Giulia Forsythe)
Lives have been disrupted for centuries by the wealth that was taken from people so as to strengthen other countries, such as Europe and the USA. Conservation in large part depends upon this wealth. Even One Earth Conservation receives money that might have come from oppression. We also get money from governments, and so risk becoming the tools of politicians who want stable world order instead of transformative possibilities for more justice. Our work builds capacity and resilience in indigenous communities while the very forces that give birth to these needs are not being adequately questioned.
So how do we work in the colonial system, which itself must be disrupted? Is anyone going to work with us if we are a disruptive influence? Am I willing to risk losing control of the positive outcomes of our conservation organization by making a fuss?
Losing control is preferable to losing another person, people or species, or the earth, don’t you think? Taking seriously the historical wounds, is empowering and healthy for all of us, and part of the process of dismantling racism and colonialism. Tending to the wounds of others and the planet and admitting one’s human role in the process has been liberating, and for my part, diminishes the shame response.
Concretely, this consists of allyship, admitting shared vulnerability and the receipt of benefits from colonial extraction economies and making space for the conversation. Towards that aim, this past summer, Rev. Meredith Garmon, a board member of One Earth Conservation, and I allied with others to facilitate an internal webinar series on the intersections of oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism within conservation. I really didn’t want to do it, because isn’t a white person putting together a panel the very example of privilege and controlling the conversation? I conferred with several people of color and of colonized lands and they told me to go for it. The experience was both uncomfortable and so vitalizing!
One Earth Conservation is also calling for reparations, and in our case, we call it re-parrotations. This term means to put parrots back where they belong – that is, re-parroting their homelands to help make up for the heavy toll of parrot extraction to supply the pet trade in the USA and elsewhere.
In addition, One Earth Conservation wrote an internal document that de-centers us as an organization in our conservation projects, which is scary because we might not be as “successful.” Instead we center our work ever more on relationships, community empowerment, grassroots fundraising, and decolonization. We also passed a public statement on decolonization on March 3, 2021.
Decolonization is not an easy path. It’s easier to sweep into a country and take control of the conversation, the power, and the flow of money to help make others more capable and more empowered. That’s the colonialist way – to try to make others stronger, so that the people there can resist the destruction of our planet that hits them the hardest, while the conservationist doesn’t disrupt their own lives overly.
Julian Reid in the journal Resilience, gave an example of this dynamic in his article “We the Resilient: Colonizing indigeneity in the era of Trump.” He told of the Makushi people in Guyana. International organizations aid them to be more resistant to climate change’s droughts and floods, and then romanticize them because of their resilience and capacity, which reflects favorably on the outside organization. Reid claims that the colonizer mindset expects indigenous and impoverished people to be strong rather than the aid agencies themselves working to disrupt the entire system in which we are embedded. He also mentions how these people are vulnerable, because the colonizers placed a national border through the Makushi lands, separating Brazil from Guyana, weakening local autonomy and social capital, and dividing the common ties the people had with each other and the land.
A Makushi village in Brazil that welcomed us and enjoyed showing us their
cultural traditions and objects
I work with the Makushi people in Guyana and I took a trip into Makushi indigenous territory in Roraima, Brazil in February 2020. We were looking for partners to work on sun parakeet conservation, because this little brightly colored and very endangered bird disregards colonial boundaries and goes back and forth across the border. If we want to save the parakeet in Guyana, we have to also do so in Brazil. We came upon one village which treated us as others had not. They were angry to see us on their land, or so I surmised as I listened to the interpreter, for their language was in Portuguese. These Brazilians had lost their Makushi language. They told me that they wanted to tie me and my colleague, the interpreter and chief of a village in Guyana, to our truck and then set it afire and burn us along with the others who came with us. They told us to leave their village, their land, and their country. And so, we did.
I really wanted to work in Brazil and wished that the Brazilian Makushi had thought it through better. On the other hand, I knew there was some colonial thinking going on, assuming I had the answers for them while using my shield of Guyanese Makushi colleagues for protection. I admired their powerful autonomy laced with mistrust of those who seek to take from them what is theirs. It’s not that I like it when I am threatened and thrown out of a country, but it was a good lesson learned.
Others are learning lessons with me, unlike many years ago when I worked in Puerto Rico. The idea of Transformative Conservation is being floated about. Transformation in conservation means that we must engage in personal, inner transformation, as well as outer transformation, which means aligning with justice movements of peoples. We are hosting conversations on this topic on March 13 and 14, in Spanish and in English. Please join us as we learn together and see how we might be in solidarity with others through the transformational process. (For more information and to register, go here.) I’ve written a lot about my personal experiences and about conservation, so please do join me in these conversations, for I have so many questions and really want to learn from you.
In the meantime, here are some ideas that I gleaned from the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity survey I took a couple of years ago:
· Slow down. Outcomes may not matter as much as the relationship and community empowerment.
· Make a place for the conversation and remember that there is not just one indigenous culture.
· Ask really good questions. For me this means not asking them what kind of truck they want, but instead asking them what they truly desire and need. Have others tell you about their despair and you tell them yours.
· Adapt to their culture while being true to your own.
I took this last recommendation particularly to heart when last year I was in a really messy meeting with our Miskitu rangers in La Moskita. It got hot. People were angry, shouting, pointing, and blaming and shaming. Ever in the colonial mindset of categorizing people in other cultures, the meeting confirmed my understanding of them as a fierce people. Their way was not my way or culture, but listening and being empathetic wasn’t working for me, or helping the process, so I reached in deeply and called on my inner Miskitu. Then I got tough back. That was sure fun! And they told me that they appreciated my adaptive ability to engage as they did.
Miskitu parrot rangers in La Moskitia, Honduras
It can be fun, and we need it to be because of the challenging necessity to align with indigeneity. We’ve all been wounded, you and me, and hence we are intertwined with the joy and justice that is possible this day, and every day.
I believe that this journey of transformation is liberating. I feel more powerful, or at least more powerful together with others, by confessing to and dismantling the personal and organizational systems that protect my power and privilege.
If we distance ourselves from the suffering or social analysis, or stay away from others, we remain trapped within the shadow of our nature. If we get close to the wound, and seek to heal it, our lives will vibrate vividly with connection and then one day, they will say this is how our words got their colors and how we sang with all the colors of the wind.