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Decolonizing Conservation - Part 1

Presented during a virtual service at the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains on October 11, 2020

Opening song during the service where Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner presented these words

Today is Indigenous People's Day! First proclaimed in 1989 in South Dakota, it’s now replaced Columbus Day in 10 states, and hundreds of municipalities. Perhaps an overstated comment for 2020, but I did not see this coming.

For instance, in 1998 I was in Columbus Square, San Juan, Puerto Rico where there were multiple plaques and a giant statue commemorating Christopher Columbus and I mentioned that I was not a fan of Columbus to my parrot conservation colleagues. Columbus’ first voyage began extensive colonial harm and it began with his theft on this trip of indigenous people and parrots.

The guys shot back with much force their claim that Columbus had saved the people of the Americas and brought civilization and church to the New World. I was silenced, and shamed. In white supremacy and racism work, we understand how children learn to be white, shamed into it by their upbringing, and I had crossed the lines and shown how I had not learned to be a respectful member of the colonizer demographic.

Iguaca, the Puerto Rican Parrot. Scientists estimate there might have been a million of them when Columbus landed on those shores, but by the 1970s there were only 13.

Now, due to conservation efforts, there are more than 500

I started suspecting my colonial upbringing and privilege when my life was disrupted while living in Guatemala during the civil war in the 1980s. I got out safely, able to protect myself and recover from ill health and threats of violence, but I left behind so many who could not so easily cross the colonizer's national boundaries to health and hope. Traumatized with the violence there, and with the fact that I could escape and those I loved could not, I began to study the phenomenon of colonialism and how to decolonize.

A colonial mindset is thinking that one culture is the natural and right way that humans should live. It is accepting that we must harm or dominate others to survive. It is an emphasis on control, individuality, and distance from nature and community. Decolonizing is undoing how we, throughout the world, have been conditioned to think of ourselves and our cultures as either more than or less than others, and tacitly or overtly accepting behavior that harms peoples, beings, and ecosystems.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School I wrote a research paper of how women conservationists are like Christian missionaries. They think they are helping when in actuality, colonialist attitudes and behavior cause harm and diminish the chance for conservation success. My conclusion was that to mitigate harm in conservation relationships one had to be willing to be changed by the suffering and beauty of the other, even when the going gets tough, which it does constantly.

A few years ago, while in a meeting with Miskito indigenous people in Honduras, one young man from a family I felt close with, seemingly out of nowhere said, “If you get sick or hurt you get helicoptered out. If my mother gets sick, she dies.” But it wasn’t out of nowhere. European countries have been bickering over these lands for centuries, and more recently, his people had been displaced by the USA backed Nicaraguan Contra War that destabilized the area and ecosystems, and was responsible for the very village where we center our conservation project. I walk over ground where US groups clandestinely plotted to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Area in Honduras where US soldiers operated (overlooking Coco River into Nicaragua).

Now it is a place where we work together to save the parrots and the forests.

This means counting the remaining parrots, which we are doing here in October 2019

How can I, accidently in the privileged demographic, make amends and deal with the shame? How do you? How do we liberate ourselves and others when we all are enmeshed, trapped, both colonizer and colonized demographic together?

Not knowing how to decolonize the whole global structure, I’ve sought to decolonize myself, and work in the immediate sphere where I have the greatest influence, conservation. The problem is that conservation is interwoven with unchallenged colonial mindsets. The very profession of conservation wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t original and ongoing colonization and domination. International conservation descended from Eurocentric cultures is largely white people going in and out of other countries saving and helping others, preserving the world for what they want, seeking a way to reconnect to what has been lost, and either romanticizing the local people or controlling the conservation process and the outcomes, or both. I know. I’ve done it.

The romantic approach assumes that lifting up Indigenous wisdom and spirituality constitutes sufficient action or that the Indigenous will lead the way out of our messes. Then there is the opposite of romanticizing. I have strangers call me up, or tell me to my face, almost always white of European descent, that my emphasis on local conservation efforts should be abandoned, because community conservation does not work, when in fact, it is essential. This is not just a few individuals; this is a prominent mindset. They tell me, “What we should do is trap all the remaining scarlet macaws and export them to Europe where we can do conservation correctly,” or they say, “We can’t trust local people to save parrots. You should give up on protecting nests and instead work in expensive conservation centers with international money and expert consultants."

International solidarity with people and parrots in other countries isn’t a bad thing, and can help a lot, but it does not necessarily confront ongoing territorial dispossession and the risks Indigenous people experience - including loss of their ecosystems, health, economic vitality, lives, psychological well-being, and cultural integrity.

In other words, conservation doesn’t disrupt the system enough. What would?

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. Below is the entire service in which Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner delivered this sermon

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