Decolonizing Conservation: A Reading List

On Twitter recently, I shared a resource I’ve been working on, a reading list about decolonizing conservation, and I was delighted that many people found it useful. It is now the most popular thing I’ve tweeted to date, and so I wanted to create a permanent place where people can find it on the internet and to share some background about why I created it and who I intended the audience to be.

The goal of the reading list is to help well-meaning non-Indigenous folks like myself educate ourselves on the colonial, white supremacist, and imperialist roots of biodiversity conservation. Many of us work in places with long histories of occupation and colonialism, where the impacts of colonialism are still ongoing, and no matter how well-intentioned, conservation work tends to continue those legacies. In order to stop inflicting harm on Indigenous communities, we need to start by understanding the many ways the work we do and the assumptions we make are informed by these frameworks.

In my experience, most conservation biologists truly want to make the world a better place for all people and care about the communities where we work. For me, this is why I do conservation work to begin with. Many conservation scientists are never taught about the ways that conservation can impact people and communities. Instead, we learn about the biology and ecology of ‘natural’ ecosystems and the idea that we need to protect ‘nature’, which assumes that people and nature are separate from each other. But this is a narrative that is, at its roots, based in colonialism and erases Indigenous peoples.

The colonialist and white supremacist history of conservation, and our perpetuation of it, is a testimony to many things, including the white supremacist history of academia and a lack of appreciation for the social sciences and humanities in physical science education (although the social sciences and humanities are not exempt from perpetuating these frameworks either, see: Othered by Anthropology: Being a Student of Color in Anglo-cized Academia). These factors, I think, have contributed to a general ignorance of the ongoing impacts of colonialism among physical scientists, especially those of us who are privileged to not have to face the impacts of colonialism in our daily lives. We carry that ignorance and privilege with us when we do conservation work, both at home and abroad, which results in harm and erasure for local communities.

I am in no way defending the harmful actions of conservationists because of ignorance (and intention does not negate impacts), but it is my hope that by creating this reading list, I am providing a starting place for non-Indigenous conservation scientists to begin to combat it. We cannot ask folks who are Indigenous to constantly do the work to educate us (in itself, this is perpetuating colonialism and racism). This is especially important considering that many of the burdens Indigenous communities face today, including environmental degradation, have been caused by white folks, and white folks therefore have a responsibility to correct these burdens without causing further harm.

Decolonizing conservation means that non-Indigenous scientists must step back and let Indigenous peoples take the lead, and our conservation work must be done to support that leadership. We have a responsibility to use our work in a supporting role to help fix the harm that white people have caused around the world, via capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy. It is important to recognize that these things are all interconnected and intertwined; what impacts the environment and biodiversity also affects people, and vice versa. It is also important to understand that the European version of science is not superior to the local and traditional ecological knowledge held by Indigenous peoples. This means that for conservation work to be effective and just, we must center the wants and needs of Indigenous communities and respect and learn from the knowledge that they carry. The readings in the list explain in detail why this is the case and provide examples of projects that have done this.

I want to end by thanking the many people who have helped compile this list and who have suggested readings. Please do continue to email me with suggestions (I am specifically looking for resources written by people who are Indigenous); I hope this list will constantly evolve so that it remains a useful resource as long as it is necessary. Also, I am happy to use my library privileges to email copies of any papers that are behind paywalls, so please send me an email with the name of the paper if that would be useful.

I believe it is important to pay people for their labor, although in this case, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to accept donations for doing this work. In lieu of paying me, I hope that you will instead consider making a contribution to the following Indigenous people and causes:

  • I am constantly learning from Dr. Katherine Crocker, who is always extremely generous with her time and never hesitates to call people out using patience and compassion, despite the toll it takes on her personally. You can make a contribution to her PayPal, or support her by buying some of her lovely jewelry. While Dr. Crocker deserves to be paid for the work she does educating people online, she also uses the funds she receives to support Indigenous folks in need.

  • The Wet’suwet’en people at the Unist’ot’en Camp in British Columbia are actively being displaced from their land (in violation of the UN Declaration of the Rights for Indigenous Peoples) so that LNG can construct a pipeline that will transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the coast. Please consider making a contribution to support them here.