Pope Francis’s Eco-Imperialism

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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A curious aspect of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is that it calls for an eco-imperialist approach to protecting biodiversity, even though Francis presents himself as an advocate of the poor and oppressed of the developing world who have suffered mightily from imperialism.

The encyclical contains an entire section, consisting of six-and-a-half pages, on “Loss of Biodiversity.” While the section contains many good points about the importance of conserving biodiversity, its main solution for doing so — establishing state protected areas — is a colonial-era approach. This approach continues to disenfranchise and dispossess people around the world, especially the poorest of the poor in the Third World who live in rural areas and have little if any access to basic human needs, such as medical care and clean drinking water, enjoyed by urban elites in favor of state protected areas.

“Some countries have made significant pro­gress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures,” the encyclical states. “In the protection of biodiversity, specialists insist on the need for particular attention to be shown to areas richer both in the number of species and in endemic, rare or less protected species.”

The creation of protected areas for wildlife and biodiversity probably strikes most people as a good idea, especially because it is constantly promoted by governments and environmental pressure groups. There is, however, another perspective that raises very troubling issues about protected areas and those involved in biodiversity conservation, such as the “specialists” mentioned in the encyclical.

“Wildlife conservation programmes in the Third World have all too often been premised on an antipathy to human beings,” according to Ramachandra Guha, the eminent Indian historian. “In many countries, farmers, herders, swiddeners and hunters have been evicted from lands and forests which they have long occupied to make way for parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves. This prejudice against people is leading to new forms of oppression and conflict. Biologists, who seek to preserve wilderness for the sake of ‘science’, have been a major force in fomenting such prejudice.”

Eco-imperialism, or eco-colonialism as it is sometimes referred to, has a long and painful history of injustice that is still being played out today and often includes the creation of state protected areas by evicting people who are essentially peasants. In addition to the biologists referred to by Guha, champions of eco-imperialism consist of environmental pressure groups, governments, and intergovernmental organizations. Ironically, many of the people pushing this agenda see themselves as compassionate advocates of the very people who are hurt most by eco-imperialism.

It is also curious that the encyclical’s treatment of biodiversity conservation is so devoid of sentiments like those expressed by Ramachandra Guha because over the past three decades there has accumulated a large and growing body of scholarly work on eco-imperialism and related topics. This work, which is readily available in online peer-reviewed journals, goes by titles such as “Waging a war to save biodiversity: the rise of militarized conservation” and “Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas,” as well as many books, including Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa and Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600–1860.

While such critiques of environmental policy have tended to focus on the Third World, because the people involved are so poor and the negative impacts on them so stark, there is also a growing literature on the negative impacts of First World environmental policies on ordinary people, such as farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. Laws like the U.S. Endangered Species Act can impose costs that have substantial impacts on people’s livelihoods, property values and well-being.

The encyclical also praises the work of environmental pressure groups against “huge global economic interests which, under the guise of protecting them [areas of high biodiversity], can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations” even though the same criticism applies to pressure groups and intergovernmental bodies. The encyclical adds, “We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical coop­eration, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests”, especially “transnational corporations.”

Completely absent from the encyclical’s section on biodiversity is any criticism of the powerful international agencies and civil society organizations that advocate an approach to biodiversity protection that marginalizes people who are the neediest and have the least access to power.

The pope’s apparently oblivious views about protecting biodiversity are disappointing and on one level puzzling because he positions himself as such as passionate advocate of the world’s poor — the very same people most heavily impacted by eco-imperialism. But on another level the pope’s views reflect the naïve and unsophisticated outlook of most people in the First World, who perceive biodiversity conservation as unquestionably good and a sign of moral rectitude.

Yet, as Ramachandra Guha and others point out, biodiversity conservation is far more complex and morally uncertain than what we are often led to believe.

It is a shame that Pope Francis did not use his encyclical on the environment to put forth a message on biodiversity conservation that is more progressive, nuanced and sensitive to the people who are disenfranchised and dispossessed by initiatives to conserve biodiversity, especially impoverished people in the Third World who continue to lose their lands, livelihoods and even lives to First World-inspired policies.