Pristine Myths, Noble Savages and Conservation


A couple weeks ago, after another of those planning meetings that take up so much time in the less-glamorous-than-you-might-think world of international conservation, I spent a day in one of the world’s great museums, Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.

A day in a great museum teaches you as much about conservation as a month visiting projects, something I learnt as an open-mouthed child in the British Museum looking at the magnificent Assyrian lion gates of Nineveh, in modern Iraq — thousands of miles away from any modern lion. Museums are only superficially about the past: a great museum helps us think about who we are and where we are going.

The riches of the civilizations on display in Chapultepec Park immediately made me realize how shallow our notions of pristine nature are. For millennia, sacrificial offerings in temple courtyards mixed an extraordinary variety of skeletons from the natural world together with those of human victims. Featherwork, especially using the tail feathers of the quetzal, was one of the highest forms of Aztec artistic expression  – and must have had considerable impact on quetzal populations well before the Spanish arrived. The selective pressure to be boringly colored was probably greater then than now.

But it is the Maya gallery that truly messes with conservation preconceptions. It shows how the “pristine rainforests” of southern Mexico and northern Central America supported a sophisticated complex of urban centers for almost a millennium. Much of what we think we know of tropical ecology in supposedly pristine forest came from research experiments and field plots in Panama – where descendants of the Maya are still to be found today, living in and from the forest.

All over the Americas, archaeologists and historians are rewriting environmental history. Even without stone buildings and proto-states along central American lines, the Amazon floodplain supported much larger and more sophisticated civilizations than had been supposed. New archaeological discoveries from Pennsylvania to southern Chile have pushed back the date of the original peopling of the Americas by thousands of years. All of which suggests that using the word “pristine” in relation to nature in the Americas, as conservation organizations do all the time, is at best an oversimplification and at worst a cynical marketing ploy. Things are much more complicated than we like to think.

I took away another, darker lesson from my day at the museum. Anthropologists dislike making cultural judgments. Archaeologists and historians rightly point out that the past is another country where they do things very differently. But looking at the decorated skull of an executed eight-year-old child, sold in a slave market and bought specifically for sacrifice, it is hard to avoid a certain feeling that the defeat of the Aztecs, for all the horrors it involved and precipitated, was a more morally complex event than we often think. Descendants of European and North American romanticism as conservationists tend to be, we like our savages noble, rather than, well, savage.

Just as we need to get away from the myth of the pristine rainforest, so we need to get away from the myth of the noble savage. The reason is the same in both cases: you can’t do effective conservation if you oversimplify, ignore history or deal in stereotypes. The last thing indigenous peoples need as they face their many modern problems is the notion that they deserve support because they are closer to nature than us and can tap into older, wiser systems of balance between the human and the natural world.

Things are made more complicated by rhetoric that feeds upon itself: indigenous leaders know what their non-indigenous audiences like to hear, and in pandering to the stereotype of the noble savage they reinforce it. The Maya, who probably disappeared because they overtaxed their natural resource base, in fact teach the opposite lesson: detailed knowledge of natural environments can lead as easily to over-exploitation  and collapse as to sustainability and balance.

I believe that the most effective help indigenous peoples and organizations can receive from conservation organizations revolves around empowerment, based on notions of rights and citizenship rather than on any idea that indigenous peoples are by definition good stewards of the environment and therefore to be supported. The first and most essential step is land rights. In order to be able to make any decisions at all, indigenous peoples need secure control of and title to their land. They need it as a matter of natural justice that has nothing to do with conservation. That conservation often follows the securing of indigenous land rights is, however, a matter of historical record. Why?

The reasonably successful bet we make as conservationists is that it is easier for an indigenous person in a threatened place to make the connection between an intact natural resource base and survival, and also easier to work out what needs to be done in the short term to protect that resource base. Not because there is any mystical balance between indigenous peoples and nature, but because people(s) facing clear and present danger tend to be more focused.

In societies focused on external threat, whether indigenous or not – Britain in 1940 is as good an example as the Macuxi in 2009 – people put narrow self-interest aside and think more of the good of the group. None of which can be properly understood or supported if we deal in stereotypes or ignore history, a lesson that a day at a great museum can help us all to learn and relearn. Gracias, México!

(Image: Aztec calendar stone at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Credit: ConstantineD/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Thanks for the post, David. Your point is one of the reasons I like focusing conservation efforts on sustaining ecosystem services. We are not trying to recreate pre-European colonization conditions, but trying to sustain drinking water, clear air, habitat, etc. Recreating “pristine” conditions is romantic to consider, but not useful as selling “protecting drinking water” to citizens.

  2. I agree with much of what you are saying here and it is timely for me as I just finished reading “Environmental Anthropology: From Pig to Policies,” which left me with the feeling that many overly idealize the mystical relationship between “traditional” societies and nature. My concern with your post (and also applies to the aforementioned book) is that the point of view is so anthropocentric. I understand that you are suggesting to give land rights first and that conservation is likely to follow, but what if it doesn’t? Setting aside what indigenous peoples did historically, their land use practices now are not necessarily sustainable nor good for local ecosystems. How about land rights with covenants that mandate conservation?

  3. Thanks, David, for reminding us these things which are not new, but which we tend to overlook sometimes. You might also like one of my favorite conservation quotations – “While proof of conservation success is ultimately biological, conservation itself is a social, and political process, not a biological process” from Alcorn, J.B., 1994. Noble savage or noble state? Northern myths and southern realities in conservation.

  4. thanks for the stimulating blog.. this is such a complex problem. it has always been my position that if you want to control the uses of land you should own it. if you want to preserve the bush and its flora and fauna, buy it. it is obvious, however, that mere ownership does not ensure stewardship, either by “conservationists” or “natives”. with regard to “native” stewardship, all noble notions rot in the presence of abject poverty. people do what they need to do to live. if they have always hunted game they will continue to do so until some other way of survival presents itself. if trade in live game or body parts is more lucrative, they will participate. if they need wood for cooking or warmth, they will cut it down. the preservation of wild species and habitat is a notion that only the secure can support. the biological mandate is to survive and ensure the survival of one’s offspring. as more hunting grounds and other resources have come under the control of governmental agencies, “tourist camps”, and well-intentioned conservation groups, the options for native peoples and their views regarding uses of the land and conservation of wildlife have changed. there was a time when the notions of conservation and sustainability would have flown, but i think we have blown it. in many parts of the world what we are left with is an impoverished native population, cut off from ancestral knowledge and traditional ways and motivated by immediate need. in zimbabwe i have seen women arrested and fined for gathering wood in a private reserve owned by a safari lodge close to town: i’m told they were then beaten by their husbands. all in the name of conservation. nature guides at the camp harbor hopes of being hunting guides at big 5 parks, providing trophies for well-heeled tourists who kill game that are off-limits to local residents.

    if conservation is to succeed, efforts must be made to educate affected populations ,involve them in the effort, and reward them generously for their participation. of course, we cannot reverse colonialism and the problems it has brought, and we have also to recognize that there have been good interventions to ensure a potable water supply, etc. however,the “natives” of today are not their fathers or their grandfathers. they need to rise out of poverty to see the larger picture visible to the more fortunate. THEN, perhaps they should manage those places which were their birthright.

  5. Dr. Cleary,

    As a student of biology and a proponent of conservation I have observed numerous environmental ethics claims. Since the interedependence of organisms in the biosphere is extant but immeasurable, I take for granted the claim that preventing species extinction results in a reasonable, baseline consideration of the interests of all organisms. Since the term “pristine” is not well-defined (one term has multiple definitions) and not broadly applicable based upon most of its accepted definitions, it is important to propose an alternative broadly-applicable target condition. I propose the target condition “Stable”, since a stable ecosystem possesses dynamic steady-states which encourage the perpetual existence of species.

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