Toward Decolonizing Conservation

February 5, 2014

Humpback whale breaching, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii. Image credit: Clint Johnson Kendrick/Parks Canada.

Editor’s note: This essay ran originally in SNAP Magazine, the online magazine of the Science for Nature and People collaboration. Read more SNAP magazine essays on how conservation, conservation science and human well-being intersect

Phil Levin is is senior scientist and manager of the Ecosystem Science Program with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Six hundred miles northwest of my Seattle home lies British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii archipelago, nearly 100 miles off the mainland. It’s a seemingly pristine and timeless  place — old-growth forests and breaching humpback whales, endless rocky shores enveloped in pea-soup fog and the penetrating smell of decaying seaweed, and a silence broken only by the drumming of ocean waves and the occasional cry of a bald eagle.

After a visit here in 2010, as I flew back to Seattle, I snapped a picture from my airplane window and posted it on Facebook with the caption: “Haida Gwaii is a magical land devoid of people.”

I couldn’t have been more ignorant.

In fact, “Haida Gwaii” translates literally to “land of the [Haida] people” — an indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest. Prior to European contact in the late 1700s, tens of thousands of Haida lived on Haida Gwaii — but diseases transmitted by those encounters (especially smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) devastated them. By the late 1800s, less than 600 Haida remained.(i)

Looking down on this place from the 30,000-foot perch of an airplane revealed my inherent and perhaps racist Euro-American bias about what nature should be. What I experienced as magical was, in fact, the result of a holocaust that had removed about 95% of the region’s inhabitants.

Anthropologists have long understood that those who experience environments differently will develop varying philosophical, spiritual and moral views about nature — and that these views, in turn, shape visions of how resources should be managed. It is not too surprising, then, that my perceptions and beliefs (as a middle-class, white, male American) about what ecosystems “should be” might be different than those of a Haida person.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii. Image credit: N. Osborne/Parks Canada.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii. Image credit: N. Osborne/Parks Canada.

Sea otters — a conservation icon to many in the United States and elsewhere  — provide a window into these cultural differences. In their volume The Sea Otters of Haida Gwaii, Norm Sloan and Lyle Dick (ii) describe the voracious appetite of European fur traders for sea otter pelts that fueled a “fur rush” in the 1800s and led to the near-extinction of these animals in the North Pacific.

But while sea otters have not been resident in the waters around Haida Gwaii for decades, their demise has not engendered the same sort of conservationist fervor here as in, say, California. In fact, some Haida fear the return of otters. When a local newspaper recently reported a sea otter sighting off the archipelago’s north coast, one commenter on the Haida Gwaii Observer Facebook page wrote: “if they move in, it will be fast and they will wipe out everything.” (iii)

Why this negative reaction? It could be because of the northern abalone, the prey of the otters and an important cultural resource for the Haida. The extirpation of sea otters likely led to an expansion of northern abalone. But after that expansion, abalone were subjected to an intensive commercial fishery in British Columbia from the early 20th century until 1990, when overfishing lead to a coast-wide closure (which is still in place). By 1999, northern abalone were listed as threatened by the Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife.

The abalone’s decline has led to significant cultural losses for the Haida — including the abandonment of a traditional meal for the dying. One Haida elder lamented that “when older people were getting ready to move on to the next journey, they always wished for abalone. And it never hit me harder than when my father just died in March and the last thing he asked for was abalone…and we can’t get it to them.” (iv)

The Haida also customarily pass important traditional knowledge to their younger generations via the finding, gathering and preparing of abalone.

Would the recovery of the sea otter prevent the recovery of the northern abalone? What would recovery look like on Haida Gwaii? What are appropriate conservation targets in a coupled human-ecological system? These are not only central questions for Haida Gwaii, but they are the questions conservation scientists increasingly face worldwide.

And it is critical to remember that the answers will vary depending on whom you ask the questions.

Haida people relaxing. Image credit: N. Osborne/Parks Canada.
Haida people relaxing. Image credit: N. Osborne/Parks Canada.

In a peopled world, conservation targets reflect diverse human values. As such, choosing the “right” or “wrong” conservation targets is a matter of cultural constructs. Indeed, if conservation targets were solely the product of nature, then their rightness and wrongness would be less fraught with uncertainty and conflict — but nature does not express values; only humans do. Successful conservation must then confront the truth that target-setting is a human enterprise deeply embedded in cultural ideals.

How do we practically account for cultural dimensions in conservation? Melissa Poe and colleagues (v) suggest that we first focus on what matters to the people whose connections to nature might be affected by conservation actions. In the case of the Haida, this means that we need to talk in an open way with elders, leaders and others to understand their values about the ecosystem in which they are imbedded.

Second, we need to make a place for hard-to-measure concerns in decision-making. The loss of a traditional meal, for instance, though absolutely vital to the Haida, is hard to measure using the standard metrics of conservation. And finally, as we develop alternative conservation strategies, we need processes that are value-focused and iterative.

Clearly, the task of incorporating cultural dimensions in conservation will take effort, but it is central for building enduringly successful conservation targets.

As for many conservationists, my shift of thinking on these issues is requiring introspection and self-questioning. My conservation values have been cultivated in the secular culture of John Muir, who espoused the virtues of people-less, “unspoiled” settings when he wrote that: “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” (vi)

I have also been embedded in a religious culture that teaches that, when one is in a place without people, it should be treated with the utmost of respect. (vii)

Conservation currently embodies the preservationist ideals of the dominant culture. At times, it does so at the expense of marginalized cultures through legacies of colonialism. But in some places, things are shifting.

For example, the management of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site on Haida Gwaii embodies the Haida notion that everything is connected. These places are cooperatively managed by the Canadian government and the Haida Nation using an integrated “Land, Sea, People” philosophy.

We must recognize that conservation is cultural and political, and needs to be responsive — through participatory processes — to the diverse cultural values of the people it affects.

We must decolonize conservation.


(i) Gill, I. 2009.  All that we say is ours. Douglas & McIntyre Publishers. Vancouver, British Columbia.

(ii) Sloan, N. and Dick, L. 2013. The Sea Otters of Haida Gwaii.  Haida Gwaii Museum Press.

(iv) Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study. Volume 3: Focal Species Summary: 17.

(v) Poe, M.R., Norman, K.C., Levin, P.S. 2014. Cultural diminsions of soceioecological systems: key connection and guiding principles for conservation in coastal environments. Conservation Letters. In press.

(vi) Muir, J. 1901. Our National Parks: 4.

(vii) A broad interpretation of Pirkei Avot 2:6

Author Acknowledgements

I thank Parks Canada, Archipelago Management Board, Norm Sloan, Hilary Thorpe, Ernie Gladstone, Cindy Boyko, Melissa Evanson, Russ Jones, Lynn Lee, Jason Thompson, Cathy Rigg, Heather Ramsey, Nadine Wilson, Natalie Fournier and Anne Salomon for showing me the beauty of Haida Gwaii and her people.


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