Saving Biodiversity, for Whom and for What? Conservation NGOs, Complicity, Colonialism and Conquest in an Era of Capitalist Globalization


Saving Biodiversity, for Whom and for What? Conservation NGOs, Complicity, Colonialism and Conquest in an Era of Capitalist Globalization

Aziz Choudry

Colonization is an age old process of theft and control facilitated by doctrines of conquest such as the Manifest Destiny and Terra Nullius, that claim the land as empty (except for the millions of aboriginals living there), and non-productive (in its natural state). As the self-proclaimed ‘discoverers’ of crops, medicinal plants, genetic resources, and traditional knowledge, these bioprospectors become the new ‘owners’. Intellectual property rights are being used to turn nature and life processes into ‘private property’. As private property, it is alienable; that is, it can be owned, bought and sold as a commodity. The result is a legitimized process for thievery, which we call ‘biocolonialism’ (Harry, 2001, n.p.).


In many contexts, particularly (but not only) in the global South, longstanding resistance to global free market capitalism in its different forms has spanned several decades (Choudry, 2003, 2010; Flusty, 2004; McNally, 2002; Motta & Nilsen, 2011). From the more critical currents of the coalitions and networks of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social movements and activist groups which came to be known as the ‘global justice’ or ‘anti-globalization’ movement – including Indigenous Peoples in both Southern and Northern contexts (Jackson, 2007), as well as the prescient anti-colonial thinking of Fanon (1968) – come reminders that today’s ‘globalization’ is another stage in much older processes of colonialism and capitalism. While numerous scholars and political commentators celebrated the ascendancy of NGOs and the rise of ‘global civil society’, more radical critiques charged that the environmental, aid and development, and advocacy NGOs which dominated this milieu and their campaigns were attempting to humanize capitalist exploitation. Some take the critique further, arguing that through their refusal to confront ongoing colonial practices, these NGOs are themselves behaving as colonizers.

This chapter argues that rather than challenging dominant state or corporate practices and capitalist power relations, environmental NGOs often serve elite economic and political interests and are themselves deeply colonial in their practice and discourse. I situate my analysis of environmental NGO practices in an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist framework of understanding. Here I identify and question hegemonic environmental NGO practices, perspectives and normative frameworks in the context of new threats posed by the imposition of intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes, and the increasing power and reach of transnational capital into new frontiers for profit. Inclusion of intellectual property rights provisions in international free trade and investment agreements, and the rise in bioprospecting – what Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, Debra Harry (Northern Paiute) terms ‘biocolonialism’ – is an important factor, a major focus, and significant area of tension between some Indigenous Peoples and major environmental NGOs. To illustrate this, I discuss two examples of conflict between NGOs and struggles for self-determination by Indigenous Peoples in their territories: the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (Forest and Bird) and United States (US)-headquartered Conservation International. As Giovanna Di Chiro (1998) contends, challenges to mainstream environmentalism often argue that an effective movement ‘must integrate, not dichotomize, the histories and relationships of people and their natural environments’ (p. 138).

Many critical scholars and activists (Beder, 1997; Burton, 2001; Lubbers, 2002; Rowell, 1996; Tokar, 1997) have emphasized the role of major international environmental NGOs in facilitating the greenwashing of corporations with controversial records of violations of environmental and human rights violations through funding, joint initiatives and various ‘partnerships’ and collaborations which project environmental concern of some kind. Several contributors in this book illustrate how NGOs are often deeply integrated into neoliberal capitalist relations at national and international levels, attempt to dominate the political space and undermine grassroots movements, and abandon or pull back from demands for genuine and deep transformation of the capitalist system and its power relations. Alongside the extension of colonialism into the control of nature and the appropriation of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge by corporations for private profit, environmental NGOs through their acts and omissions often act in complicity with state and business interests encroaching on the lands of Indigenous communities. Reflecting on dominant forms of environ­mentalism, Di Chiro (1998) points out ‘the colonial discourse of Euro-American forms of “nature talk”’:

Although ‘nature talk’ separates humans from nature and posits them as superior to nature, it specifies that some humans are in fact part of nature. In other words, particular Euro-American romantic constructions of nature have been and continue to be problematic and even genocidal for people who have been characterized as being more like nature and thus less than human (p.132).

Elsewhere I suggest that dominant forms of NGO practice tend to fragment and compartmentalize struggles for social and environmental justice (Choudry, 2010). In turn, compartmentalized approaches to addressing capitalist globalization that do not confront the systemic nature of capitalism can only be of limited effectiveness. For many NGO campaigns, this compartmentalization typically occurs around reducing systems to issues (e.g., agriculture, services, ‘the environment’, ‘human rights’, and so on), regional or country-specific priorities, sectors (women, workers, farmers, Indigenous Peoples, etc.) and institutions and agreements (World Trade Organization (WTO), Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), etc.) without a broader underlying framework of analysis necessarily informing action against global capitalism. This produces a fragmented analysis. This chapter concludes with a discussion of challenges to move past this model: potential ways forward that arise from anti-colonial understandings and struggles.

Intellectual property rights and the genetic goldrush

The imposition and implementation of IPR regimes has been a major concern since the expansion of international trade and economic negotiations during the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT – which established the WTO). This has been particularly true with increased commercial interest in new avenues for profit extraction from biodiversity and traditional know­ledge. The concept of intellectual property rights itself has been strongly challenged, especially by Indigenous Peoples. It is based on a scientific reductionism which arose within Western capitalist society and which reduces all phenomena to their component parts. Maori researcher Aroha Mead (1997) says: ‘[E]ach level of reduction presents an increased scientific opportunity’ (p. 70). She explains that intellectual property laws ‘do not regard existent Indigenous knowledge as being an intellectual property and deserving of protection, rather they consider such knowledge as “common” and define human intervention based on what non-Indigenous peoples “add” to what has existed for generations’ (p. 70).

The notion of intellectual property arose from interlocking Western capitalist doctrines of commerce, science, and the law, which were used to justify and expand colonization. The idea that knowledge can be created, owned, bought, or sold by a single inventor conflicts with many Indigenous and non-capitalist views that knowledge is inextricably linked to culture, spirituality, identity, and place, and is created communally over time (Argumedo & Pimbert, 2006; Jackson, 1997, 2007). Intellectual property rights commodify and privatize knowledge for exclusive exploitation and private profit. Meanwhile, consolidation of the biotech industry has continued, creating mega-corporations with global reach and control. Owning a life-form patent has a far greater reach than owning an individual sheep or tree. For US researchers Hope Shand and Martin Teitel (1997), this distinction ‘can be likened to the difference between owning a lake and owning the chemical formula for water. A patent holder for water’s chemical formula would have the legal right not only to decide who could have access to a particular lake, but to water anywhere, and to the use of the chemical formula for any purpose’. The WTO’s Agreement on the Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and even more radical IPR provisions in bilateral and regional free trade agreements are all tools to expand, intensify, and lock in a regime of monopoly control over life itself.

Not seeing the forest for the trees: Silences and blinkers in environmental NGO discourse

In settler-colonial states like Aotearoa/New Zealand, particularly for many New Zealand NGOs, the dominant frame for most environmental, ‘global justice’, or ‘anti-globalization’ campaigns typically proposes a program of reforms and strengthening environmental regulation and social democratic governance as alternative solutions to the dominant model of development. However, underpinning this formula are assumptions about supposedly universal and shared national values that must be reclaimed to (re)build a fairer, greener society. There is little reflexivity on the part of such NGOs about the knowledge on which they base their concepts of social justice and their own roles in reproducing colonial power relations. Largely missing from this dominant frame is any genuine acknowledgment of the colonial underpinnings of the state and society, the ongoing denial of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination, and the highly racialized construction of New Zealand citizenship and the state. For NGOs that address local issues, Maori have been frequently reduced to a token sidebar in policy statements and declarations, a tragic case study, or rendered invisible, marginal, irrelevant, or too problematic for inclusion in narratives and communications/campaigns designed to appeal to liberal (mainly non-Maori) audiences.

Maori concerns about the WTO TRIPS regime and threats to traditional knowledge have been widely expressed since the early days of the Uruguay Round of the GATT. With increasing pressures to harmonize intellectual property laws and growing commercial interest in Indigenous knowledge, Maori knowledge and native flora and fauna have been targeted by transnational corporations as new sources of profit. One treaty claim, heard before the Waitangi Tribunal1 and known as WAI 262 – lodged over native flora, fauna, traditional knowledge, and intellectual property – had great international significance as an assertion of sovereignty and a direct challenge to companies that are commodifying and privatizing knowledge and biodiversity, facilitated by states which are revamping their patent laws and plant variety protection legislation for the benefits of industry. Globally, as Maori academic Linda Smith (1999) puts it, in this ‘new wave of exploration, discovery, exploitation and appropriation’[,] ‘[r]esearchers enter communities armed with goodwill in their front pockets and patents in their back pockets … No matter how appalling their behaviours, how insensitive and offensive their personal actions may be, their acts and intentions are always justified as being for the “good of mankind’’’ (p. 24).

In this claim, Maori argued that traditional knowledge could not be squeezed into a colonial/Western legal intellectual property framework that denies spiritual, cultural, metaphysical aspects of traditional knowledge including its collective nature (Jackson, 1994; Smith, 1999). Several non-Maori environmental NGOs publicly opposed the WAI 262 claim, notably the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, viewing themselves and the government as the rightful guardians of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s biodiversity. Founded in 1923, Forest and Bird is Aotearoa/New Zealand’s largest conservation organization and claims to give nature ‘a voice’.2 For Maori lawyer Moana Jackson (1997) this NGO’s positioning and discourse was deeply colonial:

Conservationists have tended to adopt a narrow self-interested approach which in a revisiting of colonisation essentially claims that iwi* have neither the right nor the ability to protect our resources. They seem to adopt the naïve view that the Crown should protect things for all New Zealanders, even though that is contrary to the Treaty, and even though the Crown is still attempting to sell off our assets to the highest multinational bidder (p. 2).

Maori mobilization in defense of traditional knowledge and resistance to the imposition of intellectual property regimes offers further possibilities to popularize a politics of decolonization/anti-colonial resistance interwoven with a clear rejection of free market capitalism. Maori expertise and advocacy on the threats of intellectual property regimes has also been mobilized internationally in coalitions of other Indigenous Peoples (see Venne in this volume).

Throughout the 1990s, in its campaign and media work against TRIPs and intellectual property provisions in other free trade and investment agreements, the small activist group GATT Watchdog, for which I was an organizer and educator, linked international struggles and concerns against these agreements with Maori struggles for self-determination. Together with this, it openly confronted these environmental NGOs about their trust in a neoliberal, colonial state that had privatized, commodified, and commercialized as much of the country as it could, while Indigenous Peoples continued to protect what remained of their territories’ bio­diversity. At the time of the Forest and Bird statement, GATT Watchdog (1997) released the following response:

Those who, like [Forest and Bird], take issue with much of the WAI 262 claim and advocate for property rights over Indigenous flora and fauna to be vested with the Crown not only choose to ignore violations of Indigenous rights in this country, but also recent history, where successive governments have sold off state-owned assets left, right and centre, and turned New Zealand into an open investment playground at the expense of local people. Effectively, [Forest and Bird’s] opposition to this claim amounts to support for the likely eventuality that many of these property rights will be handed over or sold to foreign, probably transnational investors.

Such confrontations are necessary to contest racism and colonialism in dominant NGO discourses and practice and provided support for the analysis of Maori claimants, connecting Maori sovereignty and environmental justice to the increased unease and outrage felt by a growing number of New Zealanders towards economic globalization and domestic market reforms. Moreover, Maori – and other Indigenous Peoples’ – mobilization around traditional knowledge and resistance to the imposition of intellectual property regimes offers further pedagogical possibilities to popularize a decolonization position that is interwoven with rejection of capitalism (Choudry, 2007). However, there are also obstacles to overcome when trying to build broader support for such a position. State, private sector, and international institutional claims to legally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ status, or to consult and form ‘partnerships’ with them, must be critically examined to ascertain whether these are meaningful moves to address colonial injustice, or merely new forms of assimilation and cooptation into neoliberal/colonial frameworks (see Venne in this volume).

Tensions between Indigenous Peoples and environmentalist and human rights NGO networks can arise when NGOs do not see how integrationist approaches to development or conservation measures can violate Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Other tensions stem from an emphasis by some NGOs to prioritize support for individual rather than collective rights. In the case of coalitions supporting the Lubicon Cree, in Canada, Long (1997) pointed out how the interests of different NGOs and activist groups in the issue of the forestry transnational corporation Daishowa’s planned logging on unceded Lubicon territory could lead to a future clash. This would be between those who frame the struggle as being fundamentally about the right of Lubicon to self-determination and land rights and those adopting an environmentalist frame that emphasizes the protection and preservation of wildlife and the natural environment. Power dynamics in environmental coalitions often subordinate Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives. Long contends that ‘failure to take the diversity of coalition and movement supporters into account can lead to a distorted, even mythical view of coalitions as seen by the movements belonging to them. Since even the smallest coalitions give expression to a diversity of beliefs, perspectives, and interests that are themselves open to challenge and change, counter-hegemonic coalitions, and the larger social movements around them are inherently fragile phenomena’ (p. 166). Indigenous Peoples’ struggles for self-determination not only have to deal with colonial states and global capital, but often find themselves caught in an industry of making and marketing NGO advocacy campaigns where their contexts and histories are erased, contested, revised, or repackaged and where coalition power dynamics and hierarchies of knowledge subordinate the positions and experience of Indigenous Peoples in a reproduction of the status quo.

Conservation International: Leading brand of green imperialism?

Colonial occupation

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