inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #0 of 47: Gail Williams (gail) Tue 18 Aug 09 15:55
Mark Dowie is up next at the Inkwell, with his new book entitled,
"Conservation Refugees: the Hundred Year Conflict between Global
Conservation and Native Peoples."

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian. His previous work has
included histories of organ transplantation, land use, the
environmental movement and philanthropic foundations. He is a former
editor at large of InterNation, a transnational feature syndicate based
in Paris and a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine.
He lives in Point Reyes Station California.

Leading this conversation is WELL member Anne Boyd.

Anne is a project manager at a landscape architecture firm in Los
Angeles, specializing in parks and public work.  Her professional
interests include the expression of narrative, history and the arts in
landscape; memorial landscapes and cemeteries; urban wildlife
habitats; and ecoregionally appropriate landscape design.  She first read
William Cronon, Alfred Crosby, and Donald Worster as an undergraduate
at Brown University, and has maintained an interest in environmental
history ever since.  She blogs about landscape architecture, urbanism,
nature, and the ethics of being a design professional at 

Thank you for joining us here, Anne and Mark!
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #1 of 47: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Aug 09 21:42
Hi everybody!

And hello to Mark.  Thanks so much for joining us here.

I jumped at the chance to host this discussion, since the topic was
both relatively unknown to me and very relevant to many of the issues I
grapple with as a design professional concerned with the intricate
relationships between culture and nature.  

I was very interested to see the early reference in Mark's book to
William Cronon's provocative essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness:
Getting Back to the Wrong Nature."  In college, I studied the history
of the landscape of colonial New England, and I think it was Cronon's
book "Changes in the Land" that first really got me started thinking
about the complex relationships between humans and the landscapes they

As you can imagine, I've been coming up with a lot of questions as I
worked my way through the book...and found most intriguing of all the
questions raised by the material at the very end, in the Epilogue.  But
more about that soon.

I'll start off with a basic question:  How did you first start getting
into this subject, and what motivated you to undertake the research to
write the book?  I believe that in the book it refers to at least four
years of travel and research, and the amount of information in the
book is really immense.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #2 of 47: Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:10
(for our off-site readers, you may send your questions to <>
and we will happily post your question for you).
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #3 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:17
At an Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) meeting in Ottawa,
in early 2004, I was approached by two representatives of an
international organization focused on indigenous land rights. They told
me that native people around the world had for some time been in
conflict with global conservation, particularly with the five large
conservation NGO's based in Washington, organizations that were
receiving generous support from some of the foundations meeting in
Ottawa. Well conflict always grabs my attention, so I raised some grant
money from some of the other foundations in EGA and headed into the
wild and see for myself.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #4 of 47: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:20
What an exciting call to action.  I'm looking forward to this
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #5 of 47: paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:41
I read 1491 a year or two ago, and it really opened my eyes about how
much of what we learned about the 'primeval' american landscape as
encountered by european colonists was already dramatically altered by
earlier european contacts and diseases and population shifts in
indigenous communities.    

Very interested to see where this conversation goes.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #6 of 47: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Wed 19 Aug 09 12:12
One of the major themes of the book, it seems to me, is the lasting
damage done by our (privileged Westerners') sentimental notions about
"wilderness" as something separate from any relationship with humans. 
A quote from the 1964 United States Wilderness Act is repeated several
times throughout the book, defining wilderness as a place where "man
himself is a visitor who does not remain."  

By contrast, indigenous peoples live on and relate to their landscapes
in a much more intimate and dynamic way.  Mark's book uses the term
"Traditional Ecological Knowledge" (TEK) which sums up the ways that
traditional/indigenous peoples utilize and manage the resources in
their environment, which he argues tends to perpetuate or increase
biodiversity, rather than the reverse.  "Every shaman, healer, chief
and elder knows that without biotic wealth there is no food security."
(p 91)

Nonetheless, there has been a lack of recognition of this positive
relationship between native peoples and their environments; the model
of "fortress conservation" around the world leads to people being
kicked off their land and deprived of their traditional livelihoods.  

Mark, do you think that Westerners truly "don't get it" because our
science hasn't yet fully understood what's happening in these
environments (you mention that anthropologists and biologists tend not
to agree about this), or is it just willful blindness because these
peoples are inconveniently in the way of powerful national and
corporate interests?
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #7 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Wed 19 Aug 09 12:33
I have found that many Westerners still don't get it, but fortunately
a growing number are beginning to realize that the very lands they seek
to protect and conserve contain high biological diversity (the current
quarry of global conservation) because the people who have been living
on those lands, some for thousands of years, have been living right,
ie. sustainably. And some of these awakened Westerners are working for
transnational conservation organizations. This is a heartening

I also find that there is a growing convergence of tradition
ecological knowledge (TEK) and conventional textbook biological
science. And that is happening on both sides of the divide. Western
wildlife biologicals are beginning to understand and respect TEK (a
difficult task as very little of it is written down or published). And 
literate indigenous people are developing a respect, even reverence
for Western science. An Inuit leader I met recently described a person
who understands and uses both TEK and Western science as "strong like
two people."
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #8 of 47: Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 19 Aug 09 16:55
I think of central California, where I live. The native peoples kept the
hillsides open and grassy to support grazing animals. Now the hills in the
East Bay are thickets of brush and trees, and the wildflower meadows that
charmed the earliest conservationists are no more. Where do native peoples
control the land enough to manage it in the old ways? And where do the laws
allow them to?
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #9 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Thu 20 Aug 09 07:07
About 20 percent of the planet is occupied by about 370 million people
who regard themselves as native to the land. Indigenous tenure and
management of those lands varies from zero to 100 percent depending
largely on ownership claims of the states that envelop native land. So
of course a major goal of the global indigenous movement is to secure
maximum land rights. 

The slowly shifting paradigm of transnational conservation is to
restore land tenure to its first stewards, let them return if they have
been evicted, and give them management responsibility under
scientifically sound conservation guidelines.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #10 of 47: Robert Hill (rob) Thu 20 Aug 09 08:31
Can you give us an example?
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #11 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 08:45
Yes The Matavan Forest in northeastern Columbia (page 239 in the book)
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #12 of 47: Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Aug 09 08:47
I understand the premise--that some human interactions could be good, or 
at least sustainable for long-term conservation/some sense of steady 

But this clearly isn't always true. Jared Diamond's recent book on places 
where humans caused collapse is very much on my mind--the trees of Easter 
Island, for instance and human settlement thereon. Not every culture is 
sustainable, and primitive cultures aren't necessarily better at 
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #13 of 47: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Fri 21 Aug 09 09:21
I would also tend to wonder what happens, as is alluded to a few times
in the book but not addressed at length, when traditional societies
become equipped with some forms of modern technology - such as
chainsaws, ATVs, etc., that might tend to disrupt the balance created
by traditional lifeways.  Are traditional ecological knowledge, and
traditional ethical systems, enough to maintain a natural balance when
the tools and technologies used are changing?
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #14 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:04
Diamond's example of Easter Island is a bit unfair. Most indigenous
island cultures in the world have survived sustainably in their totally
confined ecosystems for generations.

Misapplied technology is a problem the world over. There are
non-indigenous societies that use modern technologies wisely and there
are indigenous societies that use them unwisely. And vise versa in both
instances. White civilizations concerned about non-white communities
coming into possession of chainsaws, ATVS, shotguns and outboard motors
should first examine how wise their own use of those technologies has
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #15 of 47: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:20
Well, in many cases, indigenous island cultures survived after
extirpating much native fauna.  Granted in many cases later white
settlers were even more efficient, but there's little cheer about in
the ecological history of places like New Zealand.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #16 of 47: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:36
Hey, Mark, your old Point Reyes friend Steve here, connecting from my
post-Point Reyes home in the mountainous wilds of New Hampshire --
which happens to be where much of the familiar American concept of
wilderness first was described.

But anyway. Boy, this is a *very* provocative book, and I've got about
a thousand questions. Perhaps here's a place to begin: John Muir
emerges in the book as a difficult figure -- godfather to generations
of American conservationists, the founder of one of our great
environmental organizations, influential writer, and the guy who wanted
all the natives out of Yosemite. (I'm reminded by your analysis of
Muir of some modern analyses of another difficult American figure,
Abraham Lincoln.) Muir lobbied hard to establish Yosemite National Park
as a recreational and even spiritual preserve.

His kind of wilderness was in the Eden mold: a pristine place devoid
of human presence. You noted that this concept of wilderness is so
potent in the American imagination that it is literally embodied in the
Wilderness Act of 1964. "Eden" is the noteworthy word here, I think,
in that pristine, humanless Nature was seen as being closer to God's
perfection. Just as Manifest Destiny was driven by one kind of biblical
conceit, so was the preservation of wilderness. Yet isn't there an a
big irony in all of this? I mean, it was the *Garden* of Eden, after
all, and a garden requires tending. 

Anyway, I'm wondering to what extent you think the American concept of
wilderness, which has spread around the world, is rooted in a
particularly American Protestant interpretation of the first chapters
of Genesis.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #17 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 15:10
I wondered where you'd landed. Of course the American sense of
wilderness is rooted in Genesis, as is so much of the rest of our world

It is almost impossible to find the true origin of “wilderness” or the
notion that nature as wilderness is best preserved in the absence of
humans. My friend Marcus Colchester, who with Phds in Zoology and
Anthropology bridges the scientific gap I discussed in my book, has
rummaged though history to find that most “urban civilizations from
their inception have characterized nature as brutish and evil and yet
contradictorily as a refuge from the ills of city life. Thus the Tale
of Gilgamesh, the world’s most ancient epic, recounts the primordial
struggle between kingly civilization and the forest, the source of all
evil. Yet even Gilgamesh admits that ‘in the city man dies with despair
in his heart’.”

In ancient Greece, Colchester observes, “untamed nature was perceived
as the domain of wild, irrational, female forces that contrasted with
the rational culture ordered by males.” In this world view, not only
was nature a dangerous threat to the city state, but the wilderness
beyond was peopled by barbarians, the epitome of whom were the Amazons
- long haired, naked, female savages who represented the antithesis of
Greek civilization. Likewise Judeo-Christian myths of origin told
anyone who would listen that man was given dominion over the beasts. 

In Europe's middle ages the image was sustained of an ordered world of
culture managed by civilized men, bounded by a chaotic wilderness
peopled with savages, the abode of pagan warlocks and witches who drew
their power from the dangerous, evil forces of nature, the realm of
Beelzebub. Similar images continued to sustain the views of Christian
missionaries who perceived the shamanism of indigenous peoples as
'devil worship', and believe that as 'Commandos for Christ' they had a
God-given role to 'reach the lost until they have reached the last'.
These views of humanity and nature were reinforced in almost every new
settlement of the New World.

So it should be no surprise that a century or so later Americans would
seek salvation in bordered wildernesses, from which they had carefully
and brutally extracted the savage, places that the reclusive Henry
Thoreau would describe as “ little oases in the desert of our
civilization.” However, unlike John Muir and other wilderness
advocates, Thoreau believed passionately that it was “vain to dream of
a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in
our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us that
inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any
greater wildness than in some recess of Concord.”

Despite that fine advice, the idea that humanity is something apart
from nature remains deeply rooted in the western mind, which, as you
suggest, also embraces belief in the Genesis myth where man is given
dominion over all other beasts. Taming the wild, both in nature and
themselves, became a fundamental aspect of the New World’s manifest

By contrast, indigenous cultures that have remained isolated from
Judeo-Christian influence continue to see themselves and their
cultures, as they always have, deeply imbedded in nature, and nature
even more deeply imbedded in themselves and their cultures. They and
nature are so inseparable that if the ‘n’ word appears in their
language or their cosmology it is as a cultural concept, internalized
in their very being, not some space beyond the walls of their

Westerners still revere nature as place, rather than as cultural
concept, a place to commune at a distance with the rest of the
Phylogenetic Scale, discover themselves and also, perhaps, the purpose
of life. An antagonism between human society and nature continues to
grow as humans urbanize their cultures and separate themselves from
both the places and the concepts they regard as “nature.” 

The antagonism expresses itself in the growing popularity of new
environmental philosophies like deep ecology, which embraces a form of
conservation that puts wilderness, defined as “pristine nature”, off
limits to human occupation. This exclusion is justified by the fact
that “most of the Earth has been colonized by humans only in the last
several thousand years.”  Before humans evolved, say the new
ecologists, the entire planet was pure and undefiled. Then we arrived
and invented “nature” and “wilderness” ... then became their worst
enemy. Rid the planet of humans and it will flourish again, say the
deepest of deep ecologists, who seem either unwilling or unable to face
the fact that if the entire planet Earth were to suddenly disappear
from the universe, with all its occupants, nature  would continue to
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #18 of 47: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Aug 09 15:29
Yowza, Mark, what an answer. Thank you!

There's also the aspect in Christianity of man as "fallen," burdened
with Original Sin and as such forever imperfect. Thus, a perfect Eden
cannot harbor imperfect man and remain perfect. It seems that in our
generosity we allow for temporary visits -- backpackers, say -- but if
wilderness is the equivalent of Eden, then there can be no permanent
residence, *especially* by unbaptized heathens. I think this idea has
been powerfully present in one form or another in the American conceit
of wilderness. 

Mark, another somewhat difficult figure to emerge in the book is Ansel
Adams, who of course famously photographed what Muir before him had
described. You're right in the book to note that Adams' classic
photographs of Yosemite and the Sierra do not show any humans (although
Adams himself always said there were at least two humans in every one
of his photos -- the photographer and the person looking at the photo).
Yet Adams also made plenty of photographs of native peoples in the
American Southwest even during the years he was photographing a
dramatically austere and apparently humanless Sierra, and there is also
his remarkable series of photos of Japanese-Americans in the Manzanar
concentration camp with the High Sierra as backdrop.

I wonder if Adams changed his sense of wilderness and wild places over
the years and, if he did, if there's something we can learn from his
migration to a different point of view. Did you find any kind of change
in Adams' perspective?  
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #19 of 47: Ari Davidow (ari) Sat 22 Aug 09 06:51
So, we should see cultures that are not Western--Confucianism, for 
instance, as thoroughly comfortable with nature? I accept that Western 
culture sees a dichotomy; I'm not convinced that we are unique in that 
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #20 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Sat 22 Aug 09 09:24
Ari, I didn't mean to imply that we Westerners were unique in out view
of nature and wilderness, only that we had very different views than
those of native peoples.

Steve, I don't know the answer to your question about Adams. But my
sister, a photographer who apprenticed under him and became pretty good
friends might remember. I'll ask her.

I seem to recall him remarking once on the fact that Yosemite Valley,
with it's asphalt roads, paved campgrounds, rock climbing schools,
restaurants, bookstores and an architectural egospasm (The Ahwahnee
Lodge) built right under the defining geomorphological icon of the
Valley (Half Dome) were probably not what Muir and his friends had in
mind when they sought to remove the natives and turn the place into a
wilderness retreat.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #21 of 47: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Mon 24 Aug 09 10:34
Mark, the PR apparatus is moving into high gear in anticipation of the
new Ken Burns series on PBS, which is about "America's best idea," the
national parks. (It premieres Sept. 27.) Just from the magazine ads
I've seen I'm already getting a "St. Muir" feeling about the series,
which would be in keeping with the "great man" approach Burns used for
his documentaries on baseball, jazz and Lewis & Clark. 

Yet, as noted above, you show Muir to be a difficult figure -- saintly
in some ways, perhaps, but also flawed. How do we have an honest
assessment of his contributions without minimizing his shortcomings?
And will we be able to reassess and reimagine conservation without
reassessing Muir? 
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #22 of 47: For Rosetti, wombats held a peculiar fascination (loris) Mon 24 Aug 09 10:40
mark, how does the Romantic view of nature, which  began to arise in the
19th century, fit in here?
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #23 of 47: Mark Dowie (markdowie) Mon 24 Aug 09 15:27
There are no saints. Muir's hagiogrpahic archives are at University of
the Pacific, open to all historians. BUt to get behind the man and his
archives one must dig a little deeper. That's what investigative
historians do. And that's what I am.

The 19th century romantic view of nature fits this story like a hand
in a glove. The book in fact begins in 1851 when nature romantic
Lafayette Bunnell and his Savage sidekick first entered Yosemite Valley
to remove the Miwok.
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #24 of 47: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 25 Aug 09 08:20
    <scribbled by nitpicker>
inkwell.vue.362 : Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees
permalink #25 of 47: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 25 Aug 09 08:35
Mark, to get back to something you wrote a few posts ago -

>>An antagonism between human society and nature continues to
grow as humans urbanize their cultures and separate themselves from
both the places and the concepts they regard as “nature.” <<

I'm not so sure that urbanization is in itself the problem.  After
all, you could argue that agriculture itself - at least in its more
extractive forms, and certainly in the current megaindustrialized form
found in the US - is a bigger enemy to biodiversity, and of longer

As for urbanization, its effects can be very different depending on
whether it takes sprawling, poorly managed, and/or suburbanizing
forms.  The more idealistic urbanists among us are working hard on
making cities
more sustainable; some of the 'green building' and 'green urbanism'
technologies we are adopting today have their own parallels in
traditional practices - our own urban versions of Traditional
Ecological Knowledge. For instance, we are trying to get back to an
awareness of building in ways appropriate to the local climate, and
using 'naturally inspired' 'green infrastructure' to make cities
livable, rather than relying on the single-purpose engineering model.

I'm very aware of how these issues are playing out in the US, but less
familiar with the ways cities relate to their surrounding landscapes
in other parts of the world.  It seems to me that urbanization can
actually be a very beneficial thing to the conservation of biodiverse
landscapes, if properly pursued; denser models of urbanization don't
eat up as much land, and different approaches to the built environment
and infrastructure can improve the ecological relationship between city
and country. But of course, urbanization is not happening now in such
an orderly and idealistic manner in most of the world, including the

Mark, do you think that there can actually be conservation benefits to
urbanization, or is it being driven so much by poverty and
deterioration of rural conditions that it's an overwhelming negative
for conservation and the relationship between humans and nature?


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