Reading ‘The big conservation lie’

The book opens with a laugh out loud funny, truthful, and powerful joke.

Have you ever seen a black man aired on Animal planet?” asked Nigerian comedian, …Basketmouth, during an Aljazeera TV Program…The audience became silent. Then the immensely popular stand-up comedian volunteered to explain the courage with which white people aired on the television channel usually advance on some dangerous animal. “White people are never afraid. They only become afraid when you go to the Embassy seeking a visa…They tell you, ‘I am afraid we cannot give you a visa’ Said in an officious mimic, this drew instant laughter from the audience.

A friend of mine sent me a link about the launch of this book earlier this year. I googled it. I looked at the cover, and knew I had to get the book-immediately! My friend and I discussed the cover and had a good laugh. You have to laugh in order to go mad. We are both in the conservation industrial complex, so the cover speaks to our individual and collective struggles.


Mbaria and Ogada share their personal and professional experiences on the intricacies between race, conservation, dispossession, raw capitalism, environmental destruction, community livelihoods, exploitative research and so much more. I think this is one of the most important books to emerge out the conservation arena in Africa in recent times. It a powerful critique of  white corruption and conservation in Kenya.  The overarching themes of the book include:

  1. Who benefits from the conservation of wildlife in Kenya?
  2. Who shapes the conservation agenda?

The goal of this blogpost is to share some stories that reinforce some of the arguments that Mbaria and Ogada are making, as well as to offer some possible solutions.


So, what exactly did Basketmouth mean?

Basketmouth might have been joking, but the image of white men(they are mostly male characters) taking to the wild, devoting their lives to saving wild animals, and engaging in sensually captivating adventures has forever been used to drive the point home that as the planet experiences immense destruction of species, habitats, and ecosystems, it is only white people who really care. Conservation is now almost exclusively associated with whiteness.

What is the place of Africans in the conservation landscape?

Usually, black people are featured either as cargomen, props, victims, or as hinderances to the conservation enterprise. In most instances, black Africans are portrayed as people who need to be sensitized, so that they can either accept or learn to love the animals that live in their midst or the wilderness they inhabit.

Now, these are issues that quite close to my heart. And I have blogged about this before in  Saving  Africa from Africans.  I highly, highly, resent the idea that Africans do not know or are not interested in conservation, and have actually spent the last 12 years of my life trying to dispel or at least understand this myth. The latest of these ventures is through my PhD research on Indigenous Knowledge Systems and forest governance. Why has this idea that Africans do not care about conservation become so widely accepted, including by Africans themselves? It is argued that Africans do not know conservation because they do not know how to uhhh and ahhh when they see animals. Loving wildlife is reduced to uuhing and aahhing, and attempts at domesticating them by giving them names like Tom, and petting them.  These kinds of ideas are completely incongruent with African conservation and environmentalism. The connections that Africans have with their landscapes are more deeper and sophisticated than this superficial and empty romanticization. Let us all do our own research-you have your grandparents or other elders in our community. Ask them what relationships they forged with wildlife or the environment in general, especially before the encounter with colonialism and Jesus. The answers might surprise you. If you are in Kenya and know any Mau Mau guerrillas, ask them how they survived in the forests that are inhabited by wild animals – for close to 10 years.


Where are the African conservationists? Mbaria and Ogada argue that the conservation arena is fed by self-propagating hero worship. All these heroes are white. Take the case of George Adamson  and his domestication of lions.  A couple of years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service posted a picture of George and “his lions” on their facebook page. I asked them if they are promoting the domestication of wild animals? The rebuttal was quick – “We are celebrating someone who has contributed immensely to conservation in Kenya.” Yawn! I then asked them why I have never seen any celebration of African conservationists. They never came back to me.


Another good example is Karen Blixen, whose story is told in the movie  ‘Out of Africa’. The movie opens with the line “I owned a farm in Africa” the correct opening line should be “I stole a farm in Africa.” I want to use the example of Blixen to demonstrate that the white capture of conservation extends beyond wildlife conservation into the cultural heritage conservation realm. Blixen was an out-and-out racist who argued that she understood Africans better after interactions with wild animals. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in ‘Detained’ “In reality they [white settlers in Kenya] loved the wild game,  but Africans were worse, more threatening, instinctless, unlovable, unredeemable, sub-animals merely useful for brute labour.” This was a view strongly held by Blixen. Despite this, there is a museum in her name in the colonial outpost that is known as Karen. Yes, the area is also named after her. I cannot understand why there is a museum that memorializes Karen Blixen and yet there is no museum or anything else built to memorialize the glorious struggle of the Mau Mau, who fought racial oppression and colonial domination with everything they had.  Why must Africans continue to celebrate people who oppress(ed) them and think of them as sub-human?


Who is reaping huge economic returns from Africa’s wilderness?

The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of natives, veiled bribery, unsurpased deceit, a conservation cult subscribed to by huge numbers of people in the West, and severe exploitation of the same wilderness conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve.

A truly, truly depressing example  of  exploitation that is given in the book centres around a tree known as Prunus africana, whose bark is used for treatment of prostrate cancer. Jonathan Leakey preyed on the indigenous knowledge of Africans, and obtained a permit to exploit and export the bark and made a tidy sum. The permit was obtained from his brother Richard Leakey, who is an obiquitous presence in the Kenyan conservation arena. Let us even assume that Jonathan had not been given the permit. If he walked into a community somewhere and started talking to people, wouldn’t they give him this information and access to the trees? Have you seen how people in any part of Kenya react when they see a white person? Everybody goes out of their way to help. And by the way, in Kenya, the term researcher is associated with a white person. This person just preyed on the hospitality of Africans and emerged out of this interaction with loads of money. The hospitable Africans got nothing.  Nobody thinks that a white person can be up to no good. We always think they want to help us. This idea is so strongly ingrained and extremely dangerous. Why do Africans think that the people who enslaved them, colonised them, and neocolonise them want to help them? We have not really learnt how to protect what is really ours. That includes knowledge.


What is the role of the government in all this? A friend of mine told me a story a couple of years ago. I think it will help answer this question.

There is a city somewhere in the Congo rain forest. This city was established during the colonial period as a retreat/holiday space for the colonial brigade. After independence, more Africans moved into the city. The government wanted to expand infrastructure in order to serve the public. This would entail the clearing of some trees. A Nordic country successfully blocked this, citing conservation concerns. Hence people live in squalor without basic services like sewer lines, water infrastructure, etc. The perils of flag independence! The government is a powerless. Direction on conservation strategy comes from the west. The white capture of conservation in Africa is total, thorough, and uncompromising.


Let me give you another example. This is in regards to nominating sites into the UNESCO World Heritage List.  The process works like this: A country nominates a site to be a world heritage site. Once the site goes through all the hoops at the UNESCO level, somebody is sent to evaluate the site in situ. This consultant writes a report on whether the site you are proposing is deserving of world heritage status or not. In all the instances I know for African sites, the consultant has always been a white person. I do not know of any instance where an African has ever been commissioned as a consultant to evaluate any site either on the African continent or elsewhere. Can we envision a situation where an African goes to evaluate a site in Europe, for instance? And needless to say, these consultant are paid handsomely. You cannot acquire world heritage status without white approval. Also, can we envison a situation where a Kenyan owns 100,000 acres of land in the UK and turns it into a conservancy? This is satirized in this conservation conundrum.


Tourism and conservation. In kenya, these are siamese twins.

In ‘The wretched of the earth’, Fanon writes:

The national bourgeoisie will be greatly helped on its way towards decadence by the Western bourgeoisies, who come to it as tourists avid for the exotic, for big-game hunting and for casinos. The national bourgeoisie organizes centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie. Such activity is given the name of tourism, and for the occasion will be built up as a national industry…Because it is bereft of ideas, because it lives to itself and cuts itself off from the people, undermined by its hereditary incapacity to think in terms of all the problems of the nation as seen from the point of view of the whole of that nation, the national middle class will have nothing better to do than to take on the role of manager for Western enterprise, and it will in practice set up its country as the brothel of Europe.

I want to illustrate this aspect of the turning of a country into the brothel of Europe.

I once went with a friend to a hotel in Nairobi. This hotel has an in-house dance troupe which entertain tourists.  We were excited to see the dances. My friend and I were among the very few Africans there. The place was packed with white people with cameras. In Kenya, tourist=white person. When we say we want tourists to come, we do not mean people from Papua New Guinea. Nor do we even mean Kenyans who live next to the so-called tourist attractions. The show starts. It is good. It keeps getting exciting. At some point, the ladies dance is a way that reveals their behinds. The sway the skirt upwards and there, the bum is fully exposed. The tourists click away. My friend and I turn to each other and ask “what was that?” It is not all of them who showcase their behind. It is selected, slender, light skinned ones. It is pathetic. It is very pathetic. It is disgusting.  I have never gone back to that hotel.  By the way, this dance troupe had come to perform at my university and there were no bum-showing stunts! You know why? There were no white people there. It is their fantastic performance at my university that made me want to see them again, hence the visit to the hotel.


If you want to see who controls the conservation industry in Kenya look no further than the Cabinet secretary’s facebook page. She is is always posting pictures of signing MOU’s or other agreements with some foreign entities known as “development partners”. It feels like Kenya has been sold.


Another story: I once went for a meeting at the Karen Country Club. I was one of 2 Africans there. The meeting began with a presentation.  After that, there was a discussion. Most of the time was spent bashing the Kenya Wildlife Service. I have never felt more out of place. That was the first and last meeting I ever attended.


So why not start your own NGOs ?

Conservation NGOs must also be seen to toe the racial line; one can only succeed in the NGO world if they are white or have a close and preferably familial or business affiliation with one or more members of the Kenya white community. Starting an American chapter or getting and American to sit on the board is an added advantage.

Look at this article that showcases 25 top conservationists in Africa. Tell me how many Africans you see there.

Why does this kind of situation persist?

I think it comes down to governance. Failure of the state to put public interests first. Failure of government to support local conservationists. Colonized mentality that reinforces the idea that Africans do not know conservation. It also persists because the state itself is captured by the white NGO lobby.

I was invited to a meeting to discuss Indigenous Community Conservation Areas(ICCAs) and the possibilities for implementation of this type of conservation in Kenya a few months ago.  During the discussions one of the participants  made a claim that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) was presiding over the destruction of forests in Kenya. A representative from the Ministry of environment took issue with that and asked him to substantiate. The debate went on and on. Then, during tea break, we the Africans congregated at one table. The discussion continued. Several other Kenyans supported the person who had made the claim about KFS. Then, the person from KFS said something astonishing. He said: “Even if it is true, you cannot say that in the presence of donors.” In Kenya, donors, like tourist =white person. There were several white people there representing various international organizations, the UN etc. This probably is the root cause of the situation that we find ourselves in. The government is not accountable to the people, is not interested in what the people think or feel, it is more interested in pleasing donors. Subsequently people lose faith in the government and chose to work with NGOs or to just give up all together. Quagmire.


What is to be done?

  1. Talk about these things openly. You cannot solve a problem if you do not understand it. You cannot solve a problem if you do not even know that it exists. Ogada and Mbaria  have provided a solid foundation from which these issues can be interrogated.
  2. We must get governance right. We must have people who care about the public and put their interests first.  Without this, nothing will work in our favour. It is not just in conservation, it is in all other aspects of life. We must all engage with politics constructively. Being apolitical enables the system of exploitation.
  3. Africans must stop thinking that white people love them and want to help them. Everybody is in the conservation sector for economic or other interests. If you do not believe this ask yourself why a lot of the settlers who own huge tracts of land have now turned their land into “conservancies”. And if you do not find this convincing think of this:

A question well worth asking in Kenya is which sector makes the most money per elephant in Kenya- the government, the poachers, the tourism investors, or the conservationists.

4. Africans should support African conservationists in which ever way they can. By conservationists, I do not mean only those people who are formally trained. Some of the most formidable conservationists in the African context are people who work the landscapes and waterscapes on a day to day basis-farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, hunters and gatherers, etc

5. Education. Education. Education. I do not mean formal education alone. Let us all strive to learn what African conservation really means. Talk to elders, talk to farmers, teach others, learn from others, write about it, speak about it, film it, share it. Educating ourselves has to be a deliberate project. We must continue striving for freedom in all spheres of engagement.



Who is and who isn’t indigenous in Africa?

So, we are in Ethiopia. Addis! A group of Africans from 13 countries. We are discussing nomination of African heritage into the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of discussions about community engagement in heritage matters opens up an interesting topic: who is and who isn’t indigenous in Africa? An intense debate ensues. The debate is cut short due to time constraints.We do not arrive at a conclusion.

Ethiopian Cuisine

There is no universally accepted definition of indigenous peoples. The most cited one however,  was was produced but Jose Martinez Cobo, the special rapporteur of the commission of prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities. More here.

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”

This definition is quite clear as to who is indigenous in countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Preparation of Ethiopian coffee/buna

When the world discussed the ‘universal declaration  on the rights of  indigenous peoples’ the politics of indigeneity in Africa came up. To everyone’s utter amazement the Afrikaners claimed to be indigenous. Afrikaners are the architects of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Let us refresh our memories, shall we? Apartheid was  anchored on a most virulent form of racism.  The Afrikaners claim to indigeneity was founded on the fact that they had lived in Africa since the 16th century. Now,  isn’t this making a mockery of the whole process since the subjugation of indigenous people all over the world  is  understood through  racial discrimination. But I guess Afrikaners want us to  forget all the horrors (both past and present) of apartheid..rainbow nation  -Viva!  The Africans in South Africa could not even be referred to as Africans since that was too close to Afrikaner. They were collectively known as “Bantu”.


So, we have to ask ourselves  – why is it that we need a declaration on the rights of  indigenous peoples when we have the  UNIVERSAL Declaration of  Human Rights of 1948. This was meant to offer “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Aren’t indigenous people human enough to be encompassed in this universal declaration?  Ideally yes but that obviously did not happen. That is not surprising because, most of the African continent was under severely oppressive and dehumanizing colonial rule up and  until the 1960’s through to the 80’s . Weren’t Africans human? So, maybe the universal declaration on human rights does not apply to these groups?



So, Afrikaners have claimed indigeneity . What to do?

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee(IPAC), a body that  advises the the UN on these matters, recommends that indigenous peoples in Africa will be those communities that are marginalized, either economically (especially because they are not agriculturalists), and or politically. We are talking about pastoralists and hunter-gatherer communities.

This  definition locks out majority of peoples on the continent who might be equally marginalized and in some cases even more marginalized than the hunter-gatherer or pastoralist groups. Sometimes, I think that agriculturalists are even more marginalized that pastoralists. Pastoralists have more autonomy than than say, agriculturalists who are growing cash crops for export – there is no self-determination  in cash crop farming because the farmers do not control the prices of crops.  They are glorified slaves that feed the global capitalism industry much to their detriment, that of the environment, their country and the continent at large.

Maasai Pastoralists 
Agriculturalists – tea farming 

From the face value of indigeneity (originating from a certain place), this IPAC definition does not make sense because, well, Africa is the cradle of mankind and this makes Africans more indigenous than anybody else.  In addition, given the complex migration routes around the continent there is no evidence to say that the Maasai people (pastoralists), arrived in Kenya before the Agikuyu people (agriculturalists), for example.

Naro bushman (San) women walking, Central Kalahari, Botswana
The San people – These ones are considered indigenous


One of the colleagues who contributed to the debate in Ethiopia argued that the IPAC definition is an attempt at “tarzanization of Africa”.


Is this issue worth any debating or are we trying to pound African peoples into categories into which they do not belong?  Does the categorisation of pastoralists and hunter and gatherers  as indigenous not create further schisms in a continent that is already battling with all kinds of divisions?

I am of the view that  all African peoples who cannot trace their origin to anywhere else but on the continent are indigenous.



On becoming a ‘countryman’- My first encounter with Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory

In 2012 I joined a group of South African colleagues for an exchange programme/ study tour to Australia’s northern territory. I did not know what to expect but I was sure excited about seeing the country and interacting with different people. We had extensive tours in the area around world famous Kakadu National Park and some fantastic rock art sites in Aboriginal territory. I met and interacted with many Aboriginal Australians and felt a sense of kinship with them. The Aboriginal tribes here refer to white people as balanda. One of the white people in our group asked the Aboriginal people what they would call us the Black Africans who were in the group. The Aboriginal man smiled and said “these are countrymen!” And for the rest of the trip we referred to ourselves as countrymen or country man! It did not bother me in the least that I was not a man. The point is: the connection made on sacred territory.

I am generally interested in conservation of both cultural heritage and natural heritage. In my view there is no point separating these in the African context. I like to look at all conservation areas as cultural landscapes. The model of creating pristine landscapes that lock out communities from accessing their ancestral territories have failed. Conservationists and governments are looking at other ways. The answer, in my view lies with honest and constructive engagement with communities.

The Aboriginal tribes in Australia demonstrated to me an unparalleled understanding of their landscapes. They actively apply indigenous knowledge systems in forging sustainable resource management agendas in the most admirable fashion. I was in awe the whole time and I kept thinking about how we as Africans could honour our own ways of knowing and apply it in resource use as well as well as in all other facets of our lives. This encounter with the Aboriginal Australians sparked my interest in indigenous issues – I realized we share a similar cultural heritage(s).

One of the elders said to us “we do not own the land. The land owns us.” This is something that greatly struck me and is something that I continue to reflect on since land is at the centre of every conflict in Africa. What if we looked at land differently? The way we looked at it before the encounter with colonialism? I think we would open ourselves to a world of possibilities!    Sunset at Kakadu Pational ParkKangaroo rock art imageWith fellow countrymenKangaroos