Over the last week, millions of Americans have tuned in to watch Ken Burns’ latest series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. To his credit, Burns revealed both the good and bad sides behind the history of America’s Parks. To be sure the forcible removal of Native Americans from their land, as well as the struggles between conservationists seeking to protect the land, and speculators and land barons seeking to exploit it for personal gain, were all there against backdrops of some of the most spectacular vistas and landscape remaining on this earth. However, what seemed to be missing from the story, for most Indigenous Peoples, was the plot. This is a war story - a war between worldviews: a worldview that holds People as intricately within and part of nature versus a worldview that holds nature as a place to visit separate from People.
This dichotomous world view is dangerously out of balance. Belief that there is some land that we aggressively exploit and other land which we steadfastly insist remain pristine, is rapidly extinguishing the beliefs of the land’s previous caretakers, who saw all land as sacred and thereby worthy of protection. From the Indigenous paradigm of protection and production, production and protection, evolved complex conservation regimes whereby you protected the land because it produced for you and it produced for you because you protected it. This is in stark contrast to the practice of protecting small plots of land, while removing the vast rest from protection, a paradigm which has led to the unprotected earth shutting down its productive capacity.
Burns unflinchingly tells how the creation of the earliest Parks, Yosemite and Yellowstone, both had at their core, the violent and forcible evictions of Native Americans who had been stewards of these lands for millennia. However by showing us only half of the legacy, the creation of our National Parks, Burns continues to promote a worldview that has led to the collapse of so many of the earth’s productive systems and to a climate crisis which is making us all vulnerable.
The driving impulse that Burns reveals in the drama of the founding of the national parks did not see protection and production as intrinsically linked, but rather as an either/or proposition. The lands fortunate enough to become national parks were allowed by the powerful economic interests of the day to be so, precisely because they were deemed to have no commercial value. It was in fact, the powerful political voices of the railroad tycoons who saw in the parks rich opportunities to make money from hoards of curious tourists that tipped the scales and led to many parks’ creation.
Burns’ epic is telling the history of America’s past, but it is a history that continues to have far-reaching effects even today. The model of exclusionary protected areas is alive and well and practiced throughout both the developing and industrialized world. And like in the United States, it is the Indigenous Peoples who have lived on the land for thousands of years, who bear the brunt of such human-phobic conservation. Since 1990, in Africa alone, more than 1,500,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes and communities in the name of setting aside protected areas as national parks. Resisters have been killed and their homes burned just like their distant cousins at Yosemite. And like the Native Americans of a century ago who faced daily struggles with developers and land barons who were far more interested in producing their fortune from the land rather than protecting the land’s productive capacity, so too Indigenous Peoples around the world are most often forced from their land as penance for the sins of the exploitative interlopers.
And Indigenous Peoples continue to be forced to watch their lands being taken so they can become exclusive enclaves for the world’s jet-setting class. Last June, a Maasai village in the Loliondo region in Tanzania was burned and more than two dozen families forced from their communities by soldiers. The soldiers were financed by billionaire United Arab Emirates defense secretary Major General Mohamed Abdul Rahim Al Ali, who purchased the Loliondo game reserve from the Tanzanian government, and turned it into a private park for himself and his friends to satisfy their fancy for shooting large African game for sport.
To be sure, there are many wonderful things to celebrate about America’s National Parks, but America’s best idea? We are not so sure. Removing traditional owners from their land, and denying the land the protection that these traditional owners wisdom honed over hundreds of generations, has made America’s land – and the world’s – far more vulnerable. Protecting small slivers of land, as good as that sounds, served to enable the opening the rest to often rapacious and unchecked exploitation. Many would agree that has not been a very good idea. And the American contagion of national parks that must be pristine, and free of permanent human habitation has been a very bad idea in the eyes of Indigenous Peoples in far distant places. Those who will never lay eyes on Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon are impoverished by the notion that humans cannot now live in these places as they had for tens of thousands of years.
While America’s National Parks may not be our nation’s best ideas, there are some new ideas in this new century that offer hope. Australia’s Kakakdu National Park, home to ancient rock art at least 20,000 years old, is today inhabited and tended by Aboriginal Australians who co-manage the internationally acclaimed park with the federal government. And just recently in British Columbia, Canada, for the first time, National Park land was returned to its traditional Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation owners for use as an inhabited protected area. The move toward inhabited parks, where the traditional protection-production can flourish, is spreading. It is in returning Indigenous inhabitants to protected areas from which they or their ancestors have been evicted, and in protecting inhabited areas not now legally protected from unbridled development that we will discover humanity’s best idea.