Book review – The Invention of Green Colonialism

10-minute read
keywords: history, wildlife conservation

You would think that wildlife conservation organisations are a force for good in the world. Yet, despite their undoubtedly best intentions today, historian Guillaume Blanc argues that colonialist shadows still loom large over their actions and ideas. The Invention of Green Colonialism is a searing critique of wildlife conservation in Africa. Establishing national parks often means the forced eviction of poor people, all to recreate an unspoilt version of African nature that never existed in the first place. This thought-provoking book has already ruffled quite some feathers but forces critical reflection.

The Invention of Green Colonialism

The Invention of Green Colonialism, written by Guillaume Blanc, published by Polity in June 2022 (paperback, 222 pages)

These accusations—levelled explicitly at the IUCN, the WWF, and UNESCO—might seem heretical. “Indeed, so powerfully does it go against what we have been led to believe that some people refuse even to contemplate it” (p. 12). However, it is no secret that the first national parks were game reserves and that today’s conservation organisations were established to protect and support them. Also, Blanc is not alone in his criticism. I reviewed The Big Conservation Lie four years ago and older books have voiced similar concerns, e.g. 2017 White Man’s Game, 2003’s Ethnographies of Conservation, and 1992’s The Myth of Wild Africa. There is no denying that there is a dark underbelly to wildlife conservation.

Blanc’s main bone of contention is that wildlife conservation in Africa is deeply rooted in, and burdened with, colonial clichés. A century of books, travel magazines, and nature documentaries have portrayed Africa as the world’s last remaining wildlife paradise. This is not untrue, if only because we have extirpated wildlife everywhere else through habitat destruction and hunting. To support his argument, Blanc discusses the development of nature conservation in Africa from 1850 to today at two levels. First is the history of Ethiopia, and that of Simien National Park in particular, for which he has consulted both national archives and archives of conservation organisations. Second is a comparison to the situation in Africa more generally. I will dip into Blanc’s chronology to pick out some of the moments that support his claim that colonialism never really went away, instead acquiring a shade of green.

Colonialism and racism were blatant in the 1850s. Europeans caused immense environmental destruction through e.g. trophy hunting or the deforestation and soil loss associated with trade expansion. But rather than admit that our colonial shenanigans caused wildlife decline, we deflected the blame on rural Africans. Even scientists concluded that the natives just did not know how to properly manage their environment. Colonial governments were only too happy to accept this explanation to justify continued exploitation. This is the context in which game reserves were established where rich white men went on safari and hunting by Africans was called poaching. Attempts were made to evict local farmers and herders, and this was encouraged by criminalizing everyday subsistence activities such as farming or chopping firewood by doling out fines and prison sentences. 

“[…] rather than admit that our colonial shenanigans caused wildlife decline, we deflected the blame on rural Africans. This is the context in which game reserves were established where rich white men went on safari and hunting by Africans was called poaching.”

As time passed, fortress conservation and colonialist notions of Africa as a Garden of Eden remained the norm.

It remained true when, by the start of the 20th century, game reserves transformed into national parks. Though Blanc does not explore this, I imagine this was influenced by Teddy Roosevelt‘s creation of the National Park System in the United States. Something that, incidentally, involved its own share of evictions.

It remained true when UNESCO and the IUCN cooperated on the 1960–1963 African Special Project that sought to halt wildlife decline by putting conservation on the African political agenda. One of the countries that requested assistance was Ethiopia and three UNESCO missions concluded—as they did for many other African countries—that its unspoilt nature was under threat. An interesting side note here is the idea that the country had suffered tremendous deforestation, even though work by historian James McCann has shown that such statistics were, at best, educated guesses elevated to scientific truths. A similar story is told about deforestation in Madagascar, according to anthropologist Alison Richard, which for me supports the veracity of Blanc’s critique.

It remained true in the 1960s when some African countries gained independence. Many former game wardens found new employment as consultants or international experts, inculcating a new generation of African conservationists with colonial notions of nature. African governments keen for international recognition adopted and internalised these ideas, but also cleverly used national parks and associated evictions as a tool in internal power struggles to e.g. crush rebellions.

It remained true in the 1970s when UNESCO drew up its brand-new World Heritage List. The Ethiopian Simien Mountains were amongst the first sites to be added, on the condition that local agro-pastoralists would be relocated.

“the era of sustainable development […] promised we could have our cake and eat it. […] Though the language was sanitized, on the ground it remained a case of fortress conservation.”

It remained true in the 1980s when international frameworks changed. We entered the era of sustainable development that promised we could have our cake and eat it. Blanc’s critique here is on point. Though it sounds reassuring, “what the world wants to be sustainable is development, and not the capacity of the environment to tolerate its impact” (p. 118). Bright Green Lies co-author Max Wilbert eloquently voiced similar criticism in a recent interview on the Planet:Critical podcast (timestamp 13:27–13:42) and it is a sentiment I much agree with. Sustainable development has gone hand-in-hand with community-based conservation that is dressed in such respectable-sounding technobabble “that it can no longer be challenged“. Terms such as “participative management“, “citizen consultation“, and “local partnership space” (p. 132). Though the language was sanitized, on the ground it remained a case of fortress conservation. Local people were relocated from core zones inside national parks to nearby buffer zones.

It remained true in 1996, when UNESCO put Simien National Park on its List of World Heritage in Danger, hoping it would force Ethiopia to get its act together. The government dangled various carrots in front of the agro-pastoralists in the form of new infrastructure, financial compensation, and training, hoping to tempt them to resettle voluntarily. Because of regime changes and civil wars, relocation was delayed until 2016, and still involved brute force. A particularly shocking side note here is the work of World Bank sociologist Michael Cernea who has prepared and monitored hundreds of such resettlement programmes but found they invariably impoverish displaced people. Compensation cannot make up for the intangible benefits provided by the old communities such as morale, identity, and mutual aid networks. This is a known problem and international organisations “have found themselves struggling to redress the secondary effects of community conservation” (p. 156). Particularly insidious is what Blanc calls the “neoliberal transformation of nature” (p. 143). Where wildlife used to have intrinsic (e.g. sacred) value, people were now taught to attach a monetary value to it through e.g. employment in the ecotourism industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how this can backfire spectacularly.

This book was originally published in French by Flammarion as L’Invention du Colonialisme Vert and translated into English by Helen Morrison. A new afterword allows Blanc to respond to some of the criticism of the French original. Unsurprisingly, both UNESCO and the IUCN swiftly condemned his work. I will take their response with a grain of salt as I think Blanc convincingly shows that there is a seedy side to today’s wildlife conservation. However, despite writing on page 12 that he does not want to denigrate the environmental cause, the danger with critiques like these is that authors get so caught up in making an incendiary argument that they forget to provide some balance, and I was left with some unanswered questions. 

“[…] the danger with critiques like these is that authors get so caught up in making an incendiary argument that they forget to provide some balance.”

One response by three researchers from CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, points out that the IUCN uses seven national park categories, some of which are less restrictive and allow for economic activities. Blanc does not address this. Though his critique applies to Ethiopia and several other countries, are there really no examples of wildlife conservation done right? Is the whole enterprise flawed? Although Blanc does not explicitly say so, he also does not explicitly disavow it, leaving him open to accusations of overextrapolating his findings.

The second question is: what is the solution then? Should the West just get out and leave Africa alone? Is this just, given the mess we have left after centuries of colonialism? Are reparations in place? Blanc instead opts for a more general solution. “The blame lies with consumerism and the capitalism that encourages it” (p. 184), and thus “only a radical reform of the world capitalist system can offer a solution to the current ecological crisis” (p. 185). That is obviously an ambitious goal, though there are many other good reasons to pursue it. However, what exactly he means by this and how he thinks we should achieve it are questions left up in the air. I was rather hoping to hear his thoughts on whether the developed world, given its past track record, can tell the developing world what to do. Having achieved a high standard of living through environmental exploitation, can we deny others this? Who are we to take the moral high ground?

The last question is whether national parks work. Blanc skirts around this question but, reading between the lines, my impression is that he thinks it they are are a palliative solution to a systemic problem. They “constitute a kind of optical illusion which effectively hides the real problem” (p. 12), i.e. the environmental destruction inflicted by capitalism. He later adds that “believing that nature is protected where there are no people (in the parks) is also a way of condoning damage where people live (in the rest of the world)” (p. 178). But could they be an interim solution? And what to do when species are genuinely at risk of extinction? An interesting side note here is that Simien National Park was established to protect the Walia ibex, a species of wild goat. Blanc points out that, though population numbers have rebounded from ~150 individuals in 1963 to ~950 in 2017, conservationists continue to speak of declining populations. He concludes that “the myth of an African Eden is so powerful that, even today, experts set more store by their beliefs than by their own figures” (pp. 170–171). However, some caution is in order. The question is: recovery in comparison to what baseline? Though, for example, whale populations have bounced back with the ban on industrial whaling, we consider they are still on the road to recovery rather than fully recovered. Blanc is aware of this as his afterword calls for more detailed scientific studies, habitat by habitat, to establish current numbers, historical baselines, and long-term trends.

By not working out his proposed solutions, nor considering wildlife conservation’s positive achievements, this book will undoubtedly upset some readers. That does not take away that The Invention of Green Colonialism highlights uncomfortable realities and forces critical reflection, something for which I will happily make time and mental bandwidth available. One does not have to solve a problem to point out that there is a problem. I laud Polity for making this book available to a broader, English-speaking audience.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Invention of Green Colonialism

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:





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