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Conservation: researcher critiques neoliberal fortress model

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Calls for community-driven and managed approach in Gilgit-Baltistan

By: Anmol, Shams Uddin & Anayat Baig

Karachi: The neoliberal development and conservation have failed to achieve the objectives of protecting endangered species rather endangered the indigenous communities and nature. The market-driven model of conservation is aimed at colonization and securitization of people living in peripheries through the occupation of their common lands and resources and altering their cultural norms, sense of self and links with ecology.

The recent notification of two new parks and deployment of FC personnel is a shift from neo-liberalization to the militarization of nature. The assumption of creating economic opportunities under the ‘green jobs’ is in fact ‘green militarization’ as already been done at Naltar. Deployment of paramilitary forces is basically creating a military park to further facilitate extractive capitalism. 

The national question of Gilgit-Baltistan is linked with the ecological question, and this has not often been explored and recognized. 

This was the gist of an insightful three-hour talk given by Dr Nosheen Ali on “Land, Wildlife and National Question” in the context of Gilgit-Baltistan through a webinar on Saturday.

The online discussion was arranged by the National Workers Front Gilgit-Baltistan that generated a lively debate on environmental conservation and the national question of the region, in the backdrop of a recent decision by the PTI government to create two more ‘national’ parks as well as declare significant water bodies and lakes as “protected areas” in the jurisdiction of GB that is an internationally acknowledged disputed territory and part of the larger Kashmir conflict.

The recent wave of acquiring land in the name of national parks has been triggering a strong debate on social media.

The session was moderated by Anayat Baig, a member of the National Workers’ Front Gilgit-Baltistan and co-hosted by Anmol. The participation of people from across GB, Pakistan and abroad was overwhelming. More than 200 people attended the webinar.

Biodiversity Conservation 

Dr Nosheen explained about the people’s struggle in GB over the last three decades in response to the Central Karakoram National Park and (CKNP) and Khunjerab National Park (KNP). She exhorted on the understanding of this history to chart a way forward.

She explained in detail about the concept of qudrat, mukaddas makhlooq, (nature, sacred creatures) and intimate bonds between indigenous people and nature, guided by certain beliefs and practices that together ensured ecological resilience and cultural survival. She advocated that local environmental paradigms and knowledge traditions are intellectual and ecological heritage, and practices of conservation by the indigenous people such as suji mal, shawanan, and muqadas jangli hayat (scared wildlife) convey respect, co-existence, and co-constitution with wildlife and spirits (local philosophies) rather than new forms of control in the language of “management.” 

She also explained that “the notion of community is not limited to humans, but inclusive of many living beings and forces.”

Indigenously controlled and owned areas that define Gilgit-Baltistan as a political unit – now under so-called national parks – may in a way be seen as already ecologically and culturally protected areas, hospitable to multiple species through deep connection and “inclusive” approaches.

Dr Nosheen who teaches at New York University contested the international discourse of biodiversity conservation that separates the indigenous people from other living species. She also questioned the elite class and bureaucracy’s neoliberal mindset of “empty landscape” towards people and wildlife in GB. 

Dilating on the connection between commercial interests and conservation, she argued that “national parks are, in fact, projects for corporate powers and ruling elite to make money from nature which is now referred to as ‘fortress model of conservation’.

She cited the example of Africa and other countries where people were dispossessed and evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation.

“Eviction has been central to the formation of national parks in Africa and Third World countries. Conservation refugees who have been dispossessed of their lands and rights are common,” she stated. 

Addressing the question of “rational” conservation, Dr Nosheen said the neoliberal management rhetoric focuses only on single-animal numerical approach that disrupts interspecies relations. 

She termed the approach ‘market logic’ and ‘market value’ which are the biggest threat to wildlife. But threats are constructed around “grazing” by local people, local hunting, and everything local. 

GB’s invisibilisation 

Talking about the identity, colonisation and ‘national’ construction of Gilgit-Baltistan, she said “GB has already been invisibilized in national, tourist-centred discourse. Conservation discourse is an additional invisibilizing mechanism that reduces GB to ‘pristine nature’, and has been a powerful tool for colonising and domination.”

She further stated: “I was often told by the proponents of conservation that law enforcement was the main answer for conservation even in the 2000s. That communities lie and cannot be trusted. That we will give them hunting revenue if they sign off their lands and accept the national park.”

Dr Nosheen critiqued the practices of trophy hunting — which while generating revenue — reduces wildlife to sports and white fantasies of power. These uses are legitimized while local perceptions towards nature preservation in the true sense are manipulated and lost.  

CKNP and KNP

About the alternative community-driven and managed biodiversity conservation models, she cited the examples of Rakaposhi Community Park in Nager and Shimshal Nature Trust (SNT) in upper Hunza.

“Both are local resistances and innovative vocabulary to challenge conservation by whom and for whom,” she argued.

CKNP was an unimaginably fantastic project of “imposed wilderness” against inhabited villages, reducing much of Gilgit-Baltistan to a national park on a grand scale. GB is not a national park, but a geographically, culturally unique entity inhabited by multi-cultural and multi-lingual indigenous communities who have been historically settled in the region. 

The rulers have always prioritized foreign funding in development and conservation discourse tied to making community ownership disappear. Capitalism has a long history of dispossessing people of their land and resources and neoliberal conservation is a new tool in perpetuating corporate greed, colonization and creating hegemony, she explained.

She deconstructed the contradiction in the neoliberal conservation mantra. On the one hand, they are propagating the claim of endangered species but on the other hand, they are destroying them through first-world desires, especially sport hunting trophy hunting which has been declared illegal in North America.

The mindset of people is changed through unequal power dynamics and the very deep egalitarianism towards nature is threatened. Initially, it was about the protection of wildlife for which specific areas were used to be conserved.

Now they are no longer sacred or “preserved” because all is up for sale and tourist intrusion. This is of devastating social and ecological consequence. In academic discourse reduction of common property regimes into making people disappear themselves is called “enclosures”. She strongly advocated for local resistance to reverse this process and cited SNT sustainable indigenous movement.

The collective lands and resources of GB could be protected by convincing people that putting up a resistance against commodified conservation and militarization is not traitors. She also gave the example of the local community’s resistance against a Chinese company Yanda International, which has been given a lease for placer gold exploration and mining in Shimshal. 

She suggested that there should be a moratorium on mining in GB. 

Responding to questions from the audience, she said creating parks on the model of neoliberal conservation is in fact sustainable destruction of nature and reducing it to objects of wealth and earning. 

She concluded the talk with highlighting role of women in conservation.  

Complete video of the session here: https://youtu.be/IgCII09Bh2w

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