Mark Dowie among the indigenes


Mark Dowie in Belize (photo by Peter Poole)For Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, investigative journalist Mark Dowie traveled around the world talking with indigenous people struggling to hold on to homelands declared as conservation areas.

One afternoon in Berkeley, California – a city filled with cars and the clatter of urban life – Dowie shared his thoughts about the people he met in jungles and grasslands, the movement they’ve made, and the price of his journey. – Carol Polsgrove, September 2010

Mark, what started you on this path?

Like so many things, it was an accidental meeting. I was making a speech in Ottawa, and afterwards a Cherokee woman came up to me and said, “Do you know about conservation refugees? Do you know what they are?” I said, “No, I don’t know what they are.” And she told me what they were, and that set me on the course of doing the book. I started out just doing an article and then people said, “You should spin this up into a book.”

But it was serendipitous because at the same time there were scholars writing about this concept of conservation refugees, weren’t there?

There were a few that had taken an interest in the displacement of people in the cause of conservation – very, very few. You can count them on one hand, really. A couple in the UK, a couple in Africa, one at Cornell, one who is now at Dartmouth was at the University of Colorado – really maybe two hands worldwide. And they all networked, and I got into their network and still am in their network. And they’re strategizing about what to do academically and what to do for native people who are still being displaced.

National parks are only one form of conservation area, protected area. Some are more rigid in terms of their exclusion and some are less rigid. There were six categories of protected areas, now seven, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The seventh one is the exciting one – it’s called community conservation areas, CCAs, or it’s sometimes called IPCAs  – Indigenous People’s Conservation Areas. The seventh was formed as a consequence of all the activity, including my book, that has raised attention about the millions of people who have been displaced in the interest of conservation.

This has all happened – the new attention – in the last five to ten years?

Yes, five. You know the way the attention gets reflected is not so much in media. Media raise the question. Where the attention gets expressed is through funding. So the foundations and nonprofits and government agencies and quasi-government agencies like the World Bank that were funding conservation started getting a lot of heat from indigenous people about funding conservation that was destroying their livelihoods. Then articles like mine and books like mine also came to their attention, and they started reconsidering the funding. And once you start reconsidering funding, you change the course of history, you change the policies and practices of grant recipients.

So the conservation groups now all have offices – the big ones, the BINGOS, the Big International NGOs – they all have offices in indigenous relations. They’ve all issued proclamations of commitment to fairness and justice for indigenous people. A lot of them have endorsed the UN declaration on indigenous rights. So rhetorically, they’re coming around, but the way big organizations work, they always come around rhetorically before they actually come around.

Do you think that just your act of reporting on this and their awareness that you were writing about it raised the level of their interest?

Absolutely. And not me alone.

Everybody –

Including the academics.

Mainly anthropologists?

There was an anthropologist named Mac Chapin in Washington who wrote a really, really devastating article in Worldwatch Journal in 2004. It was after I started this work, and it was indicting the foundations, it was indicting the funders, for allowing this to happen on their watch, allowing their grant-makers to abuse the rights of native people around the world. That more than any other single paper redirected the foundation world and really shook up the world of global conservation. Of course they attacked him, and they denied it, but he had the goods on them.

You have given a really good overview in your book of what’s happening at this big level, but you also went to some of these places and talked to indigenous people. Where did you go?

I’ve lost count of how many communities I actually visited, but I visited communities on every continent, except Antarctica where there are no communities, to get a sense of the global nature of this practice. Africa’s obviously the worst. A guy named Charles Geisler at Cornell – a rural sociologist – he actually made a study of conservation displacement in Africa and came up with the figure 14 million over the last 100 years displaced in Africa in the conservation process. And taking that number, and adding the best numbers that I could find from other continents in the world, I would put the figure around 20 million in a century.

Is there a number of how many indigenous people  are living in, say, a “traditional” way?

About 350 million.

Do you think that most of us in the United States really have a sense of what that means?

No. I think that most people in the U.S. neither have a sense of it nor care. I think there’s still a feeling that people who have not bought into the money economy and who have not bought into the technological culture are somehow primitive and less worthy of attention and protection than people who have. Just take for example the basic World Bank definition of poverty. It is based on income. I found people who had never touched money in their life who to me were living very wealthy lives. They were healthy, they were fed, their children were happy. They were incredibly peaceful amongst themselves, and they were happy people. They were, by any definition of the word, very wealthy.

We might wonder if they may be a model for the post-industrial age –

The post-apocalyptic age –

Or is that just a romantic idea – that in retaining these cultures we may be providing a basis for the future?

I think that cultural diversity is as important to the world as biological diversity. I think they’re actually inseparable, and if we lose one I think we’re going to lose the other. You raise an interesting point when you say, “Is it just a romantic notion?” Many, many times when I’d be speaking or writing or doing radio on this, people would call in or just ask me, “Aren’t you a romantic?”

I don’t believe that all indigenous people are saints or perfect or deserve the protection that most of them do. Some of them are abusing their own land. Some of them are buying into the whole development-extraction thing and allowing themselves to be bought off and brought into the very bottom of the money economy and have become destructive in that process, and I visited places like that along the way.

So I don’t have a romantic notion about all indigenous people being great stewards of the land. But I do believe that a lot of what good happens in the world is driven by romance. So I take the indictment of being a romantic as sort of a badge of honor. I don’t totally deny it because I believe that all of the best things that have happened in our society have been driven by romantic notions about the people we’re trying to protect. I guess I come from a tradition that believes that all people are at some level worthy of protection. If that’s romantic, so be it. I think that a lot of our movements – for civil rights and women’s rights and voting rights and labor rights – are driven by romantics and idealists. I don’t think romantics or romanticism should be dismissed out of hand. But if somebody’s being romantic about something that isn’t worthy of romanticism –

Had you done much reporting on indigenous people before or had encounters with indigenous cultures before you did this book?

Yes, but not very much. It certainly had not been part of my “beat,” as it were.

What would you say you learned as a human being from visiting indigenous villages, communities?

I learned more about my own culture than I did about theirs because there’s such a contrast between traditional, isolated cultures and communities of people who are living in very, very remote – some of them almost uncontacted – parts of the world. You immerse yourself in those communities for a while and you start to see how ungentle, and in a way violent, our own culture is, and how distorted its values are, in terms of wealth, but also in terms of happiness and loyalty and children.

I can’t tell you how many days I’ve spent in isolated communities and never heard a child whine or cry. Never. And watched children play for hours with each other in the most friendly, collegial way. You go into a school anywhere in America now and you go into a playground and half the kids are beating up the other half. There’s a lot of violence in the playground which you just don’t see in those communities.

So it made me think more about my own culture than it did about theirs. What is wrong? What are we doing wrong to instill all this violence? I don’t mean just overt violence, I mean verbal violence and xenophobia and hostility and distrust. What is it in our culture that breeds that? You look at these simple, simple communities, of people living very, very simple lives and say, “Maybe that’s the answer.”

How did they respond to you?

In various ways. Some are very welcoming, some are very suspicious because the last person that came in there was somebody who was representing a construction company who wanted to build a big dam. Or the last encounter they had with their own government would be with the military, which happens in Brazil and the Amazon all the time. Or it was an anthropologist who came in who wrote a story that they couldn’t read and went home and made money selling the story. Journalists do the same thing.

There’s a certain amount of distrust in overexposed indigenous communities towards journalists and anthropologists. More than once I was accused of “stealing our story.” “You just come in, you interview us. You go home and write a colorful article. You’re paid $5,000, and it doesn’t do us any good,” although on one occasion when that happened I was sitting next to a guy I was travelling with who was giving money away to indigenous organizations and tribes in Africa. And I pointed to him and said, “This guy wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t read something I wrote about another indigenous community.” I think that kind of distrust comes from a certain amount of misunderstanding. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it to make change, to try to draw attention to their plight.

But I’ve found generally that native people love to have visitors. They are very, very generous. I can’t tell you how many times I went into a community where they would eat meat once a month because that’s all the meat they had and the minute I came in somebody would run off into the jungle, you’d hear a firearm, and the next thing you know, they’d bring an animal home to cook. Meat is like celebration, it’s like champagne, and they would share it – share everything. Most of them are very, very sharing cultures.

How did you know where to go – did you have anthropologists who said, “You really ought to have a look at this place”?

Anthropologists and activists and NGOs. There’s a group, for example, called Amazon Watch that basically watches the treatment of native people in the Amazon Basin, which is the largest rainforest in the world. I don’t know how many separate tribes of people there are in that whole basin. Amazon Watch has contact with them all. There are two big organizations that watch over indigenous rights and people. One is an American group called Cultural Survival, and the other is an English group called Survival International, and they know everybody. I stayed in touch with them.

While I was writing the book, I actually did some work as a communications consultant for a group in Washington called First Peoples Worldwide, which is an organization that is defending the rights and property and assets of native people around the world, and they were very, very helpful because they knew who everybody was. I actually travelled with them a couple of times to different places. And they would have these small conferences – I went to one in Belize, another one in Fiji that they sponsored.

The great thing about those conferences is that they’re bringing a hundred people from a hundred different communities, so a lot of the interviews I got, I wasn’t in the community, I was interviewing community leaders in these conferences. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the big umbrella organization based in Switzerland that all conservation groups are part of ­– they have a lot of corporate members, too, and nation-states – it’s huge. The first IUCN conference I went to, in Bangkok, there were 6,000 people, and the second I went to, in Barcelona, there were 8,000 people in attendance.

The reason I went to the IUCN conferences is that in recent years – maybe the last five quadrennial meetings of the IUCN – hundreds of indigenous people turned up there to lobby the conservationists, to say, “Will you please stop doing this?” – trying to make the case with the conservationists that they are the ultimate stewards and saying that the reason you want to put this piece of land under protection is because we’ve been good stewards of it for 2000 years. Let us stay. Don’t kick us out. You kick us out, you turn us into embittered former landowners. We’ll go in there and poach, we’ll go in there and take honey, we’ll go in there to visit our ancestors’ graves. We’ll go back in. You can’t keep us out. So if you want to create an embittered class of former residents of protected areas, go ahead and kick us out. If you want good stewards who’ll stay on the land, let us stay.

So they’re going now to international conferences and beating away, beating away at that message on the NGOs and the funders of the NGOs, and they’re starting to listen.

To me the most amazing social movement in my lifetime and maybe in the history of the world is the international movement of indigenous people because you’re talking about 350 million people scattered all over the world. They occupy about 20 percent of the land surface of the world because they’re spread out. They speak about 6,500 separate languages. They have no technology to speak of. I’d say their illiteracy rate approaches 90 percent. They’re very nervous travelers and they’re coming out of little jungle villages and getting onto planes and staying in hotels.

They have managed over the last 75 years to cobble together this remarkable international movement for indigenous rights, which has been very successful in recent years, most recently in the reflection of the UN declaration of indigenous rights which took 11 years for them to hammer through the UN. I’ve been to many of their meetings where just indigenous people are meeting to discuss their problems – conservation, they’ve realized, is one of their big problems, so when that’s on the agenda I invite myself to their meetings, and I’m often the only white person in the room.

When you went to indigenous communities, you presumably had to have a translator.

Not only a translator. Sometimes I’d have to have two translators. Because you’d be going to where somebody would speak Quichua and Spanish, and I’d have to have another who spoke Spanish to English. In one incident I also had to have a bodyguard because the translator that I went with – this was in Peru, Sindero Luminoso country – he wouldn’t go there without a bodyguard. I had to raise money from a local foundation just to pay my bodyguard for about a week.

I wonder if you felt at all constrained by the book’s status as an academic press book to play down yourself as a reporter.

I would often introduce myself as a research historian, which was what my title was at MIT. If I thought that title was more likely to open the door than journalist or author or researcher, I would use it.

The academic press in America is changing because the universities that at one point controlled and subsidized those presses are kind of letting them go adrift, at least economically, and this is what happened at MIT, which is why I published three books there. The press went back to the academy and said, “Okay, you can put us adrift economically, but we want to start doing trade books, it’s the only way we’re going to stay alive.”

I’m really a trade book writer, although my books have to go through the rigors of peer review. They are trade books, and they’re marketed as trade books, although they’re full of footnotes, so MIT and the University of California and a lot of university presses are doing that more and more – not just academic treatises and dissertations but books that are sold in Border’s.

So when you were working on the book did you feel that you were treated in any way differently by editors because they were working for an academic press, or did they behave pretty much like trade book editors?

They behaved much better than trade book editors. The last book I did for a trade press was St. Martin’s Press, and that was such a bad experience that I really thought twice about ever going back to the trades if I could help it. I actually did one book which I researched at MIT, but they didn’t want to publish it so I took it to a trade  publisher, and that was alright because I’d already finished the book and I didn’t have to live with an editor for four years asking for changes in structure and frame and everything.

A lot of my friends who write for the trades – we sit down and have a beer every now and then, and they tell me these horror stories about the fact that their editor didn’t even read the book and farmed out the editing to some dingbat that couldn’t spell. I just heard these horror stories one after another – that the trade publications are more interested in the business plan than they are in the outline of the book.

So I’ve just decided I stay with MIT. I’ve had the same editor for three books, and he’s a great guy.

And the peer review process – you didn’t find that burdensome?

Not burdensome. Peer review is a mixed thing. They’ll put [the manuscript] out to three to five peers. If a majority of the peers say no, they just kill the book right there. The book I did before this one was a very controversial book – it was a history of philanthropic foundations, and a lot of people in the world rely on the largesse of foundations. And my book was not foundation funded so I really took the gloves off.

They did put it out to five reviewers and for a while it was tied, two-to-two. The fifth reviewer was quite late. So I sat on tenterhooks because all he had to do was say “No” and the book was dead, or I would have to find another publisher, but he gave it the best review of all. So that part of it is very tense.

The value of peer review is that they correct a lot of little niggling things like middle initials and dates and titles. The downside of it is that they tend to go primarily to academics, and academics will look at my work and just reflexively attack my scholarship. And I’m not a scholar. I tell my editor, when you send mine out, tell these people I am not a scholar, I am not an academic, I am a journalist that you have hired to do a trade book for you.

Can we talk about the finance of putting together a book like this?

MIT puts up – the lowest I’ve ever had is $6,000, the highest is $10,000, as an advance – but the reason MIT happened was because I’d written an essay for World Policy Journal about the environmental movement, and somebody showed it to an editor at MIT press and said, “You should have him spin this up into a book. This is really a valuable critique of the environmental movement.”

So they approached me and said, “Would you do a book?” and I said, “Fine, make me an offer.” And they said 5 or 6 thousand dollars. And I said, “I’m not a Nobel Laureate and I don’t have a salary. I know that all your other authors are tenured professors with six-figure salaries. I’ve got to make a living.” And they said, “We’ll get back to you.” So a week later, the editor at the press got back to me and said, “The university will take you on, will give you a fellowship.”

What it amounted to was an unendowed position. But I knew because I’d raised money for Mother Jones’ Investigative Fund that if I had an imprimatur like MIT, I could raise the money I needed. I think I raised all the money I needed for that book with five or six letters. It took me about three weeks. So that wasn’t that expensive a book because I wasn’t really traveling. This last book took me over four years and cost over $100,000.

Because of all the travel –

But I was able to raise that.  I had two things going for me. One, I knew where the money was because I’d raised a lot of money from my ten years at Mother Jones, and some of those people were very committed. There are two or three, four people who have given me money for everything I’ve ever done. I go back to them first, of course, and I think only once one of them said no. They’re networked with other people, and I always say, “Who else do you think would be interested? At Mother Jones I had a Rolodex of 300  people –

You were publisher for how long at Mother Jones?

For about five years and I was the investigative editor and I raised all the investigative money for Mother Jones during those years. That’s one thing, and then, I have to say, immodestly, I had a pretty good track record. I had produced, not just for these funders. By the end of my journalism career when I started calling myself a historian, I had 19 journalism awards, I’d published 200 investigative articles, I had four National Magazine Awards, I’d been a National Magazine finalist seven times, I had a reputation, I had a track record, I had things to show.

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