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Adamson: 'Soft eviction' is modern version of Manifest Destiny

If one had been able, 150 years ago, to assume a place on high and see Manifest Destiny for what it was in 19th century America, two features would have stood out like lights. Most obviously to us now, Manifest Destiny was a doctrine of seizure that gave the name of godliness to the dispossession of indigenous tribes. Just ask the Mewoc, who were driven off their land for what some would consider the first conservationist park - Yellowstone.

Less obviously from where we sit today, it was also irresistible magic to a people enamored of property as the passport to wealth - sweeping all before it, silencing opposition, calling God to witness while suborning our better instincts.

Manifest Destiny functions differently today. Instead of taking land from indigenous peoples by armed force, today national governments, hand-in-glove with select environmental conservationists, take indigenous peoples from their lands (which are re-christened "protected areas") in procedures collectively known as "soft eviction." The so-called higher good here is to conserve the environment.

One understands the instinct. Most of us won't need to be convinced that environmental conservation is a good and needed thing - not in an age when species after species are perishing, when the ice fields of Mount Kilimanjaro are being reduced to snow melt by human activity after nature had maintained them intact for countless centuries, not when potable water supplies are being systematically fouled and food sources "bio-engineered" to decommission natural evolution, not when the last pockets of pristine ecosystems are coming under siege from predatory developers.

But for conservation to succeed, local peoples must embrace it and work together with others to build solutions for our planet. That is where indigenous peoples come in. For one primary reason - most of them have been stewards of their land's resources, rather than reckless predators - and one secondary reason - many either inhabit from time immemorial, or have been manipulated onto remote lands that were uneconomical to develop until technology had advanced to its present pitch and natural resources elsewhere had been depleted. For these two reasons, indigenous peoples occupy a preponderance of our planet's so-called "hot spots" of biological diversity.

These hot spots comprise some of Mother Earth's last outposts of natural resources that have gone untapped by development processes such as extractive mining and tourism. They are called hot spots because the forces of development are out to change all that, while non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, within the international conservationist movement hope to protect these resources.

The positions of indigenous groups may vary at the margins, but in the main they seek recognized tenure in their own homelands and a say in any resource development process that concerns their territories. One hundred times out of 100 times, this will put them in some degree of conflict with their own national government.

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But to work at all within the biodiversity hot spots that fall within indigenous dominions, international conservationist organizations need partners within the country. Often as not, they are willing to mix with some very dodgy national regimes to acquire an indigenous "partner." Once the conservationists are in-country, so to speak, the strategies of "soft eviction" often begin to play out around indigenous communities that may not be well-versed in this particular threat to their homelands.

Their homelands may be upgraded to park status, but services to their communities cut. Their communities may be rated, as in Thailand, for "removal-worthiness" (for lack of a better term). Their own "tenure-mapping" processes may be countered by a mapping project at cross-purposes with the community - instead of mapping those areas where community members go, the outside project maps those areas where they don't go as a pretext for extending the boundaries of a nature reserve.

At the extremity of such soft-eviction stratagems, indigenous peoples are whisked away and their homelands become a national park, nature reserve or "protected area." In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, park personnel have replaced the indigenous pygmies.

Now, to establish pristine unpeopled reserves where people once dwelt and had their being is an archetypal Western approach to problem-solving - isolate the problem in a laboratory setting.

Such an approach can yield solid positive results for conservation (though a minimum standard must be that if indigenous peoples are not directly and actively involved in the conservation effort, international conservationist NGOs should not exploit them in their materials).

But it's an approach that has inherent problems for the give-and-take of coexistence within complex ecosystems, as we've had occasion to discover many, many times over. For indigenous victims, "soft eviction" is as hard-edged as its forebear.

Rebecca Adamson is the president of First Nations Development Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.