Saba Sean Thackurdeen is a conservationist and anthropologist who has spent close to a decade working to uplift nature, people, and their wellbeing, with experience that includes working in the space of interdisciplinary research, community advocacy, and social enterprise. As part of the Future of Conservation NGOs project, they explore how the conservation sector can confront its uncomfortable colonial past and address it in its modern-day legacy.
Too often, in passing conversations on social change, does the word “radical” conjure a future that seems a fundamental break from reality. Anything radical seems beyond moderation. It is often associated with extreme views, especially from a political standpoint.
But the etymology of the term refers to the word ‘root’. Radicals aim to dive deep into the ‘root’ of the challenges, unearth the complexities, and interconnectedness of the problems, fixing their gaze on the systemic and structural issues plaguing the space. Therefore, the general resistance to the word “radical” can be read as either a resistance to reinvestigate root systems or moreover a resistance to uproot them.
Many people prefer to avoid conversations around radical futures that could imply a net loss for them in terms of money, power, and influence. Even many in favour of changing the status quo seem to be wary of the word “radical” and prefer the more reassuring “progressive”.
The use of “radical” seems to suggest a future disjointed by anything good in the present or the past, but it should be remembered that futures can be perceived as radical just because they are rooted in the past.
In the conservation domain, where the persistence of deep-rooted legacy issues like neo-colonial mindsets and practices invite us to approach history critically, to talk about futures rooted in the past can be challenging.
Exploiting natural resources for industrial development, with little consideration for the long-term impacts on the local communities, has been the blueprint since the dawn of the industrial era, and is rooted in a colonial approach to the world. The very foundation of the nature conservation sector rests on this colonial concept of land acquisition and alienation of indigenous peoples from their natural environments, structured to favour the political and social elites but framed as a “social good”.1
Moreover, the majority of conservation practices and projects follow the ideas rooted in the global North and in Western science, which tends to posit that academic knowledge and understanding are superior to the experiences, practices and beliefs of local communities.1
The persistence of these deep-rooted legacy issues, mindsets, and practices invites us to approach history critically.
In the Future of Conservation NGO report published by the Luc Hoffmann Institute, four key themes of change are highlighted, which suggest possible conservation futures. Among the priorities is a call to decolonise international conservation organisations and empower local community actors, as pathways for transformative change.
In suggesting such approaches, a fundamental question is posed: what happens to large conservation NGOs as they are decolonised? Indeed, what role will large transnational NGOs play in this future? What actions can they take in the present to decolonise conservation?
Going back to the roots and honestly and critically examining them is challenging but can also be rewarding work for big international NGOs. Our grieving and healing (from individual, to organisational to societal and eco-systemic) can be helped by acknowledging and reconnecting with these very roots and putting them in right relations.
It begins with understanding and acknowledging how privileges and the associated power dynamics impact conservation work.
A great starting point is a deep interrogation into the organisations’ underlying philosophies; combing through the original manifestos, reviewing vision and mission statements, analysing the staffing and recruitment policies, the makeup of the board and the approaches, and structures not only from a social and environmental justice viewpoint but also with the intention to dismantle any internalised colonial legacies and racism.
At the forefront of the nature conservation sector, and even in big international NGOs, people are beginning to reconsider what they mean by “wilderness” (challenging the idea that pristine nature must be free of human intervention)2 and what is considered as “legitimate knowledge” (learning from indigenous communities about coexistence). Throughout the sector, there is a call for deep introspection, profound sense-making, and a fundamental shift in focus and efforts engaging with plural voices, perspectives, cultures and knowledge to co-create effective conservation solutions.
Some institutions are beginning to swim against the flow, presenting intriguing alternatives to prevailing models. One such example, albeit not in the conservation sector, is The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. It is part of an increasing number of European museums that are challenging and questioning their colonial past and institutional legacies. In 2013 the museum put together an exhibit (integrated within the main gallery, in 2022) that thoughtfully interrogated the lives and experiences of peoples living in the Dutch East Indies and enabled critical reflection about the Dutch colonial past and the museums own institutional complicity in it.
As we turn to our collective future it is fascinating to note that for some big international NGOs imagining a new future would perhaps require contemplating their own demise and embracing the idea of being replaced by smaller and community-led institutions or entities.
Perhaps the most pressing, radical question conservation NGOs now need to ask themselves is, is it possible to continue to reform and modify the current approaches and practices with the intention to improve them, or is it necessary to begin anew?
The content of this thought piece represents the author's own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the Future of Conservation NGOs project, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.