The Biopolitics of Conservation

Millions of India’s indigenous tribal people are threatened by the invalidation of the Forest Rights Act. Source: Survival International

The concept of biopolitics, first discussed in detail by the philosopher Michel Foucault, has been of great use to theorists and critics in understanding many aspects of modern political life. In this article, I want to show that biopolitics can inform environmental activism to the detriment of human rights, especially those of indigenous and tribal people.

Biopolitics refers to a kind of political rationality. It seeks to administer life and populations, to ensure that the ‘right’ kind of life develops within those populations and is properly organised. In his commentary, Foucault contrasts biopolitics with older forms of sovereign power which had the right to decide life and death for their subjects. Relatedly, biopolitics involves the power to foster and encourage life, or to discourage it to the point of death. Unsurprisingly, Foucault explicitly links biopolitics to racism: the goal of biopolitics is the ‘improvement’ of a society, attained by giving aid certain groups and disallowing others. Disallowing does not necessarily involve killing outright but can involve a kind of ‘malignant neglect’ in which certain groups are allowed to fester in poverty, homelessness, and illness without protection from the state. It can also, however, involve the use of violent force.

In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, the writer Rebecca Solnit argued that there exists an almost unbridgeable gap between racism and violence on one side and the environmentalist movement on the other. The image of the environmentalist movement presented by Solnit is an inspiring one, but it is also, sadly, an overly romantic and ultimately incorrect image. In reality, environmentalists have at times committed gross acts of violence and racism, most often against indigenous people, in the name of their cause.

A recent Indian Supreme Court ruling shows that the environmentalist movement is at times anything but free from dangerous biopolitical tendencies. This ruling ordered a mass eviction of indigenous forest-dwelling people from their lands because of the alleged threat they pose to the environment in protected areas. The Supreme Court made its decision in response to calls by conservationist groups who see these indigenous groups as interfering with their environmental protection work.

According to a 2011 census, these tribal people – referred to as Adivasi – total 104 million, roughly 9% of the total population of India. This makes them the largest indigenous population of any country in the world. The Supreme Court ruling has invalidated the 2006 Forest Rights Act, which granted Adivasi people the right to live on their ancestral land, including areas which were set apart for environmental protection. This Act was one which sought to undo historic injustices inflicted upon India’s tribal communities, giving tribal councils the power to reject foreign companies’ plans to mine in their homeland.

Up to 8 million Adivasi will be evicted from their homelands because of the Supreme Court ruling. These are tribal groups who constitute “among the poorest, most neglected and marginalised of India’s communities”. The ruling threatens to make the Adivasi into what Survival International call “conservation refugees”, a title which is most commonly applicable to indigenous peoples. The dispossession of tribal people from their land entails serious human rights violations. Their displacement throws whole communities into poverty, leading to illness and malnutrition; even if they attempt to join new societies, indigenous communities commonly face racial discrimination, making integration difficult. This can be seen as an example of biopolitics in action: a group seen as inconvenient or inferior is disallowed through dispossession, homelessness, impoverishment, and discrimination. The fact that the Indian government did not send a lawyer to defend the rights of its indigenous citizens in court serves to highlight the complicity of the Indian state in this biopolitically-motivated human rights abuse.

Arguments in favour of the Supreme Court ruling were made by various conservation groups, including Wildlife First, the Wildlife Trust of India, and Conservation Action Trust, among others. According to Debi Goenka, the leader of the latter group, tribal people’s encroachment on protected areas constitutes a threat to both the forests themselves and to the forest-dependent rivers of India. This can be seen as an environmentalist form of biopolitics: Indian society depends on its forests and rivers, and so to defend Indian society this minority group must be dispossessed of its lands. This can be seen all the more clearly when we compare Goenka’s statement with that of Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, who claimed that the ruling constitutes “a death sentence… It will lead to wholesale misery, impoverishment, disease and death”.

In reality, claims – such as those made by Goenka – that tribal people threaten the environment are not only dangerous but also simply incorrect. Studies have found that indigenous groups know what is best for their local environments and are generally better at protecting it than even well-informed outsiders. Indeed, since protected areas are often turned into parks which are open to tourists, attempts to protect wildlife often serve to damage biodiversity. An example of this can be seen in attempts by African national parks and reserves to cater to tourists by breeding animals which tourists prefer to see, such as lions and elephants, beyond levels that the local environment can sustain. Aside from this, while indigenous people make up just 5% of the world’s population, the lands on which they live contain 80% of global biodiversity. This fact alone should be proof enough that tribal people such as the Adivasi do not constitute a threat to their environments but are beneficial to them. Free from outside influence and land exploitation, indigenous communities live far more harmoniously with nature than the majority of civilisations.

Yet despite this, it is almost always indigenous and tribal people who are dispossessed, often by force, by conservationist activities. The World Wildlife Fund has come under criticism recently for funding guards in protected areas who committed numerous atrocities such as torture, rape, and murder against tribal people they were attempting to force from their homes, only to then cover up these horrific human rights violations. This is evidence of overt violence being used against indigenous groups in the name of environmental protection: violence like that utilised by any other ideology, but here motivated by biopolitics and a claim to protect nature. Cases such as this are far from the exception: Survival International has long noted the pattern of conservationist activity involving acts of violence against tribal people. This does not bode well for the Adivasi people who are due to be forced from their lands by the end of July this year.

To be clear, none of what I am saying here is meant to be an attack on environmentalism – the movement is broad and multifaceted, and in most instances utterly abhors violence and racism. Environmental protection and the prevention of global warming are among the most important tasks of our time. The goal of this article is not to undermine these tasks but is rather to point out that there is no necessary separation between environmental protection and human rights abuses. To deny this fact is dangerously naïve and will only allow such abuses to continue with impunity. Biopolitical threats can seep into many kinds of political activity, and this is why it is so vital that the environmentalist movement always keep the protection of human rights as one of its top priorities.

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