Saturday, January 24, 2015

Latin America and the US Wilderness Act

Joining pieces by Donald Worster and Libby Robin in Environmental History's roundtable on the US Wilderness Act of 1964 is one by Emily Wakild, "Acts of Courage, Acts of Culture: The Wilderness Act and Latin America". Wakild writes that the history of parks in Latin America defies the social critiques of wilderness that have been advanced in recent years:
In 1940 Mexico had more national parks than any country in the world. Nestled among pine and fir forests, sprawling across volcanoes in the shadow of Mexico City, these parks bore the mark of a particular kind of conservation. Linked to the Mexican Revolution, a vibrant and widespread battle for social justice from 1910 to 1940, the most representative government in the nation’s history created parks as one of many components of a pervasive policy transformation that sought to elevate and empower working Mexicans by providing labor protections, redistributing land, invigorating education, and implementing meaningful political reforms in accord with the Constitution of 1917. While these parks protected natural scenery and had wild components (forests, lakes, glaciers), they were emphatically parks designed for people—places for rural and urban workers to relax or to find new livelihoods in tourism. At their creation, no wilderness whispered in these woods and no wildlife ran in these ecosystems; this was conservation in service of the poor and vulnerable, conservation with social objectives, conservation with people at the center. Today, nearly every remaining swath of greenery gasping for air in the Valley of Mexico is one of these emblems of the revolutionary movement—social justice stitched into the landscape as conservation.
Nahuel Huapi Park, Argentina, the first national park (1903) in South America
Critiques of wilderness have become rote in the past twenty years, perhaps overly so. Consider the history of Mexican national parks in reference to the rise of “new conservation” laid out most emphatically (and hubristically) by Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michele Marvier in 2011. They called for conservation to move beyond parks and protected areas and into programs for rural development and human well-being. They argue that “the modern protection of supposed wilderness often involves resettling large numbers of people” and that “ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature.” Both claims play into a classic trope, one that places indigenous and non-Western peoples at the mercy of Northern scientists and overlooks their own agency to build and create rather than to merely react. Not only is there little new about proposals to merge working and natural landscapes—a move Mexicans (and likely others) pioneered in the 1930s—but there is little to show that this will result in improved livelihoods or more vibrant natural spaces. Has conservation alone solved problems of poverty, inequality, and uneven development? No, and that is not what it set out to do. But to assert that conservation has caused these problems, or even has been complicit in them, is to ignore conceptions of conservation and wilderness that do not translate into a US-centered narrative of nature protection. 
There's lots more of interest here.

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