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Hardcover | $28.95 Trade | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780262012614 | 376 pp. | 6 x 9 in | March 2009
Paperback | $17.95 Trade | £12.95 | ISBN: 9780262516006 | 376 pp. | 6 x 9 in | February 2011

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Conservation Refugees

The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples


Since 1900, more than 108,000 officially protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely at the urging of five international conservation organizations. About half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. Millions who had been living sustainably on their land for generations were displaced in the interests of conservation. In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie tells this story.

This is a "good guy vs. good guy" story, Dowie writes; the indigenous peoples’ movement and conservation organizations have a vital common goal—to protect biological diversity—and could work effectively and powerfully together to protect the planet and preserve species and ecosystem diversity. Yet for more than a hundred years, these two forces have been at odds. The result: thousands of unmanageable protected areas and native peoples reduced to poaching and trespassing on their ancestral lands or "assimilated" but permanently indentured on the lowest rungs of the economy.

Dowie begins with the story of Yosemite National Park, which by the turn of the twentieth century established a template for bitter encounters between native peoples and conservation. He then describes the experiences of other groups, ranging from the Ogiek and Maasai of eastern Africa and the Pygmies of Central Africa to the Karen of Thailand and the Adevasis of India. He also discusses such issues as differing definitions of "nature" and "wilderness," the influence of the "BINGOs" (Big International NGOs, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy), the need for Western scientists to respect and honor traditional lifeways, and the need for native peoples to blend their traditional knowledge with the knowledge of modern ecology. When conservationists and native peoples acknowledge the interdependence of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, Dowie writes, they can together create a new and much more effective paradigm for conservation.

About the Author

Award-winning journalist Mark Dowie is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, American Foundations: An Investigative History (both published by the MIT Press), and four other books.


"Far from being a hysterical diatribe...this exceptionally researched and documented study provides authoritative guidance toward a diverse and sustainable future.", Richard W. Grefrath, Magill Book Reviews

"A beautiful balance of critique and sympathy."—Publishers Weekly


"Mark Dowie is, pound for pound, one of the best investigative journalists around."
Studs Terkel, author of Working

"As a journalist, Mark Dowie has always been a few steps ahead of the pack, and with Conservation Refugees he's once again staked out a difficult and fascinating terrain: the indigenous peoples that, all the way back to the founding of Yosemite, have been invisible or worse to the conservation movement. A vision of wilderness that makes no place for people has long held sway in environmental circles, but there are signs it is coming to an endand not a moment too soon. Dowie's book advances the critical work of developing a new, more encompassing vision of nature, which makes it one of the most important contributions to conservation in many years."

"In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie quotes delegates to the Fifth World Parks Conference: 'We were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.' Miwok, Basarwa, Ogiek, Mursiindigenous tribal peoples, like endangered species, are being driven to extinction. Their languages are swiftly dying and we're losing a huge resource in their invaluable knowledge derived from millennia in their respective homelands. Environmentalists, determined to preserve biological systems and entities, should now be equally driven to preserve aboriginal cultures. This is a most useful and important book."
William Kittredge, author of The Nature of Generosity

"Mark Dowie is one of the finest investigative journalists we have, and his talent has rarely been on better display than in this book. And not just because he has gone to all corners of the Earth to get his raw material. More than that, in typical Dowie fashion, he upends his readers' expectations about who's the good guy and who's the villain, and is not afraid to step on toes that more timid or conventional writers would avoid. He makes us rethink our usual one-size-fits-all assumptions about environmentalism, and in the process tells some moving and fascinating human stories."
Adam Hochschild, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, author of The Mirror at Midnight: a South African Journey, and co-founder of Mother Jones Magazine

"Mark Dowie has written an important book that illuminates the dark side of the heroic profile of global conservation NGOs: biodiversity conservation has often been achieved, or at least attempted, at the expense of further impoverishing some of the poorest people on the planet. He effectively reveals the cruel dilemmas at the intersection of trying to maintain functional ecosystems with full suites of flora and fauna and efforts to alleviate crushing global poverty. In a sign of sea change, some ecologists are beginning to accept that this brutal exclusion was not always necessary for conservation ends, and that people and nature can survive and flourish together. Dowie makes a compelling argument that a new people-centered conservation is rising and needs to rise."
David Bray, Department of Environmental Studies, Florida International University

"Unlike a fine wine, Mark Dowie has not mellowed with age. This book proves it."
John Passacantando, former Executive Director, Greenpeace USA