Efforts to Decolonize Conserved Land - Jillian Hishaw Esq.

Efforts to Decolonize Conserved Land

The word “conservation” is typically viewed in a positive light. The idea of protecting natural landscapes and ecosystems, ensuring water quality, or simply providing a scenic view of the terrain is a benefit for everyone – or so we think. The government, through land trust organizations, designates what is considered reserved land. Land trusts also acquire easements and set standards for land-use practices. 


It is not often that we question how the seemingly uninhabited lands were acquired or who might have ownership rights and interests. All roads are paved with good intentions but what if they were formed upon stolen land? Not all the picturesque land we see off highways was gained from willing parties. 


In the article, “Shifting to a Culture of Decolonization in Conservation Communities,” writer Erica Buswell discusses her experiences working for a land trust organization in Maine and her ultimate realization that she was participating in a form of colonization through her involvement. Buswell noticed that no one was speaking up for or protecting the rights of Natives who inhabited the lands for generations. Instead, the land was taken in the name of conservation. Under ordinary circumstances, property owners voluntarily enter into agreements with trust organizations. However, in the case of the Natives in Maine, there was no negotiation, offers, or compensation made. 


All the while, employees and the public are convinced of the positive outcomes. It is similar to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Seemly good and well-intentioned work can actually cause harm. In this case conservation practices prevents Natives from accessing their ancestral home. Simply “allowing” Natives access to the land represents the colonizing principles that land can be taken and controlled as the government or proxy organizations see fit.


The Decolonizing Conservation Communities program aims to assess if and to what degree current conservation practices may cause harm to Natives in Maine. Buswell is committed to acting as an agent of change and disrupting the ongoing pattern of colonization in the conservation community.