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Noble Savage or Noble State? by Janice Alcorn

by on October 24, 2011

The article Noble Savage or Noble State?: Northern Myths and Southern Realities in Biodiversity Conservation by Janis Alcorn argues against the notion that indigenous people cannot maintain biodiversity in the environments they inhabit. She also argues that the people closest to nature, indigenous people, are controlled by the larger “northern” culture. To get this argument across, she provides five main points about why indigenous people are good at maintaining biodiversity and should have control over their landscapes.

She discusses that indigenous people have rights over the land. There are five main points she presents as evidence for why these people conserve biodiversity better than any other groups of people. Her first point is that indigenous people generally live in places that have a high amount of biodiversity. For example there are “denser forests, relatively undisturbed grasslands, reefs and waterways” on the lands indigenous people live (Alcorn 11). Her next point is that indigenous people have created their own institutions for protecting biodiversity and have the knowledge to do so. Third, their statements about the land are important because it shows their desire to conserve it. Fourth, they are highly adaptable to stress and have the ability to do what is best for the biodiversity. Last, she presents comparisons between indigenous people and others to explain that over history indigenous people have been better at conservation and they cause the least destruction.

The political battle between the north and south causes a constant shift in power over biodiverse landscapes. The concept of political ecology, which was presented in the Forsyth article, describes how the relationship between culture and environment are constantly shifting and so are classes and groups within society (Forsyth 3). Political ecology can be used to understand the imbalance of power between indigenous people and those that want to take control of conservation efforts. Alcorn explains how the use of words play a part in this political battle. Governments will use the phrase “indigenous populations” rather than “indigenous people”  because “people” is a word that refers to a strong connection to the land (Alcorn 9). There is a constant effort among outsiders to conserve landscapes because of the belief that indigenous people cannot take care of the land properly. Alcorn argues against this.

I agree with the statements that Alcorn makes about indigenous people’s ability to take care of biodiversity better than others. A personal relationship to the land provides an understanding of the environment. This close connection allows indigenous people to love the land as though it were a part of their community. Some questions I would like to ask are: How do you think Alcorn’s argument can be applied in areas designated for conservation? Alcorn talks about why indigenous people are good at maintaining biodiversity, what are specific ways this argument can change the politics among a government, conservationists and indigenous people?


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  1. To answer the second question I think it is important to point out, as Lu does in her article, what exactly conservation is. As Lu states conservation is only needed under certain circumstances, the most prevelant one being tangible pressure on a resource. From the readings I have come to realize that indigenous people aren’t actively conserving the land but living on it as they always have. It is not until they feel the pressure to become “developed” whether it be in the form of western technology and medicine or market level production that a need for conservation is proposed. I think that indigenous populations are viewed as good at maintaining biodiversity because those conditions are all they have ever known and that western influence is what ultimately turns them in to enemies of their own land. I think in order to avoid this situation education on broad scale environmental impacts as well as current environmental issues such as the threats to biodiversity around the globe needs to be brought to indigenous populations along with the other western influences. We can’t just give them the tools for “development” and encourage them to join the game and not teach them the lessons we have learned (in terms of environmental degradation) along the way, that seems immoral right?

  2. Alcorn’s argument reminded me of the article by Sarkar and Montoya called “Beyond parks and reserves…” In that article, Sarkar and Montoya provide examples of different models of conservation. One model that stood out was the social ecology model. Here, the locals are the experts. Outsiders must come to the locals for knowledge on the area. In Alcorn’s article, she states “conservation success depends upon the action at the local level” (18). Both articles provide examples of fisheries at the local indigenous level versus commercialized level and the implications for both.
    In regards to Fred’s comment, I agree the education on biodiversity needs to be brought up to the locals. Yet, I also believe that the education and lessons are right there in front of everyone. The traditions and beliefs of the local cultures are examples of conversations efforts at a small scale.

  3. I certainly agree with the general statement regarding indigenous people’s ability to take care of biodiversity better than others. And as Fred pointed out, conservation is only needed in certain situations and I feel as “outsiders” we constantly describe indigenous people as “closer with nature” or “stronger relationships with the environment” but constantly have an idea that indigenous people need saving, development, or an increase in complexity. The indigenous people have proved to have their own way of life, their own strategies, ideas, and organizations and many who’ve been around for centuries. I would also agree that the education of biodiversity and the environment is crucial locally and abroad.

  4. I agree with some of whats been said. I do think that we think that one of our view of indigenous people is that they can take better care of their environment than most and that when these people are introduced to northern culture, they cause more harm than they use to when using these new tools. However, I do think that in some cases, even before they started to be influenced by northern culture, which I do think happens and is apparent in documentaries and videos on indigenous people today, that some of these people are just living off of their land the best that they can and do not care about maintaining it. Thats not true for all as I remember some specials on TV that say this and that some take only what they need and so on. Removing humans would make an environment more stable, I do think that is true as well. I also think that better management of the resources we take out of these places would make these environments more stable. With this I also believe that in some instances, some of these people need to be taught how to better preserve their environment, especially when they start to become more and more influenced by the outside world.

  5. amygraceaustin permalink

    My biggest critique of this article is the way it portrays indigenous people as “the other”. Whether the author intends to or not, indigenous people are portrayed as an entity separate from the author with differing experiences, perspectives and goals. It is interesting that the article takes a very academic and objective tone which compromises its ability to illustrate a clear connection between author and subject. I am wary of the fact that “indigenous peoples” are clumped together into one homogeneous term, when in reality, vast differences exist even among communities of indigenous peoples of the same ethnic descent. I think this article provides a necessary perspective in this discussion, but I’m glad it’s not the only one people will reference when forming their opinions regarding the relationship between indigenous peoples, environments and conservation.

  6. Sean Butler permalink

    The fact of the matter is that the land that is designated to be protected, must still be utilized by people. Whether or not it is the indigenous people who utilize the land is irrelevant. I don’t know of any hard evidence that proves indigenous people are better at conservation than the ‘northern’ people. In my opinion, indigenous groups are much smaller in population that the population of people that would utilize the land if it were not controlled by the indigenous group. The smallness of the population group allows for conservation to be simpler and more maintainable. It is possible that the indigenous people’s intent is not to preserve nature, but that the conservation come naturally due to small populations and traditional agricultural methods.

  7. I loved Alcorn’s article, because it argued for the native people and not for the environmental politics that have become so prevalent in the last few years. Really, why shouldn’t the natives be allowed control over the landscapes that they inhabit? The people who are native to that area have lived there for long enough to understand how their area operates, when the seasons are and how to thrive on it without making too much of an impact. I think this article was wonderful, because it showed an entirely new way of looking at conservation and preservation; we don’t need to kick people out in order to save the area if that area is already sustainable by its indigenous people! I just have to shake my head at the ridiculousness with which so many environmental-hungry people operate, because they are often working under the notion of maintaining biodiversity, but they’re doing so under a Western scope and often completely (or so it seems) ignore what’s already going on. Sometimes, the way we do things is not so great for others, and I think that Alcorn’s article attempts to address the notion that people who know the land the best, the indigenous peoples, are more than capable of holding their own land and maintaining it at its best.

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