Environmental Maafa: Challenging the Colonial Roots of Western Conservation Efforts in Africa

Grace Gibson, Georgetown University


Environmental protection and conservation are virtually universally viewed as positive measures that make the world and the lives of people better. The relationship between international conservation efforts and worldwide Indigenous movements has been characterized as a “good guy vs. good guy story”; both groups care deeply about the environment and people.[1] However, these two groups tend to misunderstand each other’s point of view.[2] These misunderstandings are both exacerbated by and the product of colonization.

Western[3] environmental and conservationist intervention in Africa, no matter how good intentioned, is rooted in colonialism. Environmental degradation in Africa should not be viewed as a separate phenomenon from colonialism; they are linked. Both are part of the Maafa, or the great suffering of African people at the hands of the West.[4] Without an emphasis on context, centeredness, and history, environmental protection and conservation measures can be ineffective and detrimental, particularly to Indigenous peoples.

Western environmental and conservationist intervention in Africa is part of distinct but overlapping forms of governance: Law and Protocol. Western-led conservation measures tend to lead to the imposition of conservation laws, regulations, and policies that usurp Protocol, leading to conflict and undermining the effectiveness of the conservation measures. Oftentimes, particularly in the context of national parks, the legal landscape becomes confusing to local peoples, resulting in unintended effects.

Part II provides an overview of a handful of conceptions of the relationship between colonialism and environmental degradation. Although these conceptions are useful, they lack Africana methodologies.[5] Part III provides an overview of relevant concepts and methodologies from Africana Studies and Africana Legal Studies. It focuses on the Maafa, the Long View of History, and Protocol. Part IV illustrates the need for Africana methodologies by highlighting conflict between Law and Protocol in conservation measures in Africa through numerous examples. The examples focus on the delineation of conservation areas, anti-poaching measures, forest and land management, and Indigenous belief systems in five countries. Part V provides a series of lessons focused on the importance of Africana principles in conservation and environmental protection in Africa. Part VI concludes and raises some questions and concerns that remain unanswered.


“Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal.”

– Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Colonization has led to intense environmental degradation and resource extraction all over the world, including throughout the continent of Africa. Scholars have come up with different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between colonization and the environment, resulting in ideas such as Ecological Imperialism and Green Imperialism. These conceptions do not employ Africana methodologies, however, and thus do not depict the full relationship between colonialism and the environment. While scholars and international leaders have become increasingly willing to assign proper blame to colonialism and imperialism, these modern conceptions would still benefit from the application of Africana methodologies, particularly Africana Legal Studies. Africana Legal Studies is especially valuable because environmental protection and conservation measures occupy legal landscapes.

A. Ecological Imperialism and Green Imperialism

In his work Ecological Imperialism, Alfred Crosby argues that European colonization of Africa succeeded because the introduction of diseases, plants, and animals, both accidental and purposeful, caused significant shifts in ecology and death of Indigenous peoples.[6] He notes that between 1820 and 1930, over 50 million Europeans migrated out of Europe.[7] This migration undoubtedly had a significant adverse effect on the land Europeans moved to; they not only displaced Indigenous peoples but also, as Crosby points out, caused mass death of Indigenous peoples due to the spread of disease and other biological factors.[8] His conception of Ecological Imperialism provides insight into the environmental effects of colonialism, but it focuses on heavily settled areas like North America and Australia. The full story of colonialism is more complex, particularly in Africa.

A different but similarly named conception posited by Richard Grove is so-called Green Imperialism. Grove argues that while Western powers colonized and plundered the natural resources of nations all over the globe, Western actors also pioneered new conservation methods and scientific theories that ultimately formed the foundation of Western environmental ideas and environmental concern.[9] He points to the early environmental research and writings of Western figures like Alexander von Humboldt, Pierre Poivre, and Charles Darwin as support.[10]

Grove’s conception of Green Imperialism, however, does not negate the centuries of environmental destruction caused by colonialism. The Western environmental concepts he points to as positive developments were employed as tools to further intrusion on nations and Indigenous peoples throughout the world, especially in Africa. The Western environmental ethic that originated from colonial-era thinkers like Darwin and von Humboldt is what led to the Western desire to “save” African wildlife and ecologies from African people.

This is not to say that the contributions of these early Western environmental thinkers were “bad.”[11] It is to say that Western scientific advancements were often made at the expense of non-Western people and were subsequently weaponized against the people in the name of environmental protection. Such an approach denies the value of Indigenous knowledge, Ways of Knowing, and Protocol. These latter two concepts are defined and discussed in Part III.

B. The Environment and Extraction

A more useful theory was posited by Walter Rodney, who explored how the exploitation of imperialism led to the underdevelopment of Africa. Unlike Green Imperialism and Ecological Imperialism, Rodney considers not only the movement of people, but also the movement of wealth.

The continent of Africa is blessed with great natural wealth, particularly in the form of minerals. Historically and presently, however, this wealth is not being retained for the benefit of African people, but rather extracted for the benefit of non-Africans.[12] In this context, underdevelopment is defined as the capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist exploitation of one country by another.[13] Throughout the world there is a pattern of nations rich in natural resources being underdeveloped in comparison to nations that are poorer in natural resources. This paradox has historically been explained by Western capitalists as ordained by God rather than the result of exploitation, a view based in white supremacy.[14] Rodney’s theory is bolstered by modern data. In 2015, African countries collectively took in $161.6 billion, primarily in the form of loans, personal remittances, and grants. But $203 billion was extracted from Africa, primarily in the form of corporations repatriating profits, the illegal movement of money out of the continent, and climate change costs.[15]

Before Western intrusion, Africans mastered subsistence agriculture.[16] Rodney observes that:

…when an outsider comes into a new ecological system, even if he is more skilled he does not necessarily function as effectively as those who have familiarized themselves with the environment over centuries; and the newcomer is likely to look more ridiculous if he is too arrogant to realize that he has something to learn from the ‘natives.’[17]

Rodney also observes that African agricultural methods may have seemed inferior to that of Europeans because they were focused on subsistence rather than capitalism; African farmers, existing in a system of communalism, had no need to maximize production because every African had sufficient lands and resources to meet his needs as a member of a community.[18] Under a capitalistic framework, in contrast, there is constant pressure to increase productivity.[19]

The extractive, capitalistic focus of Western intrusion reflects a profound difference in culture and worldview; Western culture is “highly materialistic, competitive, individualistic, narcissistic and places great emphasis on the consumption of natural resources and material goods.”[20] The Western materialism, competition, and insatiable hunger for natural resources disrupted the ecological balance of pre-Maafa Africa.[21]

C. Colonialism and Climate Change

Although Indigenous peoples have been decrying the role of colonialism in climate change and environmental degradation for decades, scholars, scientists, and international leaders have only recently begun to acknowledge the link.[22] On February 28, 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentioned the role of colonialism in their assessment report for the first time, stating that “[p]resent development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities (high confidence)” and “[a]ddressing climate justice reinforces the importance of considering the legacy of colonialism on developing regional and local adaptation strategies.”[23] While this development is a step in the right direction, the scholarship and science would still benefit from the application of Africana methodologies. An assessment of how Western conservation strategies conflict with Protocol would provide insight into community resiliency and possible adaptation measures.


“…the European conception is that of human beings at war with themselves and with their natural surroundings.”

– Marimba Ani, Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior (1994)

The West routinely characterizes Africa as an Eden or a Lost Eden, invoking an image of a natural wonderland that is spoiled by its own inhabitants.[24] In this framing, animals are seen as the primary victims. The suffering and loss of charismatic megafauna, such as elephants, zebras, and lions, seems to evoke more sorrow from the West than the suffering and loss of African people. While African people are blamed for both their own misfortune and that of the wildlife, the animals are viewed as purely innocent actors. This harmful and inaccurate view of Africa can be combatted through the application of Africana methodologies.

Several concepts in Africana Studies and Africana Legal Studies are essential to reframing the relationship between colonialism and the environment in Africa. The most relevant components of the Africana Studies Methodology are the Maafa, the Long View of History, and Carr’s Africana Studies Framework, which provide a foundation. Porter’s Africana Legal Studies approach, specifically her conception of Protocol, is essential for evaluating and challenging Western-led conservation measures, which exist in and intrude on legal landscapes.

A. The Maafa

Central to Africana Studies is the Maafa, which Marimba Ani defines as “the great suffering of our people at the hands of Europeans in the Western hemisphere.”[25] The Maafa is associated with enslavement, colonization, and imperialism globally, both historically and continuing into the present.[26] This paper proposes an expansion of the Maafa to include suffering caused by Western-driven environmental degradation.

With colonialization and imperialism came intensive resource extraction and environmental disruption that had an adverse impact on the development and wellbeing of African communities. The environmental degradation resulting from colonialism and imperialism was then used as a justification for further, modern Western intrusion to “save” the environment and wildlife of Africa, which in turn caused more adverse impacts on African people. Thus, the Maafa includes Western-driven environmental degradation on the African continent, both in terms of suffering historically and today.

B. The Long View of History

In Africana Studies, the Long View of History usually refers to the idea that the history of diaspora of African descendants does not begin with enslavement, but rather it begins in Africa. It is a rejection of the short-sighted Slavery to Freedom narrative.[27]

The Long View of History also applies to conservation efforts in Africa, albeit in a slightly different way. Here, it can perhaps be framed as a rejection of an Environment in Peril to Environment Saved narrative in favor of an Environment in Balance to Colonial Environmental Exploitation to Environment in Peril narrative.

Western-led efforts to “save” Africa and preserve African wildlife tend to be detached from the Long View of History. Rather than evaluating and understanding the full history of the environment they intend to save, these conservation efforts focus on the present state of the environment, with a focus on scientific rather than historical, social, or political analysis.

Using this approach leads Western actors to place blame for environmental degradation on African people. They see African people extracting resources and conclude that this extraction must cease or be heavily regulated for the environment to be protected. Viewing environmental degradation as merely a recent, or worse—inherent—phenomenon in Africa is flawed because it denies the role of colonialism. Instead, environmental exploitation and degradation should be viewed as part of the Maafa—the introduction of Western actors and companies in Africa which led to large-scale resource exploitation that was not present prior to Western contact. The effects of this exploitation remain today, but they are not the fault of African people, but rather the result of Western interference. When the Long View of History is employed, it becomes clear that it is not African people who are to blame for environmental degradation, but the exploitive systems that were introduced and imposed by Western powers.

Western influence leads to laws imposed on Indigenous peoples intended to prevent their “harmful” practices, which is at odds with their Ways of Knowing, Governance, and Protocol. An example of this, to be discussed in further detail in Section IV, is poaching. In many African conservation areas, Western actors have made it illegal for local peoples to hunt wildlife. But hunting is permitted for white tourists. This double standard reflects the Western view that African people are to blame for environmental degradation, rather than colonizers.

C. Dr. Greg Carr’s Africana Studies Conceptual Framework

Environmental protection and conservation measures are a combination of governance and science. Of the six parts of Dr. Greg’s Carr’s Africana Studies conceptual framework, Social Structures, Governance, and Ways of Knowing are the most relevant for analyzing environmental protection and conservation measures. Social Structures entail the social, economic, political, and cultural environment Africans find themselves in and the social relations both between Africans and with non-Africans.[28] Governance entails the sets of common rules or understandings created for internal regulation.[29] Lastly, Ways of Knowing entail the systems developed to explain existence and address “fundamental issues of living.”[30]

Carr’s framework prompts an African-centered orientation in which African people are actors within their own systems, not merely people onto which systems are imposed.[31] This African-centered orientation is important in evaluating environmental protection and conservation measures in Africa because it asks what systems were in place before Western-imposed systems and the Maafa. Without this framework, environmental protection and conservation measures are simply something imposed on African people without any consideration of their existing Social Structures, Governance, and Ways of Knowing. The Lack of African-centeredness causes conflict. For example, when Indigenous peoples are displaced to form a national park and hunting is banned within the park through Law, Social Structures, Governance, and Ways of Knowing are disrupted and usurped by the imposed system.

D. Porter’s Africana Legal Studies Approach

To investigate the full impact of Western-led environmental protection and conservation measures in Africa, there must be differentiation between what is African and what is Western. In her Africana Legal Studies approach, Porter argues that Law is an inherently Western social structure imposed on African people.[32] Protocol, on the other hand, refers to African systems and sets of rules.[33] Although law and Protocol can interact and run in tandem, they are distinct.[34]

Western-led environmental protection and conservation measures, particularly those based in Law, conflict with Protocol. The Western minds behind these measures either do not consider Protocol or misconstrue it. As a result, the measures are less effective and perpetuate suffering.


“First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

– Indigenous delegates to the Fifth World Parks Congress, Durban, South Africa (2003).[35]

A common thread throughout the following examples is displacement. Western-led conservation efforts displace African people physically, but also displace traditional ways of life, Ways of Knowing, and Protocol. Western ways of land, life, and law displace the existence of Indigenous and local peoples in the name of environmental protection.

There is also a displacement of blame for environmental degradation. In the following examples, the Protocol of local peoples is characterized as the driver of environmental degradation. As a result, the extractive practices of local peoples, ones based on Indigenous knowledge and subsistence, are outlawed because these practices are viewed as environmentally damaging. Meanwhile, the true drivers of environmental degradation, namely forms of Western capitalistic intrusion, are largely left unabated. 

A. Delineation of Preservation Areas and Conservation Refugees

Central to many environmental protection and conservation measures is the creation of nature preserves and national parks. The creation of preserves and parks is based on a method of conservation called “fortress” or “colonial” conservation, which is based on the belief that biodiversity is best protected through isolation from human disturbance.[36] Fortress conservation assumes that local peoples’ use of natural resources is irrational and destructive and thus is a driver of environmental degradation.[37] The spread of fortress conservation methods all over the world have led to a rise in conservation refugees—people displaced and forced from their homelands in the name of conservation.[38] There have been an estimated 14 million conservation refugees in Africa alone.[39]

Fortress conservation is based on Western theories and legal concepts. Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons theory, the underpinning of the bulk of Western environmental law and policy, argues that natural resources will be overexploited without government intervention.[40] It leads to the conclusion that Indigenous peoples are responsible for the overexploitation of natural resources, when in reality Indigenous communities have organizational structures and mutually agreed upon rules for natural resource management.[41] The theory denies the role of these traditional institutions, based on religious and cultural beliefs, in managing natural resources. In other words, the Tragedy of the Commons denies the role of Protocol.[42] An alternative theory is the Assurance Problem theory, which promotes understanding the natural resource management systems of Indigenous and rural communities before looking to Law.[43]

Another conceptual underpinning of fortress conservation and other Western conservation methods is individualized property regimes.[44] Private land ownership is a largely Western concept that conflicts with the collective and communal systems of Indigenous peoples.[45] Individualized property regimes are based on productivity and generating wealth, but for a select few (the colonizer), not for the benefit of the whole community (the colonized).[46] This, too, conflicts with Protocol. In creating parks and preserves, land that was once communal is essentially privatized in the sense that the park depends on the right to exclude.

Fortress conservation begins with the creation of a protected area, which requires the exclusion of local peoples that depend on natural resources.[47] Oftentimes, local peoples are displaced entirely. Rules are imposed and enforced by park rangers that patrol the boundaries of the area, often using violence.[48] But, not all activities within the protected area are forbidden; tourism, safari hunting, and scientific research are allowed.[49] Law and Protocol are particularly relevant to national parks because the conservation goals and rules are enforced through laws or quasi-laws.

The creation of protected areas and displacement of Indigenous and local peoples is the starting point for the following three examples: poaching and wildlife conservation, forest and land management, and belief systems.

B. Poaching and Wildlife Conservation

Western desire to protect African animals, particularly charismatic megafauna like elephants and lions, have led to the establishment of wildlife reserves and anti-poaching laws that disrupt Indigenous ways of life and subsistence. This model of conservation is demonstrated in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Hailed as “perhaps Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration story,” the park was formed by a public-private partnership between the Carr Foundation[50] and the Mozambican government in 2008.[51] The park proports to “balance the needs of wildlife and people,” with a focus on conservation, community, science, and sustainable tourism.[52]

Some have observed, however, that Gorongosa National Park is not the success story it seems to be. In her book White Man’s Game, journalist Stephanie Hanes chronicles a litany of shortcomings, namely regarding the relationship between the parks and the local and Indigenous peoples.[53] The borders of the park are not clear, particularly to the peoples living in villages on the park’s edge.[54] It was too expensive and cumbersome to construct a fence around the entire park, so only the portion of the park dedicated as a wildlife sanctuary was fenced.[55] Greg Carr and the park team hoped that employing local people as laborers to build the fence would stop the people from poaching for income.[56]

Hanes observes that “poaching” is a “decidedly European notion.”[57] Historically and presently, it is most often used to refer “to black people who hunted where white people didn’t want them to hunt.”[58] Local Africans who killed wildlife in hunting grounds or preserves defined by Europeans were poachers, while Europeans and Americans who shot wildlife for sport were hunters.[59] This distinction reflects the Law’s role in upholding white institutions and values and combatting cultural practices identified as “threats.”[60]

This “Black poachers and white hunters” dynamic has existed in Kenya for decades.[61] The stereotypical African hunting safari was derived from the foxhunts popular among British aristocracy.[62] The peak of the hunting safari was in the 1920s and 1930s, when upper-class Europeans and Americans flocked to Kenya for outdoor recreation, resulting in the alienation and silencing of Africans.[63] Over time, white interest in game conservation for hunting transitioned to preservation through the creation of “total sanctuaries.”[64] After the increase in illegal poaching during World War II—prompted in part by drought and locusts—large parks were set up to protect wildlife.[65] In 1977 all hunting in Kenya was banned.[66] Throughout this history, white actors, whether hunters or conservationists or both, were able to capture the will of the Kenyan state, both colonial and independent, to impose Law. Meanwhile, Africans, and in particular African hunters, were excluded and silenced, only ever entering the “purview of colonial society as crime statistics.”[67]

Gorongosa National Park has largely relied on informal, quasi-legal systems to prevent poaching. Prosecution through the formal legal system is too impractical and expensive, so poachers have been punished outside the formal legal structure and without due process. Further, while poaching is viewed by many in the West as a serious crime, in other countries it is merely a property crime and “the fines are generally light, if the court hears the case at all.”[68] In Gorongosa, the penalty for poaching is typically work duty assigned by the camp’s police officer.[69] Fines were not imposed because the park officials knew the poachers could not afford to pay them.[70]

This informal system, however, has resulted in confusion and inconsistency. Interview-based research has shown that the local people do not know precisely what activities are illegal and where. The park has uncertain boundaries as well as a “buffer zone,” making it difficult to determine which laws and regulations apply in which space.[71] Other interviews with local people revealed anger towards the park because the laws and regulations imposed by the park prevented people from using natural resources as effectively as before, while also failing to achieve the park’s goals.[72] Laws were also applied inconsistently; interviews with local people revealed at least one instance where rangers had beat poachers instead of assigning a work-based punishment.[73]

The rise of “professional” poaching, however, has led to a shift from fines and work-based punishment to more serious Law-based punishments, including prison sentences.[74] Professional poaching refers to poaching for profit and is often committed by non-Africans, as opposed to smaller-scale poaching by local Africans for subsistence and income.[75] The clearest example of the rise of anti-poaching Law is in South Africa, where parks have resulted to militarized enforcement. Kruger National Park, the “crown jewel” of the South African national park system, is especially militarized.[76] Conservation and militarization in Kenya have been intertwined for decades. Conservation officials often have military backgrounds, including Kruger’s first warden, who was a former military officer.[77] These military-trained conservation officials used their training to enforce conservation laws and regulations in a paramilitary fashion, including the eviction of Africans from conservation areas.[78]

By the 1980s, the park’s ranger corps had become a well-trained paramilitary force to combat armed elephant poachers.[79] Today, the park’s main threat is the poaching of rhinos.[80] Modern tactics include stealth training, drones, and helicopters.[81] Over 300 suspected poachers were killed in South Africa between 2008 and 2013.[82] Many of these poachers are from Mozambique, causing tension between the two countries.[83] The militarized conflict between national parks and poachers can be traced back to Apartheid, which exacerbated poverty and led to increasing numbers of people turning to poaching to generate income.[84] Thus the origin of this militarization and violence is the colonial “white hunters, black poachers” dichotomy and the Maafa.

These poaching examples illustrate a complex legal landscape. In addition to conflicts between Law and Protocol, the quasi-laws of national parks make things “muddled.”[85] Much of what park rangers are in charge of enforcing are not actually laws at all, but policies and regulations. In the eyes of a local farmer or poacher, however, the Law and quasi-laws are the same; they both are imposed by outsiders and conflict with Protocol.

C. Forest and Land Management

Another area of significant conflict between Law and Protocol is forest and land management. Like in the case of wildlife conservation, Western forest and land management practices often result in protected areas that separate Indigenous and local communities from traditional uses of resources.[86] Western science and management methods are imposed on Indigenous and local peoples and traditional methods are restricted or prohibited. These conflicts are an illustration of the detrimental effect of the Green Imperialism phenomenon observed by Grove; Western scientific “advancements” in land and forest management were made at the expense of non-Western people and were subsequently weaponized against the people in the name of environmental protection.

Western science hails itself as objective. But it hardly ever is, especially in a context like colonialism.[87] In Madagascar, colonial influence and science created a false narrative of extensive deforestation, which was used to restrict the activities of and take land away from Malagasy peoples.[88] In the late 1800s, French botanists began investigating environmental degradation in Madagascar.[89] Researchers, namely Perrier de la Bathie, concluded that the island was once completely forested, but that bush fires, slash-and-burn agriculture, and overextraction resulted in dramatic vegetation change.[90] To remedy this supposed degradation, de la Bathie recommended the creation of a forest service and protected areas.[91] In other words, de la Bathie recommended that Law be imposed to usurp Protocol.

The myth that Madagascar was once entirely forested was used to prohibit traditional land uses and continues to influence Malagasy environmental law and policy today.[92] The criminalization began during French colonial rule. Colonial leaders were staunchly anti-fire because of elitist, anti-indigenous sentiment, preference for permanent fields, and fear of ecological damage.[93] A 1930 forest decree simultaneously outlawed vegetation fires and forest clearing and granted land to foreigners.[94] Some dispossessed Malagasy people resisted this injustice by ceasing their stewardship of the forests and burning with intent to destroy, boldly deciding that is was “better to destroy the neighboring woods than to see them fall into the hands of others.”[95] Fire has been a central tool of Indigenous resistance in Madagascar for decades.[96]

Modern palaeobotanical and archeological studies have provided evidence refuting the heavily-forested Madagascar narrative.[97] These studies reveal a more varied landscape that depended on fire. Grasslands, not just forests, were an important feature of the landscape. While research does not suggest that Malagasy people had no effect on the environment, the relationship between people and the environment on the island is significantly more complex than the narrative promoted by French colonial botanists.[98]

The deforestation narrative remains present in the law, however, and the conflict over fires continues. Burning has been criminalized for the past 100 years, yet farmers and herders continue to use fire to prepare fields, control pests, and maintain pastures and woodlands.[99] Even after colonial rule ended, the criminalization of fires remained, consisting of laws and regulations, enforcement (including patrols, arrests, trials, fines, and sentences), and propaganda.[100] In their resistance efforts, Malagasy villagers have employed solidarity tactics to subvert the anti-fire laws and help others evade punishment:

As a rule, when confronted by outside authorities, villagers blame fires on unnamed passers-by (mpandalo), bad people (olon-dratsy), unknown people who burn for pleasure or out of malicious intent (mpandorodoro, mpanao ankasokaso), bandits and cattle-rustlers (dahalo, fahavalo), or profiteers (mpanararaotra). Only rarely will someone admit to lighting a fire, for example when a wildfire could clearly be traced back to a crop-field fire that escaped.[101]

In lieu of the above tactics, villagers might also blame fires on a young child or an elderly person to garner more leniency.[102] This solidarity is a reflection of the acceptance of fires as a legitimate natural resource management strategy and a desire to prevent intervention in village affairs by outsiders and the state.[103] Villagers, guided by a strong moral obligation to their community, prefer to employ their own mechanisms of conflict resolution and avoid outside authorities.[104]

Resistance against the criminalization of fires in Madagascar illustrates the conflict between Law and Protocol. The anti-fire laws were initially imposed by a Western power and continue to be supported by Western conservationists. Protocol is present in the Malagasy people’s use of fires in resource management and their resistance tactics against criminalization.

Another example of conflicts in Law and Protocol regarding land and forest management is found in Zimbabwe. Prior to Western intrusion, the Protocol of Indigenous peoples in Zimbabwe combined political, economic, and religious power; the same people who held political and economic power also had religious authority.[105] These authorities empowered them to make and enforce conservation Protocols.[106] Spiritual leaders were consulted on matters of allocation and control of resources, which were owned collectively by the public.[107] Protocol governed people’s access to resources by forbidding the felling of certain trees, proscribing methods for harvesting from trees, and managing natural sacred sites.[108] Protocol on forest management was adhered to for the benefit of the community as a whole.[109] These pre-European management and extraction methods were more sustainable than the practices introduced by colonizers because Protocol prevented overconsumption.[110]

These traditional conservation practices, however, were disrupted by white settler occupation and the introduction of the Western view of natural resources as commodities.[111] Protocol was threatened by both extraction and preservation; colonialism, and more broadly the Maafa, simultaneously commercialized natural resources while imposing laws to prevent forest exploitation.

Similar land management conflicts are present in Mozambique as well. The same muddled legal landscape discussed in the context of poaching also exists for land management and fire in Mozambique. Gorongosa park rangers told local farmers that fire-based management techniques were “discouraged” in the buffer zone, but the farmers interpreted that to mean the techniques were illegal. Similarly, local people believed beekeeping was also illegal because it involves a smoldering fire.[112] Frustrated by these laws being imposed by outsiders, some farmers resisted by engaging in the “illegal” activities anyway, but with less care, feeling as though they would be potentially subjected to punishment no matter the level of care they took.[113] This resistance perhaps parallels the resistance seen in Madagascar.

These land and forest management examples illustrate how conflicts between Law and Protocol adversely affect the livelihoods and subsistence of Indigenous and local peoples. Whether the Law is a decades-long, targeted effort to usurp Protocol or merely a misunderstanding, the result is that Indigenous people are restricted from employing their traditional resource management and subsistence methods. People are compelled to spend effort and resources to evade or resist Laws that do not benefit them. This conflict undermines the effectiveness of environmental protection and conservation measures.

D. Conservation and Belief Systems

The creation of protected areas and national parks also restricts the access of Indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, which has a detrimental effect on belief systems and Protocol.  While Law tends to separate governance and religion, Protocol often involves overlap. Spiritual beliefs and practices are not necessarily precluded from being categorized as Protocol, which conflicts with the West’s secular conception of governance.[114]

As mentioned previously, African belief systems and practices often include a spiritual connection to the environment.[115] These beliefs lead to the creation and enforcement of rules to prevent the destruction or exploitation of certain resources. Thus, these practices can be categorized as Protocol despite the religious basis. Law, on the other hand, is secular and despiritualized, allowing for both the dismissal of belief systems and the exploitation and destruction of natural resources.[116]

For example, Western civilization and culture have eroded the cultural values, belief systems, and norms of Indigenous people in Ghana. Like in the previous examples, the formal land management institutions in Ghana have imposed Law to usurp Protocol. Many Ghanian traditional belief systems and practices are consistent with conservation practices.[117] The Ghanian belief systems associates some aspects of the environment as associated with the gods, and thus these resources are protected from exploitation.[118] Fishing and harvesting from the sacred pond Afessikan, for example, is forbidden except for once per year.[119] Some of the harvested species are shared among everyone, while others belong to the Tindaana, or Chief Priest, and the clan heads.[120] The Tindaanas are considered custodians of the land and the link between the people and the gods.[121]

Western Law is not the only threat to Ghanian Protocol. These traditional rules protecting the environment have been disrupted by the introduction of Christianity, which has resulted in the destruction of some sacred groves and shrines.[122] A traditional earth priest from the Yogbeesi community observed that

Western civilization and religion is the cause of the environmental problems we are having today, humans kill animals anyhow and eat all animals without tabooing any, environmental resources are used without respect, it is unfortunate that laws and bye-laws are not observed as compared to the olden days when Christianity was not practiced.[123]

Thus, in Ghana, Western land management practices and Christianity work in tandem against Protocol. Both reflect a Western worldview in which nature is “desacralized” and “reduced to a mere thing, an object that may be manipulated to suit mankind.”[124] The West’s objectification and rationalization of nature creates a “despiritualized universe” in which belief-based Protocol and Ways of Knowing are meaningless and unimportant.[125]

Conflicts between conservation and belief systems also occurred with the expansion of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. In 2010, Greg Carr convinced the Mozambican government to place the highest elevations of Mount Gorgongosa under control of the park.[126] Carr hoped to persuade the people living on the mountain to resettle because he and the park conservationist believed the mountain was threatened by deforestation.[127]

Central to Gorgongosan belief systems are various spirits. Clan spirits called mhondoro occupy leaders called régulo, who represent the spirit.[128] The mhondoro protects the lands and the social norms of the people.[129] Environmental and social troubles are caused by angry spirits.[130] Gamba spirits in particular were prevalent in the Gorongosa region in the early 2000s, when the park opened.[131] Gamba spirits can be harnessed to gain personal wealth and power. Thus, the rise in wealth disparities and in the region coincided with an increase of gamba spirits, illustrating the danger of “valuing material goods over social traditions.”[132]

Greg Carr and his team made several missteps regarding Gorgangosan belief systems and Protocol while trying to garner local support for the park. Most notably, Carr and his team of conservationists visited Mount Gorongosa in hopes of getting a blessing from Samantenje, the rainmaker, for the park expansion. When they arrived, the inhabitants of the mountain were displeased. The helicopter the conservationists had arrived in was red—the color of gamba spirits.[133] The people believed that Carr and his team were evil spirits intending to steal their mountain. The rainmaker refused to bless the park project.[134] But, Carr was ultimately able to expand the park to include the mountain anyway, against the wishes and Protocol of the people.

From a Western perspective, it is easy to be dismissive of belief systems, particularly when motivated by goals backed by Western science. Local support for environmental protection and conservation measures, however, is severely undermined without respect for Ways of Knowing and Protocol. These examples from Ghana and Mozambique illustrate the need for Western conservationists to take religion-based Protocol as seriously as they would Law in another country. Respecting and understanding Protocol is not merely a symbolic gesture, it’s an essential step for effective conservation.


“I see no future for parks, unless they address the needs of communities as equal partner in their development.”

– Nelson Mandela (2003).[135]

International environmental protection and conservation efforts have increasingly taken an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating sociology, anthropology, and economics rather than just science. There has yet to be, however, a comprehensive application of Africana methodologies.[136] Imbedded throughout the following lessons is the principle of Sankofa, which refers to the process of relearning African traditions and understanding the past to move forward.[137] Understanding Africa’s past is an essential step in both environmental protection and the promotion of human wellbeing and prosperity.

First, anyone engaging in conservation or environmental protection efforts in Africa should employ the Long View of History. Understanding the full history of both the environment and the people of an area is a crucial component of environmental protection. Conservation efforts should be based not only in science, but also social, political, cultural, and economic history. This includes both an acknowledgement of the role of colonialism in environmental degradation and change, as well as an understanding of the relationship between people and the environment before the Maafa.

            Second, the knowledge and practices of local and Indigenous peoples should be centered. Ways of Knowing and Protocol, both those directly related to the environment and otherwise, provide valuable insights to the environment and sustainable practices. Western actors must endeavor to stop centering their science and best management practices at the expense of the practices of local and Indigenous peoples. That is not to say that Western science and practices have no place, but local and Indigenous peoples should be the starting point. The Assurance Problem theory should replace the Tragedy of the Commons as the theoretical foundation for conservation efforts.

 Third, conservationists must endeavor to understand the complex governance systems conservation efforts operate in or create. Protocol and existing African laws should be understood and respected before any imposition of conservation-based laws and regulations to avoid conflicts between Law and Protocol. Conservation efforts based on Protocol and led by African people should be prioritized.

Fourth and finally, more scholarship on the Protocol and Ways of Knowing of African Indigenous and local peoples should be produced. This is in many ways a tall order. The Protocol and Ways of Knowing of different groups utilizing the same resources may differ (i.e. Indigenous, tribal peoples as opposed to local peoples that moved to the area in question more recently). The Protocol and Ways of Knowing that exist today may be inundated with practices from elsewhere, including the West.

Despite the potential challenges, more scholarship on Protocol is a worthwhile endeavor because it would likely improve not only environmental protection and conservation measures, but also resiliency to the effects of climate change. Understanding and promoting Protocol will foster stronger communities and enable the development of effective climate adaptation measures. These adaptation measures should not be developed by outsiders and forcefully imposed, but rather should be derived from Protocol and spearheaded by local and Indigenous people.


The common Western narrative is that Africa’s environment needs to be saved from its people through Western science and environmental management practices. The reality is that Western interference is what caused the environmental degradation in the first place. This degradation and its harms should be understood as part of the Maafa alongside other related harms like the slave trade; the extensive extraction of resources, people, and wealth caused by Western interference have all adversely affected Africa and its environment in interconnected ways.

Africana methodologies are a crucial tool for decolonizing environmental protection and conservation efforts in Africa. When developing and analyzing environmental protection and conservation measures, a critical eye must be used to determine what exactly is being protected and conserved. Positive environmental outcomes cannot be achieved without the protection of people and conservation of culture and ways of life.

What the fate of preservation areas and national parks in Africa like Gorongosa National Park should be is unclear. Despite significant shortcomings, these parks still receive tremendous support from the international conservation community and drive tourism. The international conservation community is a force to be reckoned with and is not easily swayed; it took decades for Indigenous communities to be recognized on the international stage, and the recognition remains insufficient. The adoption of widespread yet particularized changes to better accommodate Protocol throughout national parks in Africa would be challenging.

Another area that remains unclear is the relationship between Protocol and climate change. Climate change is a cross-cutting, intersectional, global issue that requires collaboration. Because it is a new threat, it is unclear what the role of Protocol is or can be. As communities are increasingly faced with climate change-induced threats, an emphasis on Protocol may be needed to build and maintain community resiliency. Climate adaptation measures may require a combination of Protocol and science from outside sources, such as the IPCC.

One source of inspiration is the Green Belt Movement, founded by Kenyan scholar and activist Wangari Maathai.[138] The Green Belt Movement is an example of restoration and revitalization of African agency and Protocol in environmental protection. It also successfully combines interconnected issues, including women’s rights and climate change. The organization and the work of Wangari Maathai could be used as a model for other efforts to combat climate change in Africa to avoid the ills of Western-led conservation efforts.

[1] Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees, ix. (2009).

[2] Id.

[3] For the purposes of this paper, “the West” and “Western influence” refers to the European and American powers that colonized Africa and continue to have significant influence on the continent today. “Western-led conservation measures” refers to programs, policies, and systems designed by and executed under the leadership of Western actors, including European and American-based nonprofit and international aid organizations, to promote conservation and environmental protection. Examples include the Carr Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, and International Union for Conservation of Nature. These efforts contrast with grassroots conservation efforts led by African people, such as The Green Belt Movement, founded by Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai.

[4] Marimba Ani, Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior xxi (1994).

[5] In this paper, “Africana methodologies” refers to both Africana Studies and Africana Legal Studies.

[6] Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986).

[7] Id. at 5.

[8] Id. at 285.

[9] Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of environmentalism 7, 12 (1995).

[10] Id. at 9, 11.

[11] Although, it should be noted that some intellectual offshoots of these thinkers’ work, namely Social Darwinism, were bad.

[12] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa 20 (revised ed.1981).

[13] Id. at 14.

[14] Id. at 21.

[15] Global Justice Now, Honest Accounts 2017: How the World Profits from Africa’s Wealth at 2 (2017), https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/honest_accounts_2017_web_final_updated.pdf.

[16] Rodney, supra note 12, at 4 (rev. ed.1981).

 Rodney also notes, however, that African communities also fulfilled their needs through trade and production. See id. at 43.

[17] Id. at 40.

[18] Id. at 40-41.

[19] Id.

[20] Kenneth B. Nunn, Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise, 15(2) Law & Ineq. 323, 325 (1997).

[21] See Malidoma Patrice Somé, Ritual 31 (1993) (“The only place where abundance is warranted is in nature. A person who wastes is a person who insults the gods. In light of the waste encountered in the modern world, one wonders if anyone knows that there is a world outside of this abundance where people are aware if priorities other than materialism.”).

[22] See Yessenia Funes, Yes, Colonialism Caused Climate Change, IPCC Reports, Atmos (Apr. 4, 2022), https://atmos.earth/ipcc-report-colonialism-climate-change/.

[23]Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Summary for Policymakers, SPM-12 (2022); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Chapter 18: Climate Resilient Development Pathways, 18-58 (2022).

[24] Stephanie Hanes, White Man’s Game: Saving Animals, Rebuilding Eden, and Other Myths of Conservation in Africa 205 (2017). For example, National Geographic’s film on Gorongosa National Park titled Africa’s Lost Eden. See National Geographic, Africa’s Lost Eden, https://www.natgeotv.com/asia/africas-lost-eden (last visited Apr. 7, 2022). See also Edward Steinhart, Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya 2 (2006) (“The big game safari promoted an image of Kenya abroad as a veritable Garden of Eden. At the same time, it created and reinforced an image of African inferiority and subordination that was at the heart of the imperial and colonial ideology.”).

[25] Marimba Ani, Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior xxi (1994).

[26] Angi Porter, Africana Legal Studies: A New Theoretical Approach to Law & Protocol, 27 Mich. J. Race & L. 249, 255, n.20 (2022).

[27] Id. at 259.

[28] Greg Carr, Teaching and Studying the African(a) Experience: Definitions and Categories, in School District of Philadelphia, Lessons in Africana Studies: African-American History Course 14(2006); see also Porter, supra note 26, at 269.

[29] Carr, supra note 28, at 15; see also Porter, supra note 26, at 272.

[30] Id. See also Porter, supra note 26, at 270.

[31] Porter, supra note 26, at 270.

[32] Id. at 272.

[33]Id. Nunn, supra note 20, at 347 (“In African societies the law is understood as part of the seamless web that binds the community together. It is inconceivable to think of the law as an object, separate and distinct from custom, culture and morality.)..

[34] Porter, supra note 26, at 272-273.

[35]Dowie, supra note 1, at xv..

[36] Lara Domínguez and Colin Luoma, Decolonising Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment 9 Land 2 (2020). See generally Dan Brockington, Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania (2002).

[37] Domínguez & Luoma, supra note 36.

[38] Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees, Orion Magazine, available at https://orionmagazine.org/article/conservation-refugees/.

[39] Dowie, supra note 1, at xxi.

[40]Philip Aniah, Arkum Thaddeus Aasoglenang, & Samuel Z. Bonye, Behind the Myth: Indigenous Knowledge and Belief Systems in Natural Resource Conservation in North East Ghana, 2 Int’l J. of Envtl Prot. 104, 105 (2014).

[41] Id.

[42] See id.

[43] Id.

[44]Domínguez & Luoma, supra note 36. .

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id. at 2.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] The Carr Foundation is the work of American entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Carr. He coincidently shares the same name as Africana Studies professor Dr. Greg Carr, but they are two entirely different people. See https://www.carrfoundation.org/

[51] Gorongosa National Park, https://gorongosa.org/ (last visited April 7, 2022).

[52] Id.

[53] Hanes, supra note 24.

[54] Id. at 98.

[55] Id. at 98-99.

[56] Id. at 99-103 (2017).

[57] Id. at 101.

[58] Id.

[59] Id. See also Steinhart supra note 24, 65-67 (2006).

[60] Nunn, supra note20, at 351.

[61] See generally Steinhart supra note 24.

[62] Id. at 65-67.

[63] Id. at 3.

[64] Id.

[65] Id. at 3, 187, 189.

[66] Id. at 3.

[67] Id. at 187.

[68] Hanes, supra note 24, at 108.

[69] Id. at 107.

[70] Id. Because many of the park rangers are part of the same community as those accused of poaching, it is possible that the informal, quasi-legal system of punishment is an exercise of Protocol. Even if the system of punishment for poaching is an instance of Protocol, however, the anti-poaching measures and the park itself are still based in Law and Western approaches to conservation.

[71] Id. at 98, 213. An estimated 150,000 people live in the buffer zone. See id. at 115.

[72] Id. at 195.

[73] Id. at 215.

[74] Id. at 269.

[75] See Stephanie Hanes, supra note 24, at 180-81.

[76] Elizabeth Lunstrum, Conservation Meets Militarisation in Kruger National Park: Historical Encounters and Complex Legacies, 13 Conservation and Soc’y 356, 364 (2015).

[77] Id. at 360.

[78] Id.

[79] Id. at 363.

[80] Id. at 365.

[81] Id. at 364.

[82] Id.

[83] Id. at 356. It should be noted, however, that not all poachers are African or local; some professional poachers are Europeans. See Hanes, supra note 24, at 180-81 (describing the poaching of one of Gorongosa’s elephants by a professional Portuguese hunter).

[84] Lunstrum, supra note 76, at 365.

[85] Hanes, supra note 24, at 214.

[86] Domínguez and Luoma, supra note 36.

[87] See Vimbai Kwashirai, Green Colonialism in Zimbabwe 1890 – 1980 330 (2009).

[88] Jacques Pollini, Environmental Degradation Narratives in Madagascar: From Colonial Hegemonies to Humanist Revisionism, 41 Geoforum 711, 712 (2010).

[89] Id.

[90] Id.

[91] Id.

[92] Id. at 713.

[93] Christian A. Kull, Madagascar aflame: landscape burning as peasant protest, resistance, or a resource management tool?, 21 Political Geography 927, 932 (2002).

[94] Jacques Pollini, Environmental Degradation Narratives in Madagascar: From Colonial Hegemonies to Humanist Revisionism, 41 Geoforum at 713 (2010).

[95] Id. (citing A. Parrot, Déboisement et reboisement à Madagascar, Bulletin Economique, Numéro Spécial du Gouvernement Général de Madagascar et Dépendances, Imprimerie de l’Imérina, Antananarivo (1925) in A. Bertrand and M. Sourdat, Feux et et Déforestation à Madagascar: Revues Bibliographiques 30 (1998)).

[96] See generally Kull, supra note 93, at 927.

[97] Pollini, supra note 94, at 711, 713.

[98] Id. at 714.

[99] Kull, supra note 93, at 927, 928.

[100] Id. at 937-38.

[101] Id. at 943.

[102] Id. 943.

[103] Id. at 944.

[104] Id.

[105] See Kwashirai, supra note 87, at 53.

[106] See id. Kwashirai refers to “rules” rather than “protocols,” but for the purposes of this paper the terminology of Africana Legal Studies is being applied.

[107] Id. at 53, 326.

[108] Id. at 55.

[109] Id. at 326.

[110] Id.

[111] Id. at 68.

[112] Hanes, supra note 53, at 212.

[113] Id. at 213.

[114] See Somé, supra note 21, at 8 (“In Western reality, there is a clear split between the spiritual and the material, between religious life and secular life . . . For us, as for many indigenous cultures, the supernatural is part of our everyday lives.”).

[115] See Ani, supra note 4, at 45 (observing that African and Native American worldviews similarly base communal relationships and relationships with the natural environment on cosmic interrelationships).

[116] See Nunn, supra note 20, at 349.

[117] Aniah, et. al.,supra note 40, at 108.

[118] Id. For an example of the relationship between nature and ancestors in the belief systems of the Dagara people see Somé, supra note 21, at 20 (“The life energy of ancestors who have not yet been reborn is expressed in the life of nature, in trees, mountains, rivers and still water.”).

[119] Aniah, et. al., supra note 40, at 108.

[120] Id.

[121] Id. at 107.

[122] Id. at 111.

[123] Id. at 110.

[124] Nunn, supra note 20, at 337. See also Ani, supra note 4, at 191 (arguing that European science and technology are “ideologically dependent” on Christian arrogance toward nature, leading to the disruption of the global environment).

[125] Nunn, supra note 20, at 337.

[126] Hanes, supra note 53, at 196.

[127] Id. at 136-37.

[128] Id. at 121, 129.

[129] Id.

[130] Id. at 120, 128.

[131] Id. at 132.

[132] Id. at 133.

[133] Id. at 139.

[134] Id. at 141.

[135] Dowie, supra note 1, at xix.

[136] Some scholarship has been devoted to applying Africana Studies to environmental studies generally. See Rubin Patterson, Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences (2015). See also Rubin Patterson & Nicole Lambert, Greening Africana Studies: Redemption, Redevelopment, and Remuneration in the Black Community, 42 J. Black Stud. 291 (2011). These works focus on the United States.

[137] Porter, supra note 26, at 261 (citing Asa G. Hilliard, III, SBA: The Reawakening of the African Mind 206 (1997); The Power of Sankofa: Know History, Berea College: Carter G. Woodson Center, https://www.berea.edu/cgwc/the-power-of-sankofa/.  

[138] The Greenbelt Movement, http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/.