Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy who was featured
in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at
New York City's Bronx Zoo.
in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at
New York City's Bronx Zoo.
The Houston Zoo has proudly announced a new project, The African Forest, which is set to open in December, 2010 if we don’t put a halt to it. According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest is not just about exhibiting "magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats. It's about people, and the wonderful, rich cultures that we all can share." Actually, The African Forest is about exhibiting and teaching inaccurate Western conceptions of African indigenous cultures in a place designed to exhibit and teach about animals. The African Forest is also about making and keeping African indigenous peoples conservation refugees.
Fairs, exhibitions, and zoos that showcase, market, or teach about non-white peoples as though they were animals are called “human zoos.” Human zoos allowed and still allow targeted non-whites to be redefined as animals in Western, European, or First World spaces, in order to justify past, current, or planned white mistreatment of non-white peoples in the non-white peoples’ homelands.
According to the Houston Zoo’s website, The African Forest includes an “African Marketplace Plaza,” selling gifts from “from all over the world” and offering dining with a “view of giraffes"; a “Pygmy Village and Campground,” showcasing “African art, history, and folklore,” where visitors can stay overnight; “Pygmy Huts,” where visitors will be educated about pygmies and “African culture,” hear stories, and be able to stay overnight; a “Storytelling Fire Pit”; an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges”; a “Communications Hut and Conservation Kiosk,” where “visitors will use a replicated shortwave radio and listen in on simulated conversations taking place throughout Africa”; a “Rustic Outdoor Shower,” representing the fact that the fictional “Pygmy Village” “recently got running water,” where children can “cool off”; a section of the “Pygmy Village” where children can handle “African musical instruments and artifacts”; and “Tree House Specimen Cabinets.” which showcase “objects, artifacts, and artwork.”[i]
Stuff White People Do: Misconstrue Africa
Africa is not a monolith. Africa is a continent of fifty-three nations and even more cultures. So while one may speak of a Ugandan forest, a Yoruba marketplace, or Xhosa culture, Africa is such a diverse continent that the idea of, for example, an “African marketplace” is meaningless.
The Houston Zoo’s website specifies that “The African Forest” is really the “central African forest,” but just as Africa is not a monolith, so central Africa is also not a monolith. Central Africa contains Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. Therefore, it’s problematic that in a website video, the Zoo refers to “the culture of central Africa” as though there were only one.
The ironic part of representing all Africa in the context of the central African forest is that certain aspects of both Africa in general and central Africa in particular are conspicuously absent from this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. For example, why are the large cities, skyscrapers, boutiques, and movie theaters of Africa missing, while The African Forest shows off the village that just got running water? I am emphatically against the idea that there is anything less modern about a “Pygmy hut” than a glass and steel tower, but the Zoo is only showing aspects of Africa that fit Western stereotypes of “primitivism.”[ii]
Stuff White People Do: Frame Africa Ignorantly and Inaccurately
1) The Zoo proclaims on its website, “The African Forest will transform the way Houstonians view the world by providing visitors with a glimpse into the remote forests of central Africa and the distinctive people that call it home. By understanding and appreciating the challenges these people face, we will be better equipped to work with them to preserve our fragile world and to make it a better place for future generations.”[iii]
2) A spokesperson for the Zoo stated in the Houston Chronicle, “This delves into habitat; conflict between man and the wild.”[iv]
3) The Zoo also says in its description of The African Forest that the project contains an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges.”
4) Finally, the Zoo’s blog states, “To that end, the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts will focus on developing wildlife, habitat, and human community support programs … If the ability for native people to coexist with their habitat is taken away from them without offering a sustainable solution, then wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are bound to fail…”
Let’s start with the Zoo’s first quote, which basically exhorts visitors to take up the White Man’s Burden. Africans have millennia of knowledge on how to care for their environments, but we’re the ones in the position to tell them what to do. Apparently, the only reason to learn about African cultures is to control them.
The next problem with that quote is that it's gallingly hypocritical. Is it primarily Africans or Westerners who own polluting industries, mining industries, the corporations that use the resources that are mined, and the corporations that create toxins -- all of which threaten the well-being of animals and people alike?
The hypocrisy of the Zoo’s quote is tied to the fact that when Western entities decide they want to “help” the environment or animals, too frequently they do not change their own behavior, but rather declare they are helping by dominating Africans’ and/or indigenous peoples’ lives and behavior. In “Reflections on Distance and Katrina,” Jim Igoe of Dartmouth College[v] says, “Exxon Mobil is also sponsoring part of conservation interventions initiated by the African Wildlife Foundation,” which means that “local people targeted by this intervention are being encouraged by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Tanzanian government to enter into agreements and sign things that they don’t fully understand.” This “transforms these landscapes from peopled landscapes to those dominated by wildlife, which has made them attractive to private investors at the expense of locals. It also provides Exxon Mobil, and many other corporations that sponsor conservation interventions, with tax breaks and a valuable green public image enhancement.”
Inaccurately framing the culture or cultures being exhibited in a human zoo is tradition. The Houston Zoo's upcoming African Forest dares to teach the zoo's patrons that indigenous Africans are in conflict with wildlife, but falsely claiming that indigenous Africans harm animals is a well known tactic to violate their human rights and drive them from their traditional lands -- often in cahoots with organizations such as the World Bank, NGOs, and corporations.
Survival International notes that “the Aka, like all of the 'Pygmy' peoples in Central Africa, are under threat…huge areas of good forest have been turned into parks or wildlife reserves that are guarded by armed thugs who beat up the Pygmies and drive them out of their ancestral hunting grounds. And yet the Pygmies are the real guardians of the forest. As their proverb explains: 'We Aka love the forest as we love our own bodies' ” (italics mine.)[vi] To learn more about pygmy and other African and indigenous peoples’ views on conservation see this endnote.[vii]
Now refer to the third quote. Let’s examine ecotourism first. According to Lee Pera and Deborah McLaren,[viii] tourism “has been promoted as a panacea for ‘sustainable’ development. However, tourism's supposed benefits … have not ‘trickled down’ or benefited Indigenous Peoples. The destructiveness of the tourism industry … has brought great harm to many Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world…”
They also say, “It is no coincidence that those who have lost their lands … are forced into service-sector employment in the tourism industry and are increasingly dependent on the whims of the global market and the corporations which run it” (italics mine.)
McLaren adds, "Global tourism threatens indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights, our technologies, religions, sacred sites, social structures and relationships, wildlife, ecosystems, economies and basic rights to informed understanding; reducing indigenous peoples to simply another consumer product that is quickly becoming exhaustible" (italics mine.)
Georgianne Nienaber writing for central African (Rwandan) newspaper The New Times states, “The story of tourism in Africa causes one to weep… a tragedy in which western businesses sent most of the money back home to the colonialist developers… Foreign workers held the most lucrative management positions, reducing the local ‘service providers’ to little more than slave labour…”[ix]
A paper published by the Forest Peoples Programme in conjunction with the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda -- the Batwa pygmy people’s own organization -- quotes a Mutwa pygmy as saying, “Don’t mix us with other people, leave us separate and help us.”[x]
Now let’s examine the last two things the “Outpost” in The African Forest promotes: “conservation messages and African wildlife refuges.” Conservation in Africa and the creation of wildlife refuges on the continent are notorious for the frequent creation of “wildlife refugees.” This means that African governments, Western businesses, and NGOs violate the human rights of Africans, decide they have no right to their traditional lands, and literally make them refugees alongside, for example, refugees of war. In other words, in Africa it’s common for conservationists to create refuges to conserve wildlife by simply kicking Africans out.
As I noted earlier, the African Wildlife Foundation partnered with Exxon Mobil to displace Tanzanians. An employee representing Exxon Mobil Corporation is on the Houston Zoo's Board of Directors.
Exxon is known for the Valdez Oil Spill, the Brooklyn Oil Spill, and the Greenpoint Oil Spill, and despite its eagerness to support the Houston Zoo and create a wildlife refuge in Tanzania, the company is currently harming endangered gray whales. As if its crimes against nature weren’t enough, the company is currently being accused of sharing responsibility for " Indonesian Military Killings, Torture and other Severe Abuse in Aceh, Indonesia” such as rape and murder, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.
An employee representing Shell Downstream, Inc. is another of the Zoo’s board members. Royal Dutch Shell is a multinational petroleum company notorious for committing crimes against humanity, abusing African indigenous people, torturing people, and poisoning the environment. This is the company that is widely believed yet never has admitted to helping facilitate the execution of legendary environmental and indigenous rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other indigenous Ogoni Nigerians who protested the theft of Ogoni land for oil extraction. The company was condemned by the Nigerian High Court and activists as recently as 2005 and 2008 for “violating the constitutional ‘rights to life and dignity.’ ” Shell, in addition to its other crimes against human rights, creates conservation refugees.[xi]
And lest I forget, one of the Zoo’s donors is Chevron.[xii] As you might expect, Chevron also makes indigenous people conservation refugees.[xiii] Furthermore, Chevron is currently being sued for 27 billion dollars by an indigenous Amazonian community whose rainforest was polluted by the corporation’s oil-drilling.[xiv]
The conservation refugee problem is so bad that, according to Mark Dowie, hundreds of thousands of people have been made refugees due to conservation and conservation refuges. Beyond the fact that making people refugees in the name of conservation is evil -- it doesn’t even help conservation. As Mark Dowie says in Paradigm Wars, “90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas. If we want to preserve biodiversity in the far reaches of the globe, places that are in many cases still occupied by indigenous people living in ways that are ecologically sustainable, history is showing us that the most counterproductive thing we can do is evict them.”[xv]
Refer back to the Zoo’s fourth group of quotes. The Zoo freely states that indigenous people’s right to coexist with their habitat is being “taken” from them. And, as can be expected, they promise to throw a few scraps to indigenous peoples as a consolation prize for violating their human rights. But what do “sustainable solutions” for indigenous people really mean? As Jim Igoe says, after being made refugees in the name of conservation by one of the Zoo’s donors, Exxon Mobil, Tanzanians were then told “their only way out of poverty is to become junior partners in conservation-oriented business ventures on grossly unfavorable terms.” This treatment is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to treatment of conservation refugees, according to Mark Dowie.
So let’s sum things up: The Houston Zoo, which is funded by corporations notorious for destroying the environment, harming wildlife, violating human rights, and creating conservation/wildlife parks by making Africans and other indigenous peoples conservation refugees, is creating a human zoo called The African Forest that supports and promotes the creation/continuation of conservation parks and the attendant perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis.
Please consider opposing The African Forest, human zoos, and the creation/perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis in one or more of the following ways:
1. Tell the Houston Zoo you are against The African Forest human zoo and the creation of conservation refugees as well as the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis by contacting the Houston Zoo here: http://houstonzoo.com/contact/. Tell the Houston Zoo that you will boycott zoos that host human zoos and/or make/keep Africans conservation refugees. Be sure to send a copy of your message to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we have a record of your letter in case the Zoo doesn’t respond and to prevent the Zoo from deciding to claim that no one is protesting.
2. Send your name and, if you want, affiliation to email@example.com if you want to be put on a petition stating, “We, the undersigned, do not support The African Forest human zoo, the creation of conservation refugees, or the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis.”
3. Raise awareness about The African Forest through your website, blog, email list, livejournal, etc. and encourage others to write the Zoo and sign the petition.
Please be aware that, naturally, the letter you send or your signature on the petition may be made public.
The original version of this paper is thirty nine pages as long and has much more information. If you would like the full version of this paper email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for your help!
[i] http://www.houstonzoo.org/naming-opportunities/, http://www.houstonzoo.org/attachments/wysiwyg/3/NamingOppsFeb3.pdf
[ii] Some might argue that features of urban life wouldn’t be appropriate to include as urban dwellers do not live in harmony with nature. That argument ignores the fact that The African Forest teaches the lie that rural indigenous Africans in fact don’t live in harmony with nature either.
[v] At the time his paper was written, he was affiliated with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
[vii] http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/conservation/uganda_review_cbd_pa_jan08_eng.pdf, http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/conservation/bases/p_to_p_project_base.shtml#english, http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/ifi_igo/wb_ips_uganda_may00_eng.shtml, and other resources on http://www.forestpeoples.org/index.shtml
[ix] http://www.nextbillion.net/news/ecotourism-greedy-lover-or-savior, Nienaber cites (Pera and McLaren, Globalization, Tourism and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World's Largest Industry, www.planeta.com)
[xv] Again, in the interest of keeping this long essay from being any longer than necessary, I encourage those wanting more information on conservation refugees to read Mark Dowie’s work in Orion Magazine, and his book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.