The conservation community frequently butts heads with human rights organizations (or, at least, pro-development organizations that manage to worm their way into bed with human rights activists). The most familiar contemporary cases involve conservation groups calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in the Arctic or mineral mining in Africa despite protests from the residents of these regions. Poor and increasingly unable to compete in the rapidly developing “Third World,” many locals view natural resources as untapped potential revenue.
This April 18th, 2005, Vancouver Sun article points to a conflict that involves a different sort of natural resource: wildlife. Recent court decisions in British Columbia affirm the right of “aboriginal” populations to hunt and fish year-round without limits. Aboriginal groups are accorded such rights because they exhibit, according to the judges, a “substantial” and “sufficient connection to the…relevant geographic area which entitles [them] to exercise a territorially based hunting right.” The implication is that aboriginal groups have hunted and fished these lands for centuries, therefore proving their competence as continued stewards.
While this stewardship claim is marginally merited, most anthropologists will tell you that once one looks past the romance of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, you will realize that aborigines the world over hunt and fish in unsustainable ways. (This is a generalization, but one based on much anthropological reading.) A "balance" is maintained only because of the relatively small local populations of such groups, resulting in limited pressure on area wildlife stocks. Thus, unlimited hunting and fishing allowances for aboriginal groups in the Amazon Basin are less likely to result in excessive pressure than are similar allowances in British Columbia. In Canada, both aboriginal groups and licensed non-aboriginals will be “harvesting” the wildlife. The pressure on “game” species will be that much greater and the business of establishing limits (for non-aboriginals) will be that much more difficult. Finally, resentment or jealousy on the part of the license holders may encourage profligate behavior on their part, the result of a, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” attitude.
Not surprisingly, conservation groups have only reluctantly accepted such "no limit" rulings. Recently, however, the courts took such legislation one step further. The Metis population of B.C. is demanding a furthering of a court ruling granting them the same privileges that aboriginal groups receive. Trouble is the Metis population is only nominally “aboriginal.” Metis are Canadians of mixed European and aboriginal heritage. The Metis are guilty of the exuberant and unethical hunting practices (examples include the hunting of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) just for the horns) more commonly associated with the “evil, white man.” Further extension of the “no limit” legislation means even more pressure on B.C. wildlife and worries conservationists for good reason.
Raise these concerns, however, and you can expect to be savaged by groups representing aboriginal communities, either in the court room or in the popular press. Their argument is straightforward and not entirely without merit: To suggest that aborigines should abide by the same hunting and fishing laws that we white men must is racist, yet another example of the colonial powers subjugating and starving the American natives. By contrast, I believe that it is racist to grant the exception. Affirmative action is another racist practice (in the sense that it “discriminates” between races), but it benefits the whole (I know quite a few people who will hound me for this opinion, but I am an advocate for affirmative action despite any philosophical problems with it) whereas this unlimited hunting legislation benefits only the aboriginal groups and harms the whole.
In such a case, where can conservationists and aborigines find common ground? How can traditional cultural values be respected and preserved without threatening ecosystem integrity? Is it time we look past the sins of our fathers and approach the issue as Americans? My gut tells me this is the case. But then again, I’m just an evil, white man.
Check out the Metis Harvester’s Guide for more information.