/ 10 June 2020

Unnatural: Conservation is yet another legacy of colonialism

Land Claims Pit Conservationists Against Residents
Using assumptions and faulty tools leads to racist conclusions about why so few black students are taking up biological sciences.

Across the globe over the past few weeks, social media platforms have lit up and blacked out in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Closer to home, activists highlighted the death of Collins Khosa and Elma Robyn Montsumi as examples of military and police brutality against black, poor and vulnerable persons. 

In this context of hypervisibility, mobilisation and critical conversations on black lives and experience, we came across a recently published article in the South African Journal of Science: Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences? by Nicoli Nattrass of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The commentary makes bold statements about what it means to be a black student and the question which frames the commentary is an important one. Since the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, higher education institutions have been forced to confront the ways in which we are complicit in racist and colonial logics. 

We were perplexed by the article’s simplistic application of a racial lens (if we can call it that) in relation to the important question about access to the curriculum. At UCT, the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) has posed important questions, debated and intellectually framed the need for an appropriate and contextually relevant curriculum which resists coloniality. 

Therefore, one would have expected that the author would have grappled with the critical conversations about race, proposals which have emerged through student protest or contemporary scholarship as part of the analysis. 

By not doing so, the author essentially trivialises and simplifies race in the study. It caused us to wonder: if this is the manner in which we treat race in our scholarship, how will we ever be able to grapple with, hold, listen to and respond to race and racism within our classrooms?  

The commentary begins with the necessary acknowledgement of the persisting inequalities in schooling as a barrier to meeting entrance requirements in courses such as the biological sciences. We all know and acknowledge this fact all the time in higher education. Hiding underneath this statement, however, is the acknowledgement that certain departments are not doing much to engage, encourage and include students who “don’t meet the criteria”, while knowing that the criteria is skewed by our social realities. There is nothing “excellent” (a term often invoked by institutions) about excluding capable and smart black students. 

How does this study understand race? How is “black” defined?  Who are the “other students”? 

The title and the opening line of Nattrass’s study both ponder the inclusion of black students, however the commentary doesn’t share a definition or framework for race. It is unclear what may constitute being black or the lived experience of black students. 

From this starting point it becomes clear that a set of unquestioned assumptions underpin this approach; one which takes for granted that poor folk have “materialist values and aspirations” and associates #FeesMustFall automatically with negative attitudes towards conservation biology and the national parks. 

For example, there is a difference between a decolonial critique of conservation and calling for the scrapping of the national parks. The use of the word “black” in relation to “materialist values” and not having pets; and “Fallist” as incompatible with conservation struggles, suggests at best an oversimplification of complex racial experiences and struggles, and at worst a reliance on a racist trope. 

In addition, there is no explanation on how the biological sciences have been made appropriate or responsive to the needs of the targeted communities. Although the department has participated in open days at schools, it is unclear if these engagements expose black and other students of colour to the utility of the discipline to meet their community’s needs. 

Furthermore, at no point does the commentary reflect on useful anti-racist criticisms posed towards conservation struggles and activism. Even as people outside this field, the coding of popular movements such as the #SaveTheRhinos campaign as white, or the history of national parks like Kruger and the displacement of local communities, seem like easy starting points. 

Lastly black folks and people of colour are experts on their own experience. It’s strange to see a study on race which cites no people of colour and doesn’t engage with theory and contemporary debates on systemic racism in South Africa.  

Why these questions? Why this survey?

Nattrass’s controversial survey uses the World Values Surveys materialist index. Asa Lundgren (2015) studied the use of this tool to investigate values in the Arab/Muslim world. Lundgren argues that the  “eagerness within this perspective to produce measurable data may lead to a simplifying of complex social and political realities to the extent that the results become superficial and sometimes distorted.” 

This survey tool focuses on measuring a phenomena (in this case race) at the expense of understanding complex social realities leading to possibly ethno-centric conclusions. Through inbuilt biases, selective choices of variables and ethnocentric bias of the survey tool, research may confirm the “superiority” of the Western world (in Lundgren’s case) and the “other students” group in this study. In simple terms, colonial tools may confirm colonial logics. 

The survey design and, more specifically, the leading questions that were posed tells us more about the researcher’s views on race than the experience of the black students.

Incidentally, the executive committee of WVS is also a shining example of a lack of diversity in research spaces. 

Why those conclusions? 

“So, conservation is for the middle class? But we know this mos.” We say this in jest, but in order to understand what it means to be middle class in South Africa we need to acknowledge the capitalist exploits of empire and colonialism which led to the destruction of natural environments and the subsequent efforts to conserve them. 

To understand what it means to be middle class is to acknowledge the migrant labour system which destroyed rural economies and bolstered the extractive industry which continues to harm our planet. Conservation exists because capitalist intrusions have destroyed ecosystems, and current and historic inequity ensures that poor, indigenous and black people are often excluded from the decision-making table when it comes to the natural environment. 

The fact that black students are not present in classrooms might have something to do with this history of land dispossession and exclusion. Without advocacy, socially responsive programmes, or at the very least, community appropriate communications about biological sciences in schools, there will be limited appreciation of the opportunities the discipline offers.

In a context of awful anti-black violence, we all need to take a stance. Although not critically engaging with race within higher education is significantly different from police brutality, it encourages an environment where we may become complacent. Uncritically adopting research tools from the Global North and framing race while relying on assumptions add up  to conclusions which reify racist tropes: Racist assumptions + racist tools = racist conclusions. 

We would encourage the author to reflect on the following questions: what barriers exist for school learners in accessing information about biological sciences? How does the university (and the department of biological sciences) actively remove these barriers for school learners? And when or if, black learners choose UCT, how do we as staff, ensure that the content is relevant and our harmful prejudices are in check? If we are to be serious about including black students, we need to be serious about including their voices, affirming them and creating an environment where they can flourish. 

Gabriel Hoosain Khan is  the inclusivity capacity building specialist at the Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC) at UCT and Sianne Alves is the director