When EO Wilson says something, the conservation world listens. At least the western and colonial conservation world. Wilson coined the word ‘biodiversity’ short for biological diversity, and now commonly used by everyone from ecologists to politicians and corporate honchos. His work has earned him justified respect as not only an innovative scientist but also an effective communicator to the general public. His early work on ants is remarkable; I was one of the millions enthralled by some of his books. But like many (by no means all) others in the formal ecology and biology field, his policy prescriptions have a tendency to ignore (wittingly or otherwise) the troubling political implications of conservation led, for far too long, by the white man.

In a passionate book published in 2016, Wilson proposed that half of the earth be left for nature to thrive. Half-Earth has quickly become a slogan, a rallying call, a plea for action that has a powerful ethical foundation. For a few centuries now, humanity has ridden roughshod over other species. Its activities have had such profound impacts across the planet that a new term proposed by scientists in the 1980s, has gained considerable traction: the ‘Anthropocene’ denoting a new geological age (replacing the Holocene that we’ve been in for the last 10,000 years or so), in which humans are the main planetary driving force. There seems to be consensus that if current trends continue, we are facing the 6th great extinction, the first one to be caused by us. Given this sobering fact, any argument for urgent action to protect and regenerate nature, to ‘rewild’ the planet, is surely worthy of support.

The ‘half-earth’ movement has both early precursors and more recent parallel proposals. Starting in the late 1900s, for instance, the notion of governments setting aside ‘protected areas’ for conservation has become a global phenomenon. Around 13% of the earth’s terrestrial surface is so declared, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set a target of increasing this to 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine area by 2020. More recently, as it reviews and revises this, there is consideration of 30% of the earth coming under protected areas. The half-earth proposal has been picked up by a movement spreading fast, called Nature Needs Half. Another recent set of proposals comes under the rubric of nature-based solutions, fast becoming a buzzword in global conservation circles like IUCN and in the UN system, and even being picked up by private corporations. The ‘half-earth’ approach has even caught the imagination of the arts; for instance, it forms a prominent part of famous science fiction writer Kim Lee Robinson’s 2020 blockbuster The Ministry for the Future.

But the undeniable ethics of a position enabling non-human nature to thrive can hide very problematic social and political considerations, depending on who is propagating them. Nearly all the approaches mentioned above have emerged from institutions of the global North (mostly North America and Europe, or institutions in other regions sponsored by them). The colonial flavour of the global protected area movement lingers on in them. Wittingly or otherwise, they feed into authoritarian conservation practices by governments (and some NGOs) across most of the world, with a long history of displacement and dispossession of communities who have lived in areas sought to be ‘protected’. Such approaches also ignore or sidestep the ecological knowledge and wisdom of these communities, replacing them with formal western science (often this too, half-baked as when wildlife and forest bureaucracies ignore independent studies, like in India). They tend to lump all of humanity together, hiding the deep inequalities within us, and in particular the origins of both the destruction of nature and of colonial conservation within society’s elites. They do not confront, and sometimes reproduce, relations of inequality (and conditions of unsustainability) emanating from patriarchy, statism, capitalism, racism, casteism, or other such structures of society and economy.

Such approaches explicitly or implicitly point to local ecosystem-dependent communities as being key drivers of biodiversity loss; or if not, the actions following their prescriptions seem to assume this is the case. The far greater ecological impacts of elite lifestyles and industrial production processes, often long-distance and therefore not locally visible, are ignored or only given casual reference. Many of the government agencies, NGOs, or individuals promoting such approaches are likely to be fully aware of these issues, but are unable or reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ by calling out corporations or elements of the state that perpetuate ecologically destructive and socially marginalising processes. Indeed, some of them cannot engage in speaking truth to power, beholden as they are to the financial support of some of the worst corporations and state entities (including the armed forces). How will the NGOs that got hundreds of millions of dollars recently from Jeff Bezos (suddenly a climate savior), sign on to a statement protesting the exploitative practices of Amazon? And in turn, of course such ‘philanthropists’ are happy to support conservation groups that help greenwash their image, while not challenging the system in any fundamental way.

The geographic, institutional, and class position of the proponents of these approaches is telling. In an Open Letter that some of us wrote to the 100+ authors of a paper on the economic implications of a Protecting 30% of the Planet for Nature, we pointed out that the overwhelming majority of them were from institutions located in the North-West. Possibly not a single author was from local communities whose livelihoods could be affected if the PA expansion happens in conventional ways. It is worth noting that this paper did have caveats regarding the need for rights-based approaches and for expanding community governed PA approaches; however, the fact that this was not central to its approach, that there was no explicit rejection of colonial forms of conservation, and that there were assumptions about incompatibility of agriculture (including pastoralism and fisheries) with nature conservation, could be located in the predominantly global North background of the authors. A reflection of such a background is also evident in most of the other approaches mentioned above. While some of the institutions promoting them have stated principles of inclusion and respect for indigenous peoples and other local communities, and indeed many of the big conservation organisations have become better at incorporating such principles at a policy level, these are not necessarily reflected in practical applications or advocacy for action.

This is by no means to suggest that everyone located thus will inevitably have a colonial outlook, nor, conversely, that everyone in the global South will be paragons of justice. Some of the most strident critiques of colonial conservation (and of currently dominant models of ‘development’ and governance) have emerged in the global North, and some of the most regressive approaches are in institutions and people of the global South. Rather than this black-and-white view of the world, what many of us have long argued is that conservation needs to be infused with the voices and perspectives of all peoples, and in particular, those who live amidst the ecosystems and with the wildlife populations that are desperately in need of conservation: indigenous peoples and other traditional local communities (of hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, animal husbanding, and crafting livelihoods).

Back in 2003, some of us active in a couple of the commissions of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, conspired to enable about 150 members of such communities to participate in the World Parks Congress (Durban, South Africa). Even though a small minority amongst thousands of formal sector conservationists and government officials, their voices infused a very different flavor into the deliberations and the policy declarations. Formal resolutions on co-management and governance, and on recognizing community conservation, were passed and went on to influence the 2004 Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA) of the CBD. As one of the more progressive global instruments around, PoWPA includes the need to respect the knowledge, rights, and conservation traditions and practices of ‘indigenous and local communities’, and to recognize their own governance mechanisms.

Unfortunately, implementation of PoWPA has been patchy, despite some strenuous efforts by the relevant team in the CBD Secretariat, with many countries like India largely continuing colonial forms of conservation. In such conditions, ‘half-earth’ kind of proposals are likely to be taken up in conventional, exclusionary, authoritarian forms. And if so, they will not only dispossess communities, they will also continue to fail to halt the loss of biodiversity in the absence of mass ground support. A recent official review showed the widespread failure to meet any of the Aich Biodiversity Targets that governments committed to in 2010.

This failure is linked not only to the lack of mass ground-level support for colonial conservation approaches but also to the unsustainable model of ‘development’ that the world is following. That perpetual economic growth is incompatible with an ecologically finite planet has been visibly and repeatedly demonstrated. It is therefore also worth pointing out that most of the above approaches to conservation, do not include a systemic and strong critique of growth-led economic approaches, or of the rampantly wasteful consumption patterns of the global North. We can’t save half the earth if the other half continues to be subject to such patterns. Long long ago, penguins in Antarctica, far away from intensive agricultural zones, were found to have pesticides in their bodies; if that was not indicative enough that nature can’t be saved by drawing boundaries, the climate crisis should surely wake us up to this realisation. If ‘half-earth’ equates to ‘half-hearted’, it just won’t work.

In contrast to these approaches, there is a range of options for effective conservation, regeneration and restoration, that are centred around democratic governance of ecosystems and biodiversity. Perhaps the greatest promise is that of ‘Territories of Life’, or the more mouthful ‘Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Conserved Territories and Areas’ (ICCAs). Such landscapes, seascapes and sites are spread in their hundreds of thousands across the planet, and may already cover more than the official PA network. With appropriate recognition and strong local institutions, they have proven to be extremely effective for conservation; the global network ICCA Consortium has been a strong proponent, and unlike many of the institutions above, has a powerful membership of community organisations.

Other approaches with promise include the recognition of the rights of nature, including not only species of animals and plants but also natural entities like rivers and mountains, especially when initiated by or with indigenous peoples as in the case of the Maori people along the Whanganui river in New Zealand. The CBD’s provision for Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures, if infused with principles of democratic governance and livelihood security, could also be effectively used. Where there is a need for partnerships between local communities and government agencies, co-management or co-governance approaches have been effective in some areas. In all these, one can discern a foundation of ethical and strategic principles that put respect for all life, dignity, rights, livelihoods, democracy – the notion of conviviality - at the core.

Such approaches need in turn to be embedded in, and contribute to, ways of achieving human well-being that are radical alternatives to the currently dominant ‘developmentality’ of the global North. I have written on that separately, and had the privilege of co-editing a book Pluriverse that contains nearly 100 examples from around the world. So here I will only stress one last point: nature conservation approaches will work only if we move towards much more life-affirming, equitable, and simpler ways of being and doing. The Covid interregnum has given us time and occasion to fundamentally rethink both conservation and development; whether we will use it wisely, is not yet clear.