Skip navigation

Shifting to a Culture of Decolonization in Conservation Communities

Text and Photos by Erica Buswell

“Colonization established a system that paves the way for a privileged group to take control of a territory for the purposes of gaining wealth.  Colonization views the land, water, animals and humans as resources and seeks to control them for the short-term benefit of the privileged group.” – A working definition of colonization used by REACH’s Decolonizing Conservation Communities program.

*  *  *

This past summer, REACH invited me to participate in the development of its new Decolonizing Conservation Communities program. As former staff of a Maine land trust organization, I was excited to offer my first-hand knowledge and experience to shape the program. Truth be told, I was also grappling with how, as a member of the conservation community, I had come to see myself as a perpetuator of colonization, and I wanted to take an active role in disrupting patterns of continuing colonization endemic to land trust work while also supporting a conversation about how land trusts can shift their work to become agents of decolonization.

This new program uses the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an example of how the community of child welfare workers that saw itself as doing the inherently “good” work of protecting children was willing to take a deeper look at how removing Native children from their communities was, in fact, causing incredible harm. We use the TRC example as a call to action for the conservation community — which sees itself doing the inherently “good” work of protecting Maine’s land and waters to ensure... (fill in the blank of the conservation organization’s mission) — to take an honest look at how current conservation tools and intentions are perpetuating colonization in Maine and causing harm in Native communities.

My own realization that I was perpetuating colonization through my “good” work as a conservationist flashed through me with painful awareness on a day I fielded a call from a colleague of a Native-led organization doing programming on a property my organization had protected with a conservation easement. This property also happened to hold special significance to the tribe for whom this property was its ancestral homeland. This organization and the landowner allowing the organization to use the property were exploring the idea of transferring ownership of a portion of this property to the organization using the land, an action that would essentially restore the ability to control and manage the land to the Indigenous inhabitants from whom the land had been taken through colonization.

To help connect the dots of my experience, here’s a quick, general primer on conservation easements:
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust organization that stipulates how land can and cannot be used. Conservation easements can be perpetual, meaning that the stipulations of the easement are intended to last forever, no matter the circumstances or identity of the future landowner. Under current law, the substantive terms of a perpetual conservation easement are intended to be altered or amended only in rare circumstances and with the consent of the Maine Attorney General’s office.

The intentions behind the use of perpetual conservation easements are “good”: they are often used to prevent land from being irreversibly converted to residential or commercial development by extinguishing the right to develop the property for these purposes. Conservation easements are also used to prescribe and enforce what we presently understand to be “sustainable” resource management practices, a “good” thing, right?

But when we apply the working definition of colonization used by the Decolonizing Conservation Communities program, we also see that conservation easements are tools that inherently perpetuate colonialism. Our country’s system of private property (a colonial concept of land ownership imposed through force or coercion on many Native communities) provides landowners with an inherent right to give, sell, or extinguish certain property rights, such as mineral rights and conservation easements. By placing a perpetual conservation easement on a property, the landowner granting an easement and the land trust holding that easement are afforded the ability to not only decide, but also control (through legal enforcement) how the land can and cannot be used, forever. Moreover, the development rights on a property typically have an associated monetary value, and by extinguishing them through the grant of an easement, a landowner can extract that wealth and monetary value for their own financial gain (through payment from the land trust in return for the easement), arguably an example of a privileged group (landowners) being able to gain wealth while also exerting control over the land. Although I’m arguing that conservation easements are tools of continuing colonization, I don’t think that the vast majority of landowners and land trusts engaging in conservation easement transactions do so with the intent of continuing colonization. But as I learned in my own work, intent and impact can diverge.

The property in my example was protected with a perpetual easement specifying that the property could not be divided and sold as separate parcels; it would forever pass through different hands as a single, undivided property. The intention here was “good”: prohibiting division would prevent the possibility of any part of the property being sold for residential or commercial development, thus also hopefully ensuring a sufficient land base would remain available into the future to support a commercial farming operation. But the impact of this conservation easement on the Indigenous people to whom this land was home? It meant control and management of the property couldn’t be restored to them, as there was not a path forward for transferring ownership of only a portion of the property.

My colonizer mind tried to rationalize the situation in different ways: “but the landowner could transfer the whole property, undivided, to this organization.” Oops, this suggestion would probably be interfering with the self-determination of the Native people involved, who hadn’t indicated they were seeking ownership of the entire property, rendering this suggested approach as one of continuing colonization. “But the landowner could perpetually lease the property to this organization, therefore preserving their on-going access to it.” Maybe, but this approach felt like adding insult to injury by adding another layer of (colonial) legal hoops for the Native community to navigate as tenants in their use of the land without actually giving them the legal ability to control it. “But we didn’t contemplate the possibility that a landowner might want to give a portion of their land back to the Native community, so we didn’t write anything into the easement that would allow for this to happen.” This rationalization is perhaps the most revealing symptom of colonial thinking: we didn’t consider the fact that we were doing our “good” work in Indigenous territory, so it didn’t ever cross our minds to account for that fact or the possibility of an Indigenous land return in our program design and implementation.

As tempting as it was to try to address the hurt and grief I was feeling by pointing back to the “good” intentions of my organization’s work, I knew those rationalizations couldn’t erase the actual impact of that work on the Native community: we had caused harm because our conservation tool prevented land from being restored to their control and management. We hadn’t intended to cause harm with our easement, but the impact of it was harmful nonetheless.

During my time working in conservation, I worked with an organization that prided itself on using a conservation easement approach intended to maximize flexibility of the land use, minimize management prescriptions, and strike the delicate balance of creating relevant land use prescriptions for a future imagined, but actually unknown. It was also an organization that drew on its deep and extensive knowledge of certain land use practices to support a paternalistic belief that it is capable of envisioning and prescribing what is best for the land and our communities for perpetuity, as I’m sure many land trusts do. I estimate that I personally negotiated and secured about 30 permanent conservation easements on different properties throughout Maine. At one time, I was proud of this “accomplishment”. Looking back on it now, I wonder what the impact of my “accomplishments” will be on the Native community in the future, knowing that some impacts may not be apparent right away, and also knowing the unintended harm in Native communities stemming from my work may not only be long lasting, but may also be compounded into the future, since forever is a long time.

I feel an ache of complicity and the sting of being an agent of continuing colonization as a conservation community member. But I take heart from the example of Maine’s child welfare workers and their willingness to set out on the path of discovering the truth and allowing it to disrupt patterns of continuing colonization in their work. And I look forward to holding space for those in the conservation community who sincerely want to grapple with the truth of its role in continuing colonization, as well as identify strategies for repair, healing, and working through the challenges of shifting to a culture of decolonization.

*  *  *

Erica Buswell came to Maine in 2004, chasing visions of Winslow Homer’s winter ocean. With a background in collaborative leadership, facilitation, program development, and data analysis, she has worked for various community-minded organizations, including serving for 10 years in various positions at a Maine land conservation organization. She now works as the Knox County Community Justice Coordinator for Restorative Justice Project Maine. A Montana girl at heart, Erica originally came out east to attend the College of the Holy Cross, where she discovered a passion for social justice and community development. She feels fortunate to care for a small, off-grid homestead in Penobscot Territory, where she and her husband, Scott, are cultivating abundant food and joy.    

Continue Reading

Read More