I’ve been meaning to wrestle with this Mark Fisher article from back in July:
Lots of contentious stuff on ancient & modern indigenous practices of ‘domesticating’ fire, ‘farming’ reindeer and other things which strongly hint at a conclusion of intrinsic human destructiveness, with the only solution being conservation via nature reserves where humans are totally excluded. Jean Dorst’s book from the 1960’s, ‘Before Nature Dies’ provides the background:
Dorst understood how dangerous the human species had been since its first appearance on earth â€“ â€œHuman beings have always exerted a far greater influence on their habitat than any other species of animal and, even in the remote past, they upset the balance of nature to their own detrimentâ€. It is a theme he constantly returns to, noting that â€œif it was possible to regard humans in the distant past as a natural element like any other animal, it was a purely temporary conditionâ€ because although ancient humans may not always have exerted a dominant influence on their environment, it was nevertheless an influence often prejudicial to its own interests â€“ â€œUnlike most other animal species, man is capable of destroying his habitat long before feeling the effects of this wantonnessâ€. Thus man, because of his intellect, could not be â€œa simple element in a truly natural habitat once he has crossed a certain threshold of civilizationâ€
He saw this threshold as being the transformation from hunter and berry-gatherer to shepherd and farmer â€” â€œAs the earth in its primitive state is not adapted to our expansion, man must shackle it to fulfil human destiny. In order to satisfy our elementary needs, especially for food, we have to transform certain habitats to increase their productivity directly or indirectlyâ€. In this, Dorst recognised that our â€œactivity has tended to simplify the ecosystems, to channel their productions in a purely human directionâ€ and that our impact on nature would â€œnever be comparable to that of any other zoological species, since, in addition to the instinctive biological behaviour common to all animals, man has cultural traditions and beliefs capable of modifying his simple actions and reactionsâ€. Thus he saw that â€œprimitive, pre-industrial societies had already gravely injured a number of natural habitats, and some animals doubtless vanished during this period. The ravages were, of course, limited, but humanity already possessed the germs of self-destruction which developed dramatically during subsequent phases of its historyâ€
I guess this is why Peter (or Urban Scout in one of his mischievous moods!) labeled him a ‘species hater’ in an old discussion on his blog
Anyway, the bit that got my goat was this subtitle and the following discussion about indigenous practices with reindeer in Scandinavia:
The privileging of indigenous people
I have a real issue with an alleged subsistence way of life being dependent on the export and sale of a natural resource, a so-called traditional living of indigenous people being propped up by an international trade in fur. The Inuit, however, are not the only indigenous people to be privileged in Europe, the rights of the SÃ¡mi people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland are seemingly more important than the rights of wild nature in what are often strictly protected areas, something that Jean Dorst would likely not endorse (see earlier). I came across this a few years ago, when working on drawing up a register of wilderness areas in Europe for the European Commission (39). Wilderness is not a legal definition in the protected areas of Europe (40) not even in the state-owned ErÃ¤maa of Finland, the so-called wilderness areas designated under Finlandâ€™s Wilderness Act 1991, but which are to preserve the cultural heritage and reindeer herding livelihoods of the SÃ¡mi people (41). Instead, in compiling an initial list of protected areas that may have a wilderness characteristic, a proxy was used of strictly protected areas across Europe classified under the IUCN Categories Ia & b that met a minimum size criteria of 3,000ha. Large protected areas in IUCN Categories II (National Park) and VI (Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources) that could contain a strictly protected core area of sufficient size were also identified. Local knowledge was then needed to appraise those protected areas against a set of wilderness criteria that included no habitation or settlements, no habitat management or wildlife management, no motorised access, no road building and no extractive use of natural resources. On the basis of that appraisal, two categories of protected area were sifted from the initial list: those meeting all eight of the criteria were assigned to Category A as wilderness; and those meeting five or more were placed in Category B and considered to be wild areas that have the potential to become wilderness if measures were taken to remove barriers to that transformation (39).
It was when the final check was being done, during a verification process with national data managers of each country, that the implications for these privileged rights within protected areas became apparent. In the case of Sweden, Olle HÃ¶jer of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, upgraded the Category B rating of four of its national parks to Category A - only one of its national parks had met all of the criteria - and while none of the restricted nature reserves (IUCN Cat. Ib) had qualified for Category A, he upgraded 28 of them from Category B to Category A. He justified this by example of Sarek National Park, which he described as being a vast natural landscape that had a significant level of restriction of activity. He guessed at the reason why this park had been put in Category B:
â€œPerhaps this is because of the Sami people have rights to have reindeer herding and use snowmobile in the area? However even so there are large areas of Sarek that is not under such regime/interventionâ€
SÃ¡mi given exceptions to regulations in protected areas
While the regulations for Sarek National Park do contain a range of restrictions, and which also cover the other three parks he upgraded, there are exceptions in the regulations to those restrictions for SÃ¡mi people in exercising their â€œimmemorial rightsâ€ under the Reindeer Husbandry Act (42). The same is true for VindelfjÃ¤llen Nature Reserve, one of the 28 reserves Olle upgraded to Category A, where â€œReindeer husbandry may be undertaken without hindrance of the above regulationsâ€¦in accordance with the Swedish law on reindeer husbandryâ€ (43). Thus it should have been up to Olle to substantiate what parts of the national parks and nature reserves are unaffected by the SÃ¡mi people because if you or I were to visit Sarek or VindelfjÃ¤llen, we would face a range of restrictions, such as not being able to disturb grazing reindeer, climb in trees containing nesting predators, fell trees, fish, hunt, operate motor vehicles or motorboats, take off and land aircraft, take a dog, or conduct commercial activities. However, the SÃ¡mi are given exceptions in these regulations for national parks and reserves such that they can pretty much do all of these, including using off-road vehicles like snowmobiles.
It is the Reindeer Husbandry Act that privileges the SÃ¡mi people in Sweden, since as well as establishing the right, based on â€œimmemorial customâ€, to the â€œuse of land and water to sustain themselves and their reindeerâ€ it also defines the reindeer herding area where the rights are exercised irrespective of ownership of the land (44). Since this covers a contiguous area of 33.5% of northern Sweden (45) then all protected areas in that region will be affected. Olle, however, was keen to point out that not all wilderness areas in N Europe are protected â€“ â€œI believe the basic analysis ultimately should be applied on all known areas irrespective of protection levelâ€ his approach being to â€œdivide the analysis, i.e. separate [the] degree of naturalness and ecological qualities from management regimes and restrictionsâ€. This would be very convenient for Olle because it would allow him to overlook the exceptions to restrictions on activity afforded the SÃ¡mi. It also fitted the assertion he made that Sweden â€œhas the majority of both protected and unprotected wilderness and wild areas in Europe (except Russia)â€. If Sweden has so much wilderness, even if not protected, then why does it consider that it has the capacity to support a wolf population of only 210? Could it be that the wolves are a threat to reindeer herding?
That this is the case is evidenced by the intransigence of Swedish authorities to adequately address its failings in the strict protection of wolves under the requirements of Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (46). Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren was warned in December 2010 (47) that a letter of formal notice for failure to comply would be sent if Sweden did nothing about the unfavourable conservation status of the Swedish wolf population; the ceiling of 210 set for the number of wolves in Sweden under A New Predator Management Act 2009 (48); the licensed hunting of a strictly protected species under the same Act without the conditions for derogations set out by Article 16 of the Habitats Directive being met (46) and the risk that repeated licensed hunting could lead to an erroneous cull of up to 15% of the wolf population each year. The most telling indictment in their breach of the Habitats Directive was that Sweden has reduced the area in which wolves can freely distribute within the country by excluding their presence, presumably by lethal control, from the reindeer herding area in northern Sweden, a parliamentary decision from 2001 on the distribution of wolves that was reconfirmed in a later report of the predator survey Goals for Predators (49). In reaction to the Swedish government allowing the licensed shooting of a further 20 wolves in a hunting season opening a few weeks after receipt of the warning letter (Sweden had already allowed the licensed hunting of 28 wolves in early 2010) a formal infringement procedure was launched by the EU with a Letter of Formal Notice being sent (50). This was followed up six months later with a Reasoned Opinion the next phase of the infringement procedure, and which requested Sweden to amend its wolf policy, giving it two months to comply (51). Fast forward four years to this June and Sweden is delivered a second Reasoned Opinion because it is considered to have established a systemic practice that infringes the Habitats Directive, by allowing a licensed hunt in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and which threatens the growth of the local wolf population in reaching a favourable conservation status (52). Sweden has again been given two months to respond with measures taken to remedy the situation, or the Commission may decide to refer Sweden to the EU Court of Justice.
‘Privileging’? That’s not right… When has the dominant culture ever privileged a native people without there being an underlying agenda? In this case I guess that would be supporting a (possibly) destructive, extractive activity in an attempt to ‘integrate’ these people into the civilised economy - with ethnic cleansing and/or genocide the predictable end result. It reminds me of the way some people blame N.American Indians for depletion or extinction of mammal populations due to the fur trade (I remember Ray Mears apportioning blame in this way in his Northern Wilderness series) which they were supplying. But if there hadn’t been that insatiable demand in the first place… I guess there’s a lesson in here about how human domestication works. Certain desired characteristics are encouraged (especially the sociopathic ones, it seems) while others are ignored or beaten down. Hand-to-mouth subsistence is unacceptable, but cash-crop farming or animal husbandry is okay if the produce gets hoovered up into the global economic system.
Anyway, I respect Fisher as a writer and rewilding advocate, even if it’s not quite the same kind of rewilding we talk about here. I’d be interested to hear what people think about his points above, though, especially anybody with deeper knowledge of the Scandinavian reindeer people and their history of interaction with the dominant culture. Maybe we can change his mind?? Or at least use it as an opportunity to clarify certain things about our own positions. The ‘domestication’ of fire for one thing - was that really the first step on the slippery slope down to full-scale agriculture and industry as some writers argue (eg: John Livingston in ‘Rogue Primate’)? Or did the shamans manage to get it under control and harness it to a positive end?