I spent the week of my Thanksgiving break traveling between some of the American West’s most beautiful places. Among them: Death Valley National Park, Zion National Park, Lake Mead, and both rims of the Grand Canyon.
Besides the huge meal portions, generally hospitable people, and amazing night skies, these places had one other thing in common. The Native Americans (apparently called American Indians in CA) all lived near the outskirts of these park lands, and most lived on the most marginal, unfarmable, and frankly aesthetically unappealing parcels of land you could imagine.
I am no expert on Native American rights and land ownership/reservation entitlement. I’m sure Native Americans don’t want my pity, and I’ll bet they’re capable of seeing beauty even in what was handed down to them by the federal government. But there’s something to be said for vast groups of people whose main sources of livelihood are selling souvenirs and operating casinos and who have far less access to education, healthcare, healthy food, and opportunities within reservations.
Case in point: when we were driving through Arizona, we came upon a town with a deli. We got excited because we hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, and this was the first place with food [that wasn’t a MacDonald’s] for many miles. The “deli” only served hot dogs, donuts, and stale shrink-wrapped turnover triangles, and was joined to a room where the Native Americans living in the town and nearby could display crafts. [To think that this is all that’s available to people here every day of the year is frightening…] The town itself had three buildings in total. It was quite literally the smallest town I have ever seen in the US. (If you ever drive through parts of the West, you’ll see that town plates list elevation instead of population… so I’ll never know exactly how many people lived there.)
All in all, the reservations sound and look like third-world enclaves in a “first-world” country… and unlike urban slums, there are few ways out within close proximity. Is there a better way, a feasible alternative to the current system? I don’t think that agriculture (especially in marginal lands) is the answer, but ecotourism lodges would be a start. Isn’t it time that the National Parks system benefited those who lived on [and didn’t destroy] the lands that are now part of this system?
Conservation vs. development, to me at least, always seemed to be a false dichotomy.
However, within the last 12 hours alone, I’ve seen multiple posts that argue otherwise. One was in Foreign Affairs regarding Morales’s declining regime, and another on two large concessions in Gambela, Ethiopia (Saudi and Indian); these are disparate continents and issues, yet both writers seemed to think that unless a national park or protected area has a fence and federal guards 24/7, people have the right to abuse the land. The more striking assumption, however, is that it would not be in the interests of the citizens to preserve their wildlife–as if people do not fish, hunt, drink water, breathe air, wear clothes made from plants, consume plant-derived medicine, grow food that needs pollinators, or take advance of the hundred other ecosystem services afforded them by the land they live on. Development does not have to be the crazy roller-coaster that China embarked on, with the obsessive emphasis on cheap fuel and rapid industrialization. We have already seen examples of African entrepreneurs taking advantage of abundant solar resources to provide clean electricity, and of the power of simple cellphone networks to transform personal banking and increase market access on the continent. Why should it stop there?
I don’t know that paying for ecosystem services is the ultimate answer to this dichotomy, but other market-driven incentives already exist. Ecotourism. Agroforestry. Shade-grown organic-certified coffee and tea. And if we drive ourselves to be more creative, more will arise.