October 23, 2017

The need for wilderness

An opinion piece by Robert Allen and Edward Goldsmith, published in The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 12, June 1971. This prescient manifesto anticipated the increasing recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the world.

Since this article was written in 1971, the Inuit people of Canada and Greenland have both been granted significant land claim settlements and autonomy over large areas of their former tribal homelands. In 2007 the UN ratified the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People providing comprehensive recognition of tribal peoples throughout the world and their many contributions to humanity. Much, however, still remains to be done.

Note: In the article as originally published, reference is made to “William” rather than George Catlin. This appears to be an error and has been corrected in the text below. George Catlin accompanied General William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River in 1830.

“Could we not make the west into a great park where man, the denizens of the wild, and the scenery should be one vast park?”

George Catlin, the remarkable painter of the North American Indian, made this plea in the early part of the last century, long before the national park concept was seriously contemplated. He is quoted by Sir Frank Fraser Darling in his closing address to the Conference on Productivity and Conservation in Northern Circumpolar Lands – that last great wilderness area in the northern hemisphere; and Sir Frank goes on to say,

“I see no reason why any national park in the Arctic should not remain inviolably the country of the indigenous people who use it in pursuit of their life ways. The Eskimos did not damage the permafrost and most of the Indians who lived in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas have not greatly damaged the environment either. I see no reason why they should not be left to live their lives within that area. And on that line I would also follow up by saying that these people, Eskimos and Indians, know their country; they can live in it, move in it, better than we can, and could they not come much more into our lives by being the custodians of the Arctic? . . . It is their country. This is a way of our impressing on them and on ourselves that it is their country”. [1]

It is their country; they know it better than we do; let them look after it on behalf of the world. This is the nub of our argument on behalf of the hunter-gatherers and gatherer-farmers [2] of the world’s two most misunderstood biomes – the arctic tundra and the tropical rain forest.

There is a real possibility that we will have destroyed the rain forest before we come to understand it. At the moment, we value it only for a few plants, principally timbers like mahogany and greenheart. For the rest it is considered useless, best cut down in the search for minerals or cleared for agriculture. But modern agricultural methods are impractical in the tropical forest. Once the forest cover is removed the soil oxidises rapidly or is washed away, so that although intensive agriculture may be more productive than traditional methods over a season or two, in the long-term it is thoroughly wasteful.

Mining brings much greater returns over the short-term and these may be considered sufficient to justify the gross ecological destruction associated with it. But no country can afford to squander the vast yet fragile wealth of the forest. As P. W. Richards puts it:

“To a botanist the policy of concentrating attention on a small number of ‘economically valuable’ species suggests certain doubts. Among the many thousands of species of rain-forest trees there is only a small fraction of which the properties, mechanical, technical, biochemical, etc., are even approximately known. Among the rapidly disappearing majority of ‘useless’ species there may be many of unsuspected value . . . The reservoir of natural material represented by the rainforest flora is in danger of disappearing before its value has been adequately explored”. [3]

In the hunter-gatherers and gatherer-farmers of the forest – for example the Punan and Negritos of Malaysia, the Onge of the Andaman Islands, the Pygmies of the Congo, and many of the Amerindians of Amazonas – we have the indisputable authorities on rain forest ecology – especially its plant life. In a sense primitive plant-knowledge may be regarded as an under-exploited resource. Curare, cocaine, quinine, cassava and maize represent a small part of Amerindian learning, for example. It is also an integral part of their culture, one of which they are justifiably proud. If we are seen to respect them as naturalists we are on the road to a dignified meeting and sharing of two equally valuable cultures, rather than the cruel and irresponsible destruction of one by the other.

What both the peoples of the tropical forests and those of the circumpolar regions need is a massive campaign to secure their rights by giving them title to their lands, creating conservation areas around them and ensuring that these are respected. An ecological programme associated with the conservation areas is also needed.

In general the less developed countries have the wilderness, the developed countries have the money, so that while sovereignty obviously should remain with the country in which a wilderness area lies, we propose the developed countries pay compensation to the host country in lieu of the income it might otherwise have expected.

Governments could take the first step in this direction at the UN Man and the Environment Conference in 1972. The two headings drawn up by the Preparatory Committee which appear relevant are:

  • the World Heritage Foundation, under which it is proposed that certain areas of natural, cultural, historical or scientific significance be accorded special recognition; and
  • the rational conservation of world genetic resources, under which measures may be agreed to halt the accelerating rate of plant and animal species extinction by preserving important habitats.

The Ecologist recommends that:

  1. certain wilderness areas be declared inviolate; which initially shall be areas of arctic tundra (especially in Canada and Alaska) and tropical forest (especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Congo, Gabon, Cameroun, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Guyana), these being the least understood and most fragile biomes. Ultimately they could also include tropical scrub areas, as in Australia, Botswana, SW Africa;
  2. the hunter-gatherers and gatherer-farmers within these areas be given title to their lands (i.e. those lands in which traditionally they have gained their living) and be allowed to live there with-out pressure of any kind;
  3. severe restrictions be placed on entry to these areas by anyone who does not live there permanently (while allowing the indigenes free movement).
  4. sovereignty over the areas remain with the countries in which they lie, who should also be responsible for the policing of their boundaries;
  5. funds for administration of these areas together with payments in lieu of exploitation (to the host country) be collected from UN members in proportion to their GNP;
  6. an international committee be appointed (possibly reporting to IUCN and/or UNESCO) to supervise an ecological programme of research, the results of which should be freely available to participating countries. The benefits of this proposal:
    1. to the world (both developed and less developed) – those parts of the planet which hold great botanical and zoological riches of which we are presently ignorant and are close to destroying will be safeguarded until we know their real value. Our understanding of them will be much assisted by our studying the knowledge of plants (ethnobotany) and animal behaviour (ethnoethology) of those peoples who have lived there for generations – an investment in irreplaceable human experience.
    2. to the host countries – as (a) above, plus substantial compensation in lieu of exploitation.
    3. to the hunter-gatherers and gatherer-farmers within the areas [4] – security through title to their lands; the freedom to live their own lives; dignity and a renewed sense of their own worth in the modern world.

Few people realise what an immense psychological impact our technology has on primitive peoples. At a time when our own civilisation is being forced to choose between self-destruction and an alternative value system we could do well to show them that we respect them and wish to learn from them. This for all humankind will be the greatest benefit.


1. Darling, Sir Frank Fraser, 1970, “Tundra Conference Summary”. In Fuller, W. A., and P. G. Kevan (eds.), Proceedings of the Conference on Productivity and Conservation in Northern Circumpolar Lands, Edmonton, Alberta, 15-17 October 1969, IUCN, 16.

2. A distinction is made between shifting (slash-and-burn or swidden) cultivators who depend very little on hunting, gathering or fishing, and those to whom one or more of these practices is important. The latter are referred to here as gatherer-farmers. The significance of this distinction will be discussed in a later article.

3. Richards, P. W., 1966, The Tropical Rain Forest: an ecological study, Cambridge University Press.

4. Most of the peoples considered in this proposal find western/industrial thought-processes so odd and incomprehensible that to include them in detailed deliberations about these areas would be more distressing than helpful. Others, however, especially Eskimos and North American Indians, quite rightly insist on participation and should be invited to do so.


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