Padmani Perez's book discusses the realities of indigenous people's right versus that of conservationist goals. Photograph by Global Seed Savers
Culture Books

Rethinking the ‘noble green savage:’ why being indigenous doesn’t always mean nature’s protector

The medical anthropologist and noted mountain climber reflects on the book Green Entanglementsby Padmapani Perez and how our concepts of environmental protection must coexist with those of our indigenous peoples whose very lives depend on their immediate surroundings.
Gideon Lasco | Sep 28 2019

Around the time that Dr. Padmapani Perez was doing her fieldwork at the Mt. Pulag National Park, I climbed the mountain, Luzon’s highest peak, for the first time. Then 17, naive and very idealistic, I saw the local people with a sense of fascination, beautiful in their own way.

Since then I have returned many times to the roof of Luzon. Unforgettably, I once trekked from Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya to Kabayan, Benguet. Taking several days, passing through several mountains, and spanning over a hundred kilometers, the hike was memorable not just for the fantastic scenery, but also for the evenings spent chatting with the locals who shared their stories and life struggles.

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My only disappointment at the time was the sight of trees felled to give way to roads. Some sections of the trail were no longer footpaths but rough roads where an occasional habal-habal would breeze past me and my hiking companions. Others were wide enough to accommodate jeepneys. “Soon,” I lamented, “this hike would no longer be possible.”

But the people I spoke with had a very different take. “My greatest wish is for the road to be finished,” a woman told me, citing the construction project’s benefits. She recalled an incident when a child in her village had “seizures” one night and died the following morning. “If only there was a road, maybe he would still be alive today.”

I was reminded of my Cordillera hikes when I read Green Entanglements, the anthropologistDr. Padmapani Perez’s recently-published work (University of the Philippines Press 2018). Drawing from her comparative ethnography of Mt. Pulag and Baun Bango in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, she unearths the tensions between indigenous communities and what she calls “agents of conservation”: While environmentalists want to preserve the area, the locals have very different and divergent ideas.

In this book, Perez questions the idea of the “noble green primitive”, that is, the ways in which our society has equated being indigenous with being environmentally conscious. Just as the Westerners romanticized the people they encountered to be “noble savages”, we have mostly assumed that indigenous peoples are forest conservationists who would bravely protect and defend the environment. Perhaps, as a scholarly reviewpoints out, it also made empirical sense, as most environmental degradation are caused by industries societies (think mining firms and multi-national companies who own huge plantations) and not isolated indigenous communities.

However, this view has since been questioned by many scholars who have documented how indigenous peoples around the world have actually negatively impacted the environment. Jared Diamond, for instance, showed howsocieties of all shapes and sizes have experienced human-caused environmental catastrophes. In my own mountain journeys, I have seen communities littered with plastic — and locals casually throwing garbage everywhere. Of course, I have also met indigenous ‘bantay gubat’ who draw on indigenous knowledge as raison d’etre for their environmental mission. 

Green Entanglements presents IPs as neither agents of conservation nor destruction — but as people who engage the environment in their own terms.

Regardless, the notion of the ‘noble green primitive’ raises an issue that is very salient in our environmental debates today: Whose interests shall prevail: that of the environment, or those of the people? What happens when the indigenous right to self-determination clashes with the imperative to conserve our forests, particularly at a time of planetary crisis? Must we create a state of exception for our time? Must, we, as Perez writes, demand the “burden of authenticity” from indigenous communities based on their environmentalism? 

Interestingly, while many NGOs have invoked the “noble green primitive” to argue for conservation, others have also invoked the fact that there is no such thing to argue for the eviction of indigenous peoples, creating whatscholars have called “conservation refugees”

Another important theme in Green Entanglementsis the essentialization of indigenous peoples — treating them as if they all think and act the same. This view is very simplistic; as Perez notes, there are indigenous elites; there are particular community members who interface with other actors; and even among different indigenous peoples, there are legal and political differences — just as there are social and economic inequalities withintheir communities.

Perez draws from her comparative ethnography of Mt. Pulag and Baun Bango in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia for her book. Photograph from UP Press Online Store

There are those like Uncle Orlando (p. 234) who we may truly call “noble and green”, but while he sincerely talks about the need for the logging ban, he is dismissed, laughed at, and not even acknowledged.

There are also those who, like Clara and Ibu Rosiya, “tend to slip between the cracks in the process of implementing nature conservation and indigenous peoples’ rights” (p.267); they don’t have exceptional stories although their lives are exceptionally hard.

One final theme that Perez stresses is the fact that we live in different “timescapes”: while indigenous communities experience the park on a daily basis, agents of conservation just visit it during infrequent meetings — and of course there also visitors like me who experience the park as a recreational site. Indeed, for me and many others, Mt. Pulag is mostly a place of memory, while for the communities, it is a site of livelihood — and life itself. How can we reconcile their demands with our fervent hopes that the mountain of our imagination would stay the same? The fact that Mt. Pulag — like many mountains in the country — has grown in popularity over the past decade adds another layer of complexity, and another set of actors: the tourists, mountaineers, and entrepreneurs.

***

From time to time, I still go back to the Cordilleras to hike, and as is customary for mountaineers, I try to preach the Leave No Trace principles, calling on hikers and locals alike not to throw trash along the way. But what of my life in Diliman and Los Baños? To return to the lament about the mountain trail giving way to village road, perhaps realizing that I come from a city of highways and expressways will give more context as to why the woman’s claim has more credence than mine.

But perhaps, too, the question is not whether there should be a trail or a road, but how the two can co-exist, just as the question is not between IP rights and conservation, but how the two can engage with each other on the same table. If, as our scientists tell us, we are living in a time of environmental crises, then our imperiled, entangled fates demand that we do our best to live together.