Sara E. Cannon, PhD

Aquatic Conservation Scientist

History doesn’t have to repeat itself: Looking back at the origins of biodiversity conservation shows that decolonization is necessary for just and effective steps forward

Last week, I spoke at my department’s weekly seminar about the need to situate conservation as a field within both local and historical contexts. My argument was that this context is integral for preventing conservation efforts from causing harm in the future; essentially, we need to learn from the past in order to find ways forward, rather than just continuing to repeat the same mistakes. If we don’t know the origins of conservation and the assumptions that are built into the field, we won’t be able to take active steps to address and challenge them. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is not something that natural scientists are taught to think about, and we rarely (if ever) openly discuss or engage with conservation social science. This lack of discussion and failure to critique our own practices only serves to further normalize conservation approaches that are harmful to Indigenous peoples around the world.

It was an honour to have received an invitation to talk about this, particularly because it is not the topic of my dissertation research and I do not consider myself an expert (I have lots to learn!). I received some great questions, feedback, and suggestions afterwards, and I hope the presentation will start some discussion among people in my department who are doing conservation-related work.

If this topic interests you and you’d like to watch my presentation, it was recorded and is available online at the UBC Institute for Oceans and Fisheries’ YouTube channel (I have also embedded it and the abstract below). You can also download a PDF of the slides here. As always, please feel free to get in touch if you have any feedback or suggestions! Again, I know I have lots to learn and I am grateful for anyone who takes the time to point out where I may want to spend more time or effort.

Many natural and marine scientists work in places with long histories of occupation and colonialism, where the impacts of colonialism are still ongoing. No matter how well-intentioned, biodiversity conservation work can perpetuate those legacies. Most scientists working in conservation-related fields are not taught about the ways their efforts can impact local people and communities, which can undermine the goals of their work. In order to end ongoing harm to Indigenous communities, we need to start by understanding the many ways the work we do and the assumptions we make are informed by colonial frameworks. Effective and just conservation requires that non-Indigenous scientists step back so that Indigenous peoples can take the lead, and our efforts must support that leadership. In this talk, I will discuss the history of biodiversity conservation, challenge the assumptions that the field is based upon, and identify how these assumptions led to conservation approaches that continue to harm Indigenous peoples around the world today. I will end with case studies that illustrate potential ways that scientists working in conservation can decolonize our approaches to simultaneously improve conservation efforts and support Indigenous sovereignty.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, this blog post I wrote about the need to decolonize conservation (and the reading list it introduces) may be a good start!


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2 responses to “History doesn’t have to repeat itself: Looking back at the origins of biodiversity conservation shows that decolonization is necessary for just and effective steps forward”

  1. Margaret Jean Cannon Avatar
    Margaret Jean Cannon


    Nice job, this is great work! I hope the talk was well received!

    I hope you don’t mind if I share this. The east coast is getting lots of snow and cold temperatures,I hope you and Daniel are doing well!


    Jean Margaret Jean Cannon (941) 313-0559 *Cowgirl Code of **Ethics* *#1.* *Live Each Day with Courage*.* Courage includes “standing up and speaking out” when something isn’t right*. *#2* *Take pride in your work. #3 Always finish what you start #4 Do what has to be done*. *I Dissent, written and spoken **out loud** is just as important as someone else’s opinion.*

    1. Thank you, Jean! Yes, please feel free to share!

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