Wilderness or Home? Redefining Pristine Nature for Conservation

Prelude by Hannes Flo (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr


‘Wilderness’ is a figment of our imagination, a concept contested since the 1970’s. Where did the term come from and how do we approach conservation without it?


Erasing the Past


If you’re anything like me, the idea of Wilderness holds a special place in your heart. A memory of wind rushing through endless leaves or the sharp scent of salt rolling in from waves. Nothing compares to something undeniably wild.


Wilderness by Aftab Uzzaman (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr


Yet the concept of Wilderness is not just wild. By framing nature as a ‘pristine’ or ‘virgin’ state with no human influence, the term Wilderness is a word of trouble and pain.


Referring to an untouched or untamed landscape, Wilderness feeds the concept of terra nullius, no man’s land. This erases the agency of Indigenous peoples, their lives, their culture, and their relationship with the Earth for thousands of years.


A Western construct bred from colonial roots, Wilderness is responsible for land alienation and the eviction of Indigenous and local communities worldwide.


“The wilderness we now value and try to protect came with us, the invaders. It came in our heads, and it gradually rose out of the ground to meet us”

Eric Roll


By definition Wilderness considers humans to be a separate entity to nature. Any impact we inflict on the landscape is detrimental. Do you agree?


Wilderness devalues the belief of Indigenous peoples whereby humans and nature are an intertwined entity. It delegitimises thousands of years of sustainable land management. By default, this feeds a tokenistic conservation approach.


The ‘Con’ in Conservation


Historic and contemporary methods of conservation are focused on preserving ‘pristine’ landscapes or rewilding these places ‘back to‘ a natural state. But ‘pristine’ forests are actually ‘cultural’ landscapes, maintained for generations.


In south-eastern Mexico, the ancient Maya population cultivated the land in the art of shifting agriculture with population densities of 150 – 500 people per km2. Long term human management of the land is a global phenomenon with Indigenous custodianship key to preserving core environmental values like biodiversity.

Guatemala_1828 – La Danta at the Mayan site of El Mirador
by Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr


As a construct, Wilderness has led to a form of ‘fortress’ or ‘colonial’ conservation more problematic than meets the eye.


National Parks or Colonial Fortresses?


Remember all those trips to National Parks? To protected areas and ecological sanctuaries? Through these regions, society creates our imagined wilderness.


On one hand, these are considered critical to the survival of threatened species. They act as a refuge from industry and development. But remember our ancestors? For thousands of years, humans successfully conserved ecosystems while living sustainably with the land.


What if I told you these ‘sanctuaries’ are fortresses? Born from colonialism and responsible for the forced relocation of thousands of people. Fortress conservation emerges in its ugliest form when protected areas exclude local or Indigenous communities. Via coercive or violent patrols, access is restricted to tourism, recreation, and research.

In essence National Parks are contemporary equivalents of English botanical gardens. Crikey.


A sense of not belonging by Nic McPhee (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr


National Parks alienate people from their homelands and deprive them of resources they depend upon. All in the name of conservation.


By allowing the construction of National Parks, we as humans are also condoning the development and degradation of any ‘unprotected’ land. What can we do to truly conserve our whole planet?


Into The New Wild


First, we need to rethink Wilderness and reconcile the diverse environments of our planet into a collective term, home. From the deepest jungle to the wild metropolis, we need to sustain life everywhere.


Conservation science is changing with ‘pristine’ regions no longer recognised as real. We are finally transitioning to a new form of conservation, in which humans and nature are once again, interconnected.


“The fundamental challenge is not to conserve the wilderness, but to tame the myth with an understanding that humans are not apart from nature.” 

Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus

Recently, wilderness has been redefined as a region with minimal or no industrial impact. A springboard for building an inclusive form of biological and cultural conservation in collaboration with Indigenous peoples.


If we are to sustainably inhabit Earth, we must learn from our ancestors. Conservationists and Indigenous peoples are fighting the same fight against development. Only by joining forces, by restoring and strengthening the rights of local and Indigenous peoples will we preserve the ecological values of our home.


Look around you, the wild is everywhere, it is you, it is me, it is us. We need to care for our whole home, for without it, where will we live?


A damp day at the seaside … for some by hehaden (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr


6 Responses to “Wilderness or Home? Redefining Pristine Nature for Conservation”

  1. Lily Ahlemeyer says:

    Hi David,

    I completely agree, preservation of our home is so important, now more than ever.

  2. Lily Ahlemeyer says:

    Hi Ashqkein,

    Thank you! Great to hear it has shifted your perspective on wilderness!

  3. Lily Ahlemeyer says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thank you! Excited to hear you learned new about conservation! Definitely hope future efforts will shift to co-operative and sustainable practices with Indigenous peoples.

  4. David Tang says:

    Hi Lily,
    Environmental conservation is definitely important and I believe it needs to be addressed more in the media. Natural disasters will only become more prevalent with increasing climate change factors. It’s important we maintain the beauty of our ecosystems, especially the animals that inhabit those areas.

  5. Ashqkein Kang says:

    Loved reading this blog post, Lily! Thank you for this incredible insight – as it has made me re-evaluate what we associate with the term, ‘wilderness’. Loved reading your opinion on this matter 🙂

  6. Laura Quintero Serrano says:

    Hi Lily! Great blog post. I had never been exposed to the idea that conservation could actually be detrimental to some people, thank you for sharing! Great explanations and hopefully in the future conservationists will include and listen to Indigenous peoples.