NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Even Native Peoples Affect Their Environment

August 10, 1999

The idea that native peoples are natural conservationists is a myth, says Robert Whelan of the Institute of Economic Affairs. The historical evidence suggests that native people have always had a massive impact on their environments, often in ways which were damaging.

Among the examples Whelan cites:

  • American Indians burned forests repeatedly in order to create grasslands for the animals they hunted.
  • Their hunting resulted in the extinction of many large mammals in America, including the giant sloth, giant beaver and even the horse -- before the white man arrived
  • The Australian Aborigines drove to extinction many mammal species, including giant kangaroos.
  • When the Maoris arrived in New Zealand they "sat down and ate their way through all twelve species of giant moa birds."
  • Some of Hawaii's extinct birds ended up in beautiful feather capes, some of which involved feathers from 80,000 birds.

Where native people have acted to conserve resources, it has been because they have adopted the institution of private property, says Whelan, often as a result of contact with westerners. For example, the Montagne Indians of Labrador, Canada, only found it worthwhile to establish property rights in beavers when contact with settlers opened up markets for the pelts. Each family then established its own hunting territory, and within each territory was a breeding area where no animals were killed.

Source: Robert Whelan, "In Wild Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage," May 1999, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street London, SW1P 3LB, (0171)-799-3745.


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