Welsh culture, language and identity are deeply enmeshed with farming and tightly bound up with a connection to the land. With a long and painful history of English colonialism in Wales, resistance to rewilding as it is perceived is hardly surprising. In the absence of an extensive consultation process, rumours and misconceptions about the project snowballed, culminating in a collective demand for all rewilding interests to pull out of the project. In the end they did, allowing it to continue as a community-led initiative.
Colonial environmentalism There is a history of ‘colonial environmentalism’ in western culture, most clearly seen in the early national park movement. ‘Wilderness’, seen through the lens of EuroAmerican Romanticism, was perceived to be a pristine state free of human influence – as the New World was perceived by Columbus. Indigenous peoples were forcefully ejected, their long cultural influence erased from a landscape subsequently marketed to urban tourists as a pristine and uninhabited wilderness. Yellowstone was the first national park created in this way, in 1872. The ‘Yellowstone model’ was replicated across the colonies, seeing Indigenous people from Africa to Australia exiled from their land to protect ‘wilderness’.
In order to learn from and not repeat these problematic approaches, those of us who long to see wilder landscapes must ask ourselves if we are advocating the creation of wildness or wilderness. The difference is subtle but significant. The traditional notion of ‘wilderness’ centres urbanity and implies the exclusion of humans – wilderness is ‘over there’, unpeopled and untouched, while people and civilisation are ‘over here’, in ‘tamed’ urban areas. We go to wilderness to escape urbanity, and rural (often relatively poor) land-based peoples such as farmers are viewed with derision. The wilderness myth sits on foundations of colonialism and Cartesian dualism of people and Nature as separate entities (but can be traced back to early Neolithic agriculturalists – the domesticated human world versus the uncontrolled wild world). As these ideas spread through successive waves of colonialism, so began the taming of the wild world.
Rewilding is sometimes perceived as removing people from the picture, a problematic notion that plays into this narrative, positioning humans somehow outside of Nature. But rewilding – certainly a rewilding that doesn’t replicate colonial attitudes – isn’t about removing people from Nature. It’s about coming into a different relationship with Nature: one of reciprocity rather than domination and control.
Decolonising rewilding Decolonised approaches to rewilding must consider from whom and where the aspirations originate, on whom and where they are enacted, and the power relations between them. What is the impact on rural and Indigenous communities and their cultures, and how can their culture be supported rather than eroded? Whose voices are listened to, and whose are marginalised? Are affected communities involved in project development and decision-making? What changes allow a multiplicity and equity of cultures and ways of relating to the land? Where are the areas for creative collaboration with the greatest collective benefit – including for wildlife?
These are important questions to ask in any project, but in the current febrile atmosphere – with growing numbers of rewilding supporters imbued with the imperative for environmental reform clashing with fear-
There is, however, a huge spectrum of common interest between intensive agriculture at one extreme and wilderness at the other ful farmers under pressure from all sides – it’s more important than ever to navigate the situation slowly and considerately, moving at the speed of trust. Perhaps the greatest challenge is accommodating such complexity amidst the urgency the ecological crisis demands. But failure to recognise people as an essential part of the ecosystem and consequently ignoring the social dimensions of rewilding not only dooms projects to failure but also puts humans outside Nature – which is what started this whole mess in the first place.
It is perhaps simpler (at least conceptually) to reconnect Indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures with wild places. Reconciling farming cultures and wildness is trickier. It’s worth acknowledging that although rewilding isn’t necessarily an anti-agricultural position, there is a fundamental tension between wildness and farming. The very notion of ‘wildness’ contrasts with ‘tame’: domesticated; agri-cultured. And as economic forces have warped low-impact traditional farming practices into an increasingly intensive and ecologically damaging industry, farming and wildness have become increasingly opposed.
There is, however, a huge spectrum of common interest between intensive agriculture at one extreme and wilderness at the other. Innovative projects such as Knepp Wildland in Sussex offer examples of an ‘extensive’ rather than ‘intensive’ approach to farming, which harmonises agricultural productivity and wildness. The wealth that allowed the owners of Knepp to experiment isn’t available to most farmers, though, who must be liberated from the forces that push them into intensification.
Rewild and reform In these lines of enquiry we might begin to connect the energy of the rewilding movement with struggles for land rights reform and the commons, the politics of class and equality, and radical environmental and economic reform. In doing so we may find much common ground and opportunities for solidarity – transformational solutions to a systemic problem.
28 Resurgence & Ecologist