Questioning Our Roots

Philippine Governor General William Howard Taft tests the limits of a carabao water buffalo c. 1904. (Photo Credit: CSU Bakersfield)

“Hi Joe!” I hear this cheery call often while doing community-based conservation in the Philippines. Filipinos frequently call foreigners “Joe.” It’s a rich, if casual, reference to the military nature of U.S.-Filipino relations: “Joe” derives from G.I. Joe, the iconic 20th century image of U.S. soldiers. As it turns out, GI Joe has a long and troubling legacy here, beginning with the violent suppression of Filipino independence movements in 1898 and the subsequent annexation of the Philippines as a U.S. territory. Inspired by Danielle Purifoy’s recent essay on the “Stubborn Whiteness of Environmentalism,” I decided to explore the history behind these “Hi Joe!” calls. Purifoy describes how environmentalism designed to protect pristine nature from human degradation has excluded indigenous populations and devalued people of color, and notes that this resonates with the racist attitudes of early conservationists. How, I wondered, has this history played out in the Philippines? And what does it have to do with me?

President Teddy Roosevelt meets with the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot. Both saw the Philippines as an opportunity for new models of environmental management. (Photo credit: USDA Forest Service)

There are direct links between U.S. military conquest, early American conservationists, and environmental management in the Philippines. After defeating the Filipino insurgency in 1902, President-cum-naturalist Teddy Roosevelt sent Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to the Philippines to visit West Point graduate and “conservation missionary” George Ahern. The trip produced a framework for forest management in the islands, which became a test-lab for early American forestry. Conservationists saw colonial authority as an opportunity to test innovations and correct the islands’ mismanagement. They panned ineffective Spanish forestry management and abhorred traditional Filipino kaiñgin farming- a so-called ‘slash and burn’ shifting cultivation method in forested lands. To improve efficiency and, they added, to lift the Filipinos’ lot, U.S. administrators created the Insular Bureau of Forestry, developed a lumber market, and encouraged science-based management. It was a landmark in Progressive-Era conservation, characterized by market incentives and the principle of utilitarian conservation “for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.”


But who defined greatest good? A skeptical glance offers a different picture than Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Ahern might paint. These pioneers of conservation were Social Darwinists, paternalistic racists who professed to help “little brown brother” Filipinos by appropriating “misused” lands, as they had with indigenous peoples back home. Their science-based forestry, while profitable, was blind to socio-ecological relationships: the kaiñgin farming they decried has proven ecologically sound in tropical forests. When the Americans appropriated forests, they destroyed the ecological regeneration cycle kaiñgin sustained, left Filipino farmers food- and land-insecure, and dissolved common property systems, social relations, and spiritual beliefs. Meanwhile, the booming timber market spurred massive deforestation, a failure conservationists overlooked amidst economic success. Behind this self-satisfaction lurked paternalist racism, exemplified in Pinchot’s declaration that forestry in the Philippines was “the finest piece of work…the Anglo-Saxon people are trying to do.”

A cartoon drawn during the Philippine-American War, depicting Uncle Sam’s attempt to catch Filipino insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. I can’t help but notice the “Philippine Islands: Keep Off the Grass” sign, a poignant reminder of the exclusionary politics of U.S. Conservation efforts. (Photo Credit: UH Manoa Library)
Dean Conant Worcester- zoologist, conservationist, and Secretary of the Interior of the Philippines- took this photo of a Filipino old-growth forest. Worcester’s description provides an eloquent example of early conservationists’ paternalistic attitudes toward Filipinos: “Philippine forests should be like money in the bank for the inhabitants of the islands,” he wrote. “There are in this world wise people who…spend only the interest on their money; and there are others who spend the principle while it lasts. To which class do the Filipinos belong?” (Photo credit: The Philippines Past and Present)

We could easily dismiss this legacy of ethnocentric American forestry as antiquated, irrelevant to modern conservation. And yet, daily calls of “Hi Joe!” remind me that history is present, that denying the past ensures we will repeat it. I see resonances between Progressive-Era and modern conservation: market triumphalism and “science-based management” still echo loudly in universities, government offices, and conservation NGOs; ecologists at the field’s highest levels still scorn ‘slash and burn’ agriculture; the “greatest good…for the longest time” utilitarian formulation parallels today’s rallying cry of “sustainable development;” and all these still create the rationales by which we purport to help without asking on whose terms, and without considering who’s excluded. As a result, the field is still overwhelmingly white, western, and upper-class.

These resonances are not coincidental. As Purifoy writes, “little has changed in the American imagination of who protects our environment and for whom.” Purifoy suggests this will remain true until environmentalists confront our past and present shortcomings. To do this, we should pursue the questions that have been too uncomfortable to ask. Seeing ourselves in a good light, resting on the sincerity of our intentions, and pointing to successful and scientifically sound management is not enough; Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Ahern did the same. To do better than them- to create an inclusive and ethical environmentalism- we must recognize ourselves in the mirror of our past, and acknowledge the historical reckoning invoked by a casual call of “Hi Joe!”


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