ECOS 43 (3.2)- Post-Colonialism and Conservation in the UK Overseas Territories

A 2021 House of Commons inquiry into The UK’s footprint on global biodiversity noted:

Around 90 per cent of the biodiversity for which the UK Government has responsibility resides in the UK Overseas Territories. The biodiverse environments in these territories, all but one of which are islands, range from sub-Antarctic islands in the South Atlantic to rainforests in the Caribbean and tropical islands in the remote Pacific. They contain unique species and wildlife concentrations found nowhere else in the world. The UKOTs in the South Atlantic and Antarctic are of global importance for their seabird colonies: they contain one third of the world’s albatrosses and a quarter of its penguins.1

In 1987, BANC (British Association of Nature Conservationists) and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) published Fragments of Paradise, a report on the UK’s Overseas Territories written by Sara Oldfield.2 This helped creation of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF). There was a further collaboration between UKOTCF and BANC some ten years later with a special issue of ECOS called Dependent Territories – overseas, overlooked? published in 1998.3 The editor, UKOTCF Chairman Mike Pienkowski (along with colleagues), now revisits some of the themes from his 1998 editorial Paradise Mis-filed? in a new article for the ECOS series on Conservation, Post-Colonialism and Conservation entitled The UK Overseas Territories: moving away from colonialism in the environment?

Long-time BANC trustee Peter Shirley writes of past and present collaborations:

It is always pleasing when something with which you have been involved develops a life of its own. Mike Pienkowski’s excellent article is the third time that BANC/ECOS have reported in depth on the wildlife and nature conservation imperatives of the UK’s Overseas Territories. As Chair of BANC, I was involved the first time, when we commissioned, jointly with WWF, the book Fragments of Paradise. A Guide for Conservation Action in the UK Dependent Territories by Sara Oldfield, published by Pisces Publications in 1987. The second bite of this cherry was the 1997 special edition of ECOS referred to by Mike.

This a field of crucial importance to many endangered species and the communities which play host to them. The UK Government’s responsibilities towards the territories makes the state of nature in them an important but relatively little-known aspect of nature conservation policy and support amongst the relevant departments and agencies. In addition, as well as all the usual pressures on wildlife, the fact that many of the territories concerned are small islands or groups of islands with tiny populations of endemic species brings added problems, whilst, as Mike outlines, their governance and financial systems bring extra complications.

We are fortunate that both Mike and Sara are experts in negotiating their way through these complications and were both willing to share their expertise through ECOS.

A new UKOTCF project is called From Blue Iguanas to Blue Vervain – Sharing the colonial histories from the UK Overseas Territories.4 One of the starting points for this project is how British colonialism led to “environment practices such as deforestation, land clearance for agriculture, and the mass movement and establishment of non-native species both deliberate and accidental, leading to significant impacts on ecosystems.” A central research question is: “What is the role of colonialism in shaping conservation needs and local views on the endemic blue iguana on the Cayman Islands?” Whilst the blue iguana was saved from the brink of extinction in the early 21st century, it remains endangered directly by predation from introduced cats and dogs, as well as urban development pressures, and indirectly by reduction in suitable habitat as fruit farms are converted to pasture for cattle grazing.5

However, the latest UKOTCF ‘special issue’ for ECOS addresses the fate of biodiversity not just in one of the territories but across their global expanse. Some of the wider themes developed by Mike Pienkowski and his colleagues include:

  • A tendency for conservation administered or supported by the UK government to be both top-down and fragmented, thereby perpetuating some policies and practices associated with colonial-era regimes, albeit sometimes unintentionally.
  • The impact of the UK government’s flagship marine Blue Belt Programme for the Overseas Territories in both raising the profile of nature conservation but also diverting resources from terrestrial projects vital to the future of endemic species.6
  • Limited funding for both conservation initiatives originating from OTs and restrictions on the availability of UK sources, such as the National Lottery, for programmes involving international organisations working with local partners.

Partly due to the remoteness of many OTS, most people in Britain will be unfamiliar with their remarkable natural history. The 2022 COP 15 Biodiversity Conference provides a backdrop for highlighting the importance of this.7 However, nature conservation and restoration must take account of other key issues for sustainable development, notably international and national governance. This is particularly relevant to UKOTS, some of which are subject to sovereignty disputes, including Gibraltar, the Falklands and Chagos Islands. The concept of ‘environmental sovereignty’ links to the theme of conservation geopolitics highlighted in the introduction to the ECOS Conservation, Post-Colonialism and Conservation series and is explored in a recent issue of the journal Small States & Territories.8 Two articles in this issue consider the sometimes ambiguous relationship between the UK, Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies for environmental governance which is also tackled in the ECOS UKOTCF special issue.

Colony of Southern Rockhopper Penguins, Falklands. Image Credit: Ben Tubby, Wikipedia.









8,may2022 Special section – After Brexit: The UK’s Overseas Territories and Britain’s Crown Dependencies Vol. 5, No. 1, May 2022


Mackinnon, Janet “ECOS 43 (3.2)- Post-Colonialism and Conservation in the UK Overseas Territories” ECOS vol. 43 (3.2) ECOS 43 (3), British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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