HONOLULU — Conservation organizations dedicated to protecting the world’s biodiversity hot spots often fail to take into account why the forests are still standing. Often, it is the indigenous people who have lived there since time immemorial who protected and preserved these lands. This is a crucial issue that the major conservation organizations must address at the World Conservation Congress, taking place in Honolulu from now until Sept. 10.
Many of the initiatives sponsored by these organizations overlook the simple fact that environmentally valuable lands are often inhabited by communities, many of them indigenous, and that these communities’ rights must be respected.
In India, for example, local people are being illegally forced from their homes in the Kanha tiger reserve and elsewhere, despite evidence that indigenous people and tigers can coexist.
Research by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the World Resources Institute shows that where indigenous people and local communities have legally recognized land rights, carbon storage is higher, biodiversity is richer and deforestation lower than in government-managed forests or those run by nongovernmental groups. Indigenous people and local communities are the best proven stewards of their traditional lands and resources, and respecting their rights is critical amid the climate crisis.
Yet historically, protected areas and parks were established with the assumption that protecting nature meant removing the people who live there. “Conservation” often meant disenfranchising the very communities who have long protected the world’s natural resources. Estimates of the number of people displaced in the name of conservation run into the millions.
Recognizing this injustice, and the role of indigenous people in protecting nature, the world’s leading conservation organizations announced a “new paradigm” for protected areas at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, in 2003. They pledged to respect indigenous people’s and local communities’ rights to their lands.
Yet those commitments have not been met. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I continue to receive complaints about the violation of indigenous rights in the name of conservation. My recent report to the UN examines human-rights violations committed supposedly for environmental protection and finds that projects supported by major conservation organizations are still displacing people from their ancestral homes.
In the Congo Basin, the creation of at least 26 of 34 protected areas involved displacing the indigenous people who lived there, including in the Boumba Bek and Nki National Parks in Cameroon.
Around the world, indigenous people find their traditional subsistence activities labeled as poaching and considered primitive even where they have lived harmoniously with the forests for centuries. For many indigenous communities, like the one in Besau in the Nothern Philippines where I grew up, the lands provide food, fuel, fodder, shelter and medicine and form the basis of cultures, identities and livelihoods.
Many conservation organizations have policies on indigenous people, yet these policies seem to exist only on paper. Some improvements have been made in certain areas, but most major nongovernmental organizations fail to adequately monitor and address these issues across their global operations.
Further, they have only just begun to address the issue of restitution of lands and rights taken from indigenous people. They can start by fully implementing the Whakatane Mechanism, which addresses restitution of land and territory of indigenous people. It assesses protected areas and proposes solutions where people have been negatively affected by conservation projects.
As crucial as it is for conservation organizations to partner with indigenous people for new protected areas, it is also vital that they use this mechanism to address the complaints of indigenous people who have already lost their homes, whose leaders have been killed or “disappeared,” or whose traditional livelihoods have long been criminalized. Where indigenous people are still asking to go home, the conservation community needs to help fulfill this dream.
The answer to conflicts caused by protected areas on indigenous lands must begin and end with the recognition of indigenous people’s rights. These lands are theirs, and protecting their right to continue living there and sustaining them is a fundamental human right. It is also necessary if we are to save the world’s most threatened forests — a priority we can all agree on.