Can protecting indigenous human rights also improve conservation efforts?

Photo: Scott Umstattd/Unsplash

Over the past decade, increasing evidence supports the correlation between secure indigenous tenure and positive conservation outcomes, at times better than those achieved in state-managed protected areas. The effectiveness of indigenous-owned lands in resisting deforestation in Brazil is well known. In Namibia, community-based wildlife management has resulted in significant growth in wildlife populations, especially in areas that had formerly been subject to heavy poaching. In Australia and the United States of America, indigenous peoples effectively manage or co-manage protected areas, through dynamic and sustainable partnerships which seek to redress past exclusion policies. In the Philippines, the national Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act includes a provision that protected areas within or overlapping ancestral domains will remain protected but that indigenous communities have primary responsibility for maintaining and protecting such areas.

From the perspective of indigenous peoples, the creation of protected areas was perceived as colonialist, as the consequences for indigenous peoples who experienced them amounted to subjugation and the loss of lands, autonomy and self-governance, livelihood resources as well as the rupture of cultural and spiritual links. Protected areas under state control imposed new laws and forms of control by government institutions. In this sense, protected areas were seen as a vehicle for coercive assimilation by indigenous peoples. Many of the egregious human rights violations against indigenous peoples which took place in the name of conservation occurred before the 1980s, such as forced displacement following the creation of African game parks.

From a conservation perspective, the loss of the guardianship of indigenous peoples and the placing of their lands under the control of government authorities has left such areas exposed to destructive settlement, extractive industries, illegal logging, agribusiness expansion and large-scale infrastructure development. Even where national policies and laws require strict protection for protected areas, in many countries state agencies have still authorized mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, dams and reservoirs, highways and other projects in direct conflict with conservation goals.

Among the consequences indigenous peoples have faced following forced displacement from protected areas are marginalization, poverty, loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, extrajudicial killings, and disrupted links with spiritual sites and denial of access to justice and remedy. Many of these violations persist in countries where protected areas were declared prior to the introduction of rights-based conservation and where legal reforms in favour of indigenous peoples’ rights remain deficient.

The three Special Rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples have, since the creation of the mandate, paid particular attention to the human rights violations that conservation measures have caused indigenous peoples worldwide. Mobilization of indigenous peoples’ movements has led to advances in international law recognizing their collective right to their traditional lands. There is also growing awareness among conservationists of the important role indigenous peoples play in conserving biodiversity. While the conservation community is in the process of adopting conservation measures that respect the human rights of indigenous peoples, considerable implementation gaps remain and new threats to human rights-based conservation are emerging.

There is significant spatial overlap between the traditional lands of indigenous peoples and areas which retain the highest levels of high-biodiversity. Traditional indigenous territories encompass around 22% of the world ’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. An estimated 50% of protected areas worldwide has been established on lands traditionally occupied and used by indigenous peoples and that this proportion is highest in the Americas, where it may exceed 90% in Central America. Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, as well as Canada and the United States of America, all have a high percentage of protected areas on indigenous traditional territory. Overlap is also significant in Australia and New Zealand. Most of the protected areas in India, Nepal and the Philippines include the territories of indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, among the principal challenges that indigenous peoples continue to face globally are difficulties in gaining legal recognition of collective ownership over their ancestral lands, especially when these have already been declared protected territories. National legislation is often contradictory. Laws pertaining to conservation and forestry are commonly not harmonized with subsequent national legislation and international law asserting the rights of indigenous peoples and the authorities responsible for enforcement of the different laws frequently fail to coordinate.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples makes specific reference to conservation in article 29, which states that indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources and that States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.

Protected areas in countries which have failed to undertake legal reforms have been marred by the highest and most persistent incidence of human rights violations against indigenous peoples. Furthermore, conservation efforts in countries where indigenous peoples remain marginalized have had the least sustainable and successful outcomes, which has prompted scrutiny of international conservation policies. Despite the fact that conservation is gradually embracing a human rights-based approach, significant challenges remain in ensuring its effective implementation.

At the global level, protected-areas policy is shaped by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At the Congress held in Durban in 2003, the world’s leading conservationists announced a “new paradigm” for protected areas which would respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. However, effective implementation of the new paradigm has been lagging and that new policies have been slow in transferring from paper to practice.

Among the key challenges reported by conservation organizations in advancing implementation at the national level are non-conducive political and legal settings in which indigenous peoples are not recognized. As indigenous rights to customary lands, territories and natural resources have yet to be effectively recognized in numerous countries, conservation organizations can play a key role in supporting indigenous peoples in such endeavours and encourage dialogue with authorities to this end.

While the high rate of biodiversity in indigenous ancestral lands is well established, the contribution of indigenous peoples to conservation has yet to be fully acknowledged. Although a new rights-based paradigm to conservation has been advancing during the last decades, it remains in its initial stages of being applied. Rights-based conservation measures continue to be hampered by the legacy of past violations and by the lack of legal recognition by states of indigenous peoples’ rights.