“Conservation” Is Used to Justify the Displacement of Indigenous People

Source: IC Magazine 

“A theory, however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue. Likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” – John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

Echoing the pleas of illegally displaced tribal peoples in a number of countries, a leading human rights NGO has called the loss of home, livelihoods, culture and customary rights in the name of conservation, “one of the most urgent and horrific humanitarian crises of our time”[1]. Such concerns are often absent from the narratives of the international conservation establishment. When they are addressed, it tends to be at the fringes, the magnitude of the crisis not appreciated.

Instead, what we usually hear from international conservation organizations is that parks, game reserves and other kinds of protected areas are the most important conservation success story and should be extended, improved, and strengthened worldwide. Recent research that provided a preamble to the November 2014 World Parks Congress, for instance, argued similarly that “protected areas are core to the future of life on our planet,” requiring larger coverage, representation and better management and funding[2]. Such assertions require reflection.

It is true that, in many cases, protected areas are allowing critical species and ecosystems to persist, and in this way they provide a cushion of hope in our ability to preserve some of the world’s remaining natural wealth. Biodiversity is often higher inside of protected areas than outside[3]. They can provide opportunities for improving health and well-being, support human life through invaluable environmental services, and offer opportunities for new forms of economic development and financial mechanisms, including through tourism, payments for ecosystem services, offsets, and bioprospecting. Yet the strategy based on protected areas, which defines conservation success in terms of spatial control, fails to tackle the most significant challenges to preserving biodiversity.

The celebration of protected areas hides ways in which the perpetuation of exclusionary conservation in many countries does not protect against so-called “development” so much as it mirrors it, as extractive industries, agribusiness, and conservation alike encroach into community and indigenous lands, and hinder local people’s ability to manage and be sustained by their territories, and to play a role in fostering biodiversity.

The “Promise” of the World Parks Congress[4] has encouragingly identified the role and rights of aboriginal peoples within community-based systems. It also pledges to “seek to redress and remedy past and continuing injustices in accord with international agreements.” Yet, state- and privately-managed conservation pursuits undertaken within former and current aboriginal ancestral territories, exercise ever greater control over large, highly biodiverse landscapes, without the needed scrutiny and appropriate responses to rights violations. The Promise’s call “to ensure that protected areas do not regress but rather progress” demands that more attention be paid to territorial jurisdiction and stewardship by indigenous peoples and local communities.

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