I am going to commit conservation heresy and ask out loud: Should the conservation movement be proud of the 108,000 protected areas around the world it has thus far helped establish?
I have many reasons for asking that question, but among those reasons is certainly Mark Dowie’s recently published book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native People (MIT Press, 2009).
Dowie’s concern is simple — millions of people have been displaced or told they could no longer practice traditional ways of living on the land so that biodiversity could be scientifically managed and protected in nature reserves. Dowie’s history is poignant, disturbing and not easily refuted. The author is a serious and award-winning journalist who does not tell stories without credible sources.
The key question is to what extent have we — and by “we,” I mean the big conservation NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and WWF — mended our ways so that we no longer disrespect the rights of indigenous people in pursuit of our missions. All of the big NGOs have now codified institutional policies that promise not to displace indigenous peoples and to involve local peoples in the establishment and management of protected areas in ways that respect traditional knowledge and self-determination.
Dowie applauds us for that step, but cautions that we may still be complicit by staying silent as national governments violate the rights of indigenous people in the act of creating national networks of protected areas. To what extent are we willing to speak out if a national government does not respect the rights of the indigenous people who live inside newly created protected areas?
Dowie does not mean to paint conservationists as villains. Indeed the first sentence of his book reads: “What you are about to read is a good guy versus good guy story.” And the book ends by suggesting that conservation may finally be ridding itself of old colonialist attitudes and rejecting the counsel of “heroes” such as John Muir and Richard Leakey who were so quick to call for the forced eviction of people from nature reserves.
In a world hungry for resources and facing the addition of another 3 billion people in the next 50 years, pressures on protected areas will be huge. I cannot imagine more effective stewardship of protected areas than that provided by the local communities who manage, live in, draw benefits from, but also seek to sustain the natural capital of those areas. The only protected-area strategy that has any chance of lasting results is one that embraces people living in and extracting livelihoods from the ecosystems we seek to sustain.
However, for me at least, the rights of people for self-determination take supremacy over any species or biodiversity tally. It is my job as a conservation scientist to find the ways that people can indeed come first and while biodiversity can also be protected. The traditional protected areas strategy has all too often trampled on people’s rights — which is why that strategy warrants a critical reexamination.