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.

(Image: Tea plantation near Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park. Credit: John & Mel Kots through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I think that we should protect traditional practices that have been going on for centuries that do not threaten the balance of nature. We should not allow people to threaten excitation and loss of habitat by selling environmental resources to unlimited global markets just because they are native. But this should apply to all nations and peoples. We should lead by example and greatly reduce our consumption of natural resources and preserve the trees and other natural resources that we have in our countries which protect our own water rights, food security, and climate protection as well as working cooperatively to protect these rights and resources in other countries.

  2. I am glad to see this subject raised in this forum. For me this subject comes down to an understanding and treatment of rights, both basic human rights and property rights. The forced displacement of local people should be recognized as a violation of basic human rights and is never acceptable. I am encouraged by recent partnerships between conservation organizations and indigenous groups. One such trend is the assistance conservation groups are providing to communities for the formal recognition of traditional territories and land claims. Receiving formal titles to their land and recognition by national governments of their property rights is an important and moral achievement in and of itself. For biodiversity conservation it is a necessary yet insufficient step. To think that once indigenous and traditional peoples receive formal land rights they will necessarily utilize their natural resources in a sustainable and ecologically benign manner fails to recognize the underlying motivations of people generally. Indigenous people want to send their children to good schools and have access to quality health care. They also want iPods, TVs, and cell phones. While local knowledge does exist and many groups have long practiced sustainable hunting and farming practices, they do not live in an economic or political vacuum. Local people will make rational decisions in their own best interests whether they are indigenous or not. Conservationists must recognize that these decisions may not result in the best outcome for biodiversity. If conservationists and people of the developed world value biodiversity, they must be willing to fairly and adequately compensate local people for conserving it. Indigenous and traditional people’s participation should be entirely voluntary. It is therefore up to us to find viable models for conservation that provide sufficient incentives for their participation.

  3. Be proud of what you have preserved, but be honest about what harm you have done in the process. Do good work, learn from your mistakes, and strive to do better. No one can ask more than that.

  4. Any conservation and area protection work is good. But my point of view as a SE Asian conservationis: Poor countries are always on the receiving end when rich countries indulge in waste and lavish life-style; eg. timber needed for IKEAs, Wal-Mart, TESCO furniture. If there’s no demand, these companies won’t buy timber.

    If everyone around the world live a sustainable life (eg. reuse old furniture, avoid using McDonald’s napkins, takeaway pizza boxes, disposable chopsticks), we may not have to gazette protected areas and push natives out of their ancestral land.

    The point here is, everyone cheers forest protection but wants their lavish way of life to remain.

  5. I don’t work all over the world, but in my experience in Latin America successful collaboration with indigenous people in conservation begins with assuring their land and resource rights in an unambiguous and fully participatory way. This assistance makes us partners. However, we have no right to limit the degree to which they may aspire to the same “benefits” that we “enjoy” as a result of our high consumption economies. The most vexatious part of community conservation lies in our lack of attention to the incentives we can provide for conservation and the time-scales over which they operate. Clearly, the ability and willingness of the BINGOs to provide the necessary resources over the necessary long-term is questionable. Governments must be involved with well-financed programs from North-South transfers that have the staying power of, for instance, Social Security in the United States and Europe. If we can’t figure this puzzle out and accept less for ourselves while insisting on more for indigenous people who conserve resources through appropriate modalities, we will ultimately look back on our activities as pointless.

  6. I could not agree more with Drew Bennett´s comments above. We need to look at the relationship between conservation organizations and indigenous peoples from the perspective of human rights, and in particular and more recently, from the perspective of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Understanding and respecting such rights in their complexity is necessary and requires still a lot of learning from conservation NGOs (not to say that Indigenous organizations could also learn more about the motivation and approaches of conservation NGOs). Moreover, fair and equitable distribution of benefits and costs of conservation (that takes into accounts such rights) is still a huge area of work that needs a lot of investment from the part of any partnership arrangements between conservation NGOs and Indigenous people. Such partnerships arrangements should also be far more eclectic then between those two groups of organizations and include the multiplicity of actors that influence the social, political and economic context for any given conservation area.

    I am pleased to see Peter Kareiva´s comments: “the rights of people for self-determination take supremacy over any species or biodiversity tally” because it helps TNC to achieve some balance in thinking and hopefully to work towards achieving some balance in its programmatic foci, strategies and in the adaptation of some major tools to accommodate such balance (eg should there be concurrently both biodiversity and social targets for CAP, where appropriate and necessary?)

  7. I’m a big Mark Dowie fan, and he has traditionally called out the big environmental NGO’s, but I always sensed it was a labor of love. His thesis seems, today, to be common sense. But I wonder what the case-by-case challenges are in working with indigenous people in protected areas?

  8. These beautiful areas are very easy to see at VietNam, I love my country and will do everything to protect it.

  9. There are a a lot of areas that should have protection afforded but I am not sure always that the reasons are as clear as they should be. Where is the definition for protection and who is the one to decide what requires our protection and what is just “old”. There are some towns that are fully functioning but have ridiculous laws stopping any improvement. Where is that benefiting us when basically the town is just being destroyed slowly over time anyway?

  10. This is really a population issue. At one time there was plenty of room for both people and wildlife. But now the human population has increased to the point where wildlife is being driven into extinction as “indigeneous” and other people cut down the forests, poach the wildlife and kill off all the predators that threaten their livestock. In Asia, for example, humans move into elephant habitat, clear the forest, plant crops, and then shoot the elephants when they eat their crops. It is perfectly appropriate to keep people out of certain areas so that wildlife can have a place to live.

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