A note about conservationists and Indigenous Peoples

By Martin Mowforth

The fact that areas inhabited by indigenous peoples are often deemed hugely important for conservation has been the focus of long-standing conflict and debate. It is estimated that 85% of designated protected areas in Central America are inhabited by indigenous peoples.[1]

Historically, the colonial paradigm for conservation involved the creation of parks and protected areas. In the endeavour to preserve ‘pristine’ nature or ‘wilderness’, indigenous people were excluded from conservation programmes and even forcibly evicted from the land.[2] It is now widely acknowledged that conservation programmes must involve the participation of the local people dependent on the areas under protection, but the feasibility of harmonising conservation and indigenous interests remains very much in dispute.

A project undertaken by National Geographic Society in 2002, superimposed a map of indigenous territories in Central America over a map with forest cover and marine ecosystems.[3] They found a striking correlation between indigenous habitation and the survival of natural ecosystems. That the subsistence lifestyles of indigenous peoples are less destructive to the environment than the industrialised economies of non-indigenous peoples is a reasonable assumption.

It is often noted that indigenous peoples have an inherent and sacred relationship with nature, a wealth of traditional knowledge, and natural resource management practices which they have been using for centuries to protect and preserve their lands.[4] Such claims about the stewardship role of indigenous peoples strongly support the possibility of collaboration with conservation organisations for maintaining biodiversity today. Mark Dowie contends that for both parties, maintaining a “healthy and diverse biosphere” is key.[5] Furthermore, the land and ecosystems that both conservationists and indigenous peoples are so keen to defend are seriously threatened by multiple and competing demands, including intensive agriculture, industrial forestry, and large scale development projects such as dams and mines.

An increasing awareness of indigenous peoples’ rights and the problems associated with the exclusionary conservation paradigm has led to attempts at more people-centred conservation programmes during the last 20 years. But, it has been suggested that there are inherent and irreconcilable differences in the agendas of indigenous people and conservationists. Whilst the former are primarily concerned for their economic wellbeing and protecting their land for their own use, the latter above all want to keep nature intact, prioritising protected areas and programmes grounded in rigorous biological and ecological science.[6]

The terms of involvement of local communities have been dictated by the conservation organisations, and indigenous peoples have continued to feel excluded, and some conservationists seem to have been incapable of coping with the social aspect of these types of projects.

Mac Chapin provided a damning critique of the three largest and dominant global conservation organisations – World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).[7] He noted that their neglect of indigenous peoples in conservation programmes is partly due to their corporate and government funding and the conditions attached to it. He points out that indigenous resistance is often directed at projects executed by the organisations’ funding partners, who are also often perpetrators of environmental degradation.

Some hardline conversationists insist that any human presence will have a negative impact on biodiversity. Kent Redford suggested that ‘the noble ecological savage’ living in harmony with nature is an over-romanticised myth of indigenous people; that in reality they are prone to deplete or over-exploit their resources.[8]

There has been a recent resurgence of such a protectionist stance. Advocates of socially exclusive parks and protected areas insist that community based approaches to conservation do not offer adequate protection for endangered species and ecosystems. For example, John Oates argues that the compromise of agendas inherent in community based conservation programmes means that neither social nor conservation goals will be met.[9]

Others are more optimistic and see progress made in the uncertain relationship between indigenous peoples and conservationists. Mark Dowie comments that:

“Although tension persists, along with arrogance, ignorance and the conflicts they breed … I found, mostly in the field, a new generation of conservationists who realise that the very landscapes they seek to protect owe their high biodiversity to the practices of the people who have lived there, in some cases for thousands of years … Enlightened conservationists are beginning to accept the axiom that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.”[10]

As Kent Redford and Michael Painter point out, achieving successful collaboration between indigenous people and conservationists is critical, and urgent: “while park advocates are arguing with indigenous peoples and their advo­cates about the proper role for people in conservation, the forest they both wish to preserve is being destroyed.”[11]

[1]   Alcorn, J.B. (1994) ‘Noble savage or noble state? Northern myths and southern realities in biodiversity conservation’. Ethnoecologica 2 (3): 6-19.

[2]   See Adams, W.M. (2004) Against Extinction: the story of conservation, Earthscan, London; also Monbiot, G. (1994) No man’s land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania, Picador, London.

[3]   National Geographic Society (2003). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0227_030227_indigenousmap.html (accessed 29 July 2009).

[4]   Mark Dowie (2009) Conservation Refugees: The hundred-year conflict between global conservation and native peoples, MIT Press, Cambridge.

[5]   Mark Dowie (2003) www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jun/03/yosemite-conservation-indigenous-people (accessed 22 July 2009).

[6]   Mac Chapin (2004) ‘A challenge to conservationists’, World Watch Institute.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Redford, K. (1991) ‘The Ecologically Noble Savage’, Cultural Survival Quarterly 15 (1): 46-48.

[9]   Oates, J.F. (1999) Myth and Reality in the Rainforest: how conservation strategies are failing in West Africa, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

[10]   Op.cit. (Dowie).

[11]   Redford, K.H. and Painter, M. (2006) Natural alliances between conservationists and indigenous peoples. WCS Working Paper No.25, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA.