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.

The Mayangna of the Awas Tingni community, Nicaragua

Awas Tingni is one of numerous indigenous Mayangna (or Sumo[1]) communities in the remote, densely forested region on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Around 1,500 people live in Awas Tingni. During the 1990s, the Nicaraguan government granted a logging concession to a Korean multinational company (Solcarsa) for the logging of 62,000 hectares of land inhabited by the community, without asking for their consent.

The Nicaraguan justice system failed to address the Awas Tingni community’s concerns. A petition was lodged with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, accusing the government of failing to demarcate their communal lands or provide judicial protection of their ancestral rights to their land and resources.

On 31 August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark verdict that the Nicaraguan government had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni community. The Court affirmed that the American Convention of Human Rights offers protection of indigenous peoples’ property rights, and denounced the State for granting concessions to their land without consulting the community first.[2]

The Court ordered that the Nicaraguan government demarcate and title the traditional lands of the Awas Tingni community, and furthermore, that they establish the necessary legal procedures for protecting the land rights of all indigenous communities in the country.

In January 2003 the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a new law allowing for the demarcation of indigenous land. In December 2008, the Awas Tingni community finally received the property title to 73,000 hectares of its traditional territory.

This case was a historic achievement for the protection of indigenous peoples’ human rights, not just in Nicaragua but also elsewhere in the world. A United Nations news release stated, “this was the first case in which an international tribunal with legally binding authority found a Government in violation of the collective land rights of an indigenous group, setting an important precedent in international law.”[3]

Consistent with the outcome of the Awas Tingni case, on 13 September 2007 the United Nations adopted a ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, further consolidating the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditionally occupied territories, and the resources therein.[4]

“In a nutshell, the Court held that the American Convention on Human Rights obligates states to recognise and adopt specific measures to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to land and natural resources in accordance with indigenous peoples’ own customary use and occupancy patterns.”[5]

The significance of this precedent and of the titling of their land have not shielded the Mayangna people from the continuing threats of timber companies and illegal squatters on their land. Since the ruling there has been conflict within the Mayangna community relating to the alleged, but later denied, sale of land to a timber company, Mapinicsa,[6] as well as conflict between the Mayangna and squatters and other indigenous groups of the Atlantic zones of Nicaragua.[7]

The area inhabited by the Mayangna includes part of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve which, apart from being attractive to timber companies, has also suffered regular invasions of squatters, sometimes in organised groups and at other times individually. The beginning of 2010 saw a combined force from the Nicaraguan army and police force join with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to remove 80 families who had illegally colonised the Reserve. A further 200 families were to be removed at a later date. Mayangna leaders, however, considered the action to be insufficient to solve the problems caused by illegal squatters and have claimed that they have received death threats from some of the squatters.[8]

Some of the squatters are simply refugees from landlessness elsewhere in the country and are simply trying to find an area suitable for subsistence. Most such cases are victims for a second time around having suffered elsewhere at the hands of other gangsters. Mayangna leader Rolando Lewis, however, said that other settlers destroy the forest under orders from cattle ranchers who want to move into Bosawas.[9] And José Luis Garcia, the National Environmental Ombudsman, believes, alarmingly, that there are more than 30,000 colonists who have taken over 4,000 hectares of the Bosawas Reserve. He said that “In the past, the timber traffickers cut down the trees and took them to sell, but now these people possess large sections of the territory where they cut down the trees, burn them and then plant pasture to sell to the highest bidder.”[10]

This clash of interests in an area such as the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve clearly illustrates the link between conservation and indigenous peoples. It has been widely recognised that the major agents of destruction of the Bosawas ecology have been timber companies and colonisers or squatters. The western model of development has much to learn from indigenous peoples about the conservation of its natural environment.


[1] The people of Awas Tingni prefer to call themselves Mayagna, as opposed to Sumo, a commonly used designation. They regard the latter term as one imposed by outsiders.
[2] International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights http://www.escr-net.org/caselaw/caselaw_show.htm?doc_id=405047 (accessed 31 July 2009).
[3] United Nations News Centre www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=29336&Cr=indigenous+rights&Cr1 (accessed 3 August 2009).
[4] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, March 2008, United Nations http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf (accessed 4 August 2009).
[5] S. James Anaya and Claudio Grossman ‘The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A New Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples’, The Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law
[6] Nicaragua Network Hotline (25 August 2009) ‘Government cancels sales of communal lands; YATAMA members protest’, Nicaragua News Service.
Nicaragua Network Hotline (29 September 2009) ‘Awas Tingni leaders clarify land sale accusation’, Nicaragua News Service
[7] Ramón H. Potosme (27 August 2009) ‘Nación sumo mayagna bajo agresión de Yatama’, El Nuevo Diaria, Managua.
[8] Nicaragua News (1 June 2010) ‘Squatters removed from Bosawas Nature Preserve’, Nicaragua News Service. Eira Martens (21 January 2010) ‘Crisis de Bosawas’, Personal communication.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Nicaragua News Bulletin (9 February 2010) ‘Government postpones visit to Bosawas Reserve to evict colonists’, Nicaragua News Service.

Government cancels sales of communal lands

Taken from the Nicaragua Network Hotline, 25th August 2009.

The Public Property Register of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) of Nicaragua, answering an order from the Attorney General’s office, last week annulled the titles issued in violation of the Law on Communal Property of Indigenous and Ethnic Communities (Law 445). According to that law, the land cannot be taxed, seized or sold but is to be used by the indigenous peoples in accord with their traditional uses of communal property. The sale of indigenous lands by leaders of the Caribbean Coast group YATAMA was reported the previous week in the Nicaraguan media. Government attorneys are investigating further the irregularities that were reported, including the sale to a timber company of over 12,000 hectares of land belonging to the community of Awas Tingni.

Attorney General Hernan Estrada also made a formal accusation in the Supreme Court against David Rodriguez Gaitán, Property Registrar in Bilwi, for acts of corruption. He accused Rodriguez of registering sale of communal property with full knowledge that it was illegal. Estrada also asked the Court not to recognize any transaction involving communal lands by foreign or national speculators.

However, some 400 ex-contra fighters, members of Yatama, blocked the two main roads leading to Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) in protest over the government’s action saying that they would allow no traffic to pass and would burn any government vehicle that approached the roadblocks. At the roadblock located at Maniwatla, 120 men are led by Commander Cienfuegos and Perro Bravo and Tigre Suelto. Three hundred men, armed with firearms and machetes at the junction of the roads that link Bilwi with Waspam and Rosita, are led by Commanders León and Culumuco. The leaders read a communiqué in which they stated that, “The ex-combatants reject the attitude of the Attorney General and his delegate in the region who are trying to annul the registration of our ownership rights which represent the only way we can protect our rights as we confront the prejudicial refusal of the State to title indigenous land.” La Prensa reports that the leader of the protest is René Garcia Beker, former mayor of Prinzapolka and president of four collectives of former combatants of YATAMA.

Modesto Frank Wilson, who opposes the sale of indigenous lands, said that in recent months there has been an increase in the sale of communal land because of offers from rich timber companies which have tempted ambitious leaders of groups of former combatants. He said that the community of Awas Tingni could have lost almost 70% of its 73,000 hectares of communal land. Meanwhile, in Bilwi, the population is suffering because its links to the capital and other cities which provide it with goods have been cut. Men, women and children who were expecting to take public transportation from Bilwi to their villages are sleeping on the roadside waiting for the blockades to come down.