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Rights not “fortress conservation” key to save planet, says UN expert

An Embera woman from the Bajo Lepe community in Panama featured in the UN Special Rapporteur’s recent report. Bajo Lepe still does not have title to its land. Photograph: Cameron Ellis/Rainforest Foundation US

Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples calls for a new, rights-based approach to conservation

By David Hill

July 16, 2018.- The United Nations Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has released a report highly critical of the global conservation movement and calling for indigenous peoples and other local communities to have a greater say in protecting the world’s forests. Titled Cornered by Protected Areas and co-authored with the US-based NGO Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the report is an explicit condemnation of “fortress conservation.”

What exactly is meant by that? It is “the idea that to protect forests and biodiversity, ecosystems need to function in isolation, devoid of people,” the Rapporteur told the Guardian. “This model - favoured by governments for over a century - ignores the growing body of evidence that forests thrive when Indigenous Peoples remain on their customary lands and have legally recognised rights to manage and protect them.”

The report effectively consists of an open letter by the Rapporteur, a brief by her and two former RRI employees, and five case-studies on India, Indonesia, Panama, Peru and the Republic of the Congo written by other researchers. It was made public during the recent Oslo Tropical Forest Forum. Here are 10 of the most fascinating take-aways:

1 Vast areas. The global network of “protected areas” such as national parks expanded by 80% between 1970 and 1985 - the majority in so-called “developing” countries - and today they cover 15% of global land surface excluding Antarctica. Expanding the network is integral to meeting the aims of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Such areas are seen as a fundamental way of combatting anthropomorphic climate change and protecting the world’s forests, biodiversity and ecosystems.

2 Devastating impacts. Huge areas of indigenous peoples’ and other local communities’ land have been overlapped by “protected areas”, according to the Rapporteur, and the impacts are alleged to have been devastating. They include an estimated 250,000 people forcibly evicted from their homes and land between 1990 and 2014 according to one study, houses burnt down, access to land and important sites denied, extrajudicial killings, social conflict, access to justice obstructed, and food sovereignty eroded by bans on subsistence hunting and the “vilification” and “criminalisation” of “slash-and-burn” agriculture. “Protected areas” have caused - and continue to cause - “chronic patterns of abuse” and “large-scale human rights violations.”

3 Lots of words, little action. Despite commitments by “the world’s most influential conservation organisations” to respect indigenous peoples and other local communities’ rights, it is argued that “little has changed” in practice over the last 14 years. Which conservation organisations exactly? The Rapporteur doesn’t say, but she footnotes a 2014 report summarising commitments made by Birdlife, Conservation International, Fauna and Flora International, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

4 Indigenous contributions. Indigenous peoples are described as “effective biodiversity and conservation managers”, and the “primary custodians of most of the world’s remaining tropical forests and biodiversity hotspots.” Tree cover loss is reported to be less than half on land that is indigenous- and/or community-run when compared to elsewhere, and when rights to own their land are legally recognised “the difference is even greater.”

5 Not enough rights or money. Despite such contributions, the Rapporteur argues that there has been “no or limited recognition of rights” and that indigenous peoples and local communities receive “only a small percentage” of official “protected areas” funding, which is roughly estimated at $6-6.5 billion a year and called “consistently inadequate.” However, indigenous peoples and other local communities themselves are reported to be “substantial investors”, and represent better value for money than official conservation funding by achieving “at least equal results with a fraction of the budget.”

6 Tigers v tribes. The India case-study focuses on tiger reserves - reportedly comprising 50 of 617 “protected areas’” but capturing 70% of the national conservation budget - and one in particular now called the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve. Many people - mostly Soliga adivasi - have been forcibly relocated, denied access to land and important sites, and banned from hunting, “shifting cultivation” agriculture and traditional forest management using controlled burning. There was some good news in 2011 when 32 Soliga settlements were granted rights under the 2006 Forest Rights Act - reportedly India’s first case of rights being given to a community in a protected area under that law - and another 10 communities were granted rights earlier this year, but financial and state support for community-run conservation “has not been forthcoming.” Some settlements still face relocation.

7 Indigenous peoples in “isolation.” The Peru case-study focuses on the Manu National Park in the Amazon where the situation is made even more complicated by the presence of indigenous peoples living in “isolation” or “initial contact.” Despite some advances, a system to protect them is reportedly “yet to be developed”, while four “stable” - effectively “contacted” - indigenous communities remain without title to their land and have had their collective rights “infringed upon.” The park was established “on the basis it would be inviolable and free of human interference”, but the heart of it was - and remains - indigenous territory.

A Matsigenka woman from one of the indigenous communities in the Manu National Park in Peru. None of the communities have title to their land. Photograph: Glenn Shepard

8 Connection to nature. One point emerging from the report is the importance of their land to indigenous peoples and other local communities. This is emphasised in the case-studies on Indonesia, which describes forests as “forming the basis” of indigenous peoples’ “existence and identities”, and India, which describes the landscape in the tiger reserve as “alive with meaning and connection” for the Soliga - “none of which is recognised by protectionist conservation.” The Rapporteur puts it like this: “In indigenous worldviews people are seen largely as intrinsic parts of nature rather than as distinct and separate from it,” and “many share an ethical interconnection with nature through their languages, beliefs, and practices” which reflects “a commitment to respecting and caring for the natural world.”

A Kasepuhan woman in Indonesia. The creation of the Gunung Halimun Salak National Park is alleged to have been ‘traumatic’ for the Kasepuhan. Photograph: The Tenure Facility

9 Culture clash. Another point that emerges is how indigenous peoples’ and other local communities’ worldviews differ to that of governments and the global conservation movement. The India case-study reports that the Soliga think a “good” forest means an “open-canopy savanna woodland”, but for the government and conservationists the “ideal condition” is a “closed forest.” In the Indonesia case-study, one Kasepuhan leader is quoted as saying: “conservation has different meanings for people with or without education. For local people, we are doing conservation, we are taking responsibility for what is alive and what has died. But for people with education, conservation means that we do not do anything: when forest is green, people can only look at it.”

10 What to do - now and urgently. All the case-studies make country-specific recommendations, but the Rapporteur’s brief issues a rallying-cry to “take down the wall of fortress conservation” and calls for a “new approach” to conservation in general. It lists four things that urgently need doing now: 1) create a global “monitoring and grievance mechanism; 2) establish national “accountability and reparation mechanisms”; 3) ensure the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is fully integrated into all future conservation and climate change mitigation measures; and 4) spend more conservation finance on “community-run conservation initiatives” based around an “emerging suite of approaches such as co-management, indigenous-managed protected areas, and indigenous territorial governance.”

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