Expert: Conservation, indigenous rights at a crossroads

Kayapo woman, pictured above, in Brazil. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Editor’s note: August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

A recently published paper has added to a body of evidence showing that indigenous peoples can be powerful allies for protecting nature.

That said, some recent reports have cast a critical eye at the relationship between conservationism and indigenous rights.

What are conservationists getting right? What do they need to change? Human Nature spoke with Kristen Walker Painemilla, managing director and senior vice president of Conservation International’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace, about these and other questions.

Question: Do you think it’s a coincidence that these articles came out at the same time, or do these recent reports indicate that we’re at some sort of crossroads for indigenous-led conservation?

Answer: I do think we’re at a crossroads.

On one hand, you can point to things like Article 169 of the International Labor Organization, a binding international convention concerning indigenous peoples, and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a non-binding tool for indigenous people to assert their rights, it has been used in international negotiations with respect to climate and biodiversity, and several governments have codified these principles into law.

But I think the big question is what hasn’t happened.

Countries around the world are facing huge climate-related challenges, and indigenous peoples need to be recognized by their governments as resources for solving some of these problems. From maintaining very high levels of biodiversity on their lands to sustainable fishing practices to ancient water management techniques, indigenous peoples have solutions to the climate challenges we are all facing.

Putting direct access to financial resources in the hands of indigenous peoples is another of the biggest challenges. There are very few models that provide funding directly to indigenous peoples, and their organizations do not always have the capacity to manage a large influx of funds. However, this type of funding — and training on how to manage it — are necessary if communities are to effectively manage their territories. We see growing recognition of these issues, but the ability to actually implement these things in collaboration with indigenous peoples, governments and funders is the big issue.

Q: This idea of “fortress conservation” — where an area is basically fenced off from human activities — has long been seen as problematic, yet it seems like it’s still with us, according to some of these media reports. Do you agree?

A: You can’t have parks without people, whether it’s people — including, and, especially the indigenous people and local communities who live there — helping to protect and manage those resources, or whether it’s people visiting the park. Yet I do think some “paper parks” — areas that are protected in name only, of which there are many — embody “fortress conservation.”

This is especially problematic when a government that designated a restricted-access protected area has changed its mind and opened it up to mining, for example. Communities are understandably upset because they weren’t allowed to access this area, which is likely historically a part of their larger territory, but a government will make a decision to open it up to mining. In addition to the cultural and spiritual impacts of being restricted from their traditional territories, there are broader impacts for the health and development of those communities and their cultures, as well as for the towns and cities that may be downstream of watersheds.

Q: Indeed, some of these media stories place a lot of blame for “fortress conservation” at the feet of conservationists, even though governments are the ones making the decisions. So what can organizations like Conservation International or other environmental groups actually do?

A:  We first have to recognize that conservation organizations have roles and responsibilities in this problem, as we are often intermediaries in the decisions by governments related to conservation. I think we as Conservation International play an integral role in how a government or a community might react to a certain situation. What organizations like ours can do is convene governments and communities to negotiate the issue, because there will always be trade-offs. It might not be a win-win for everyone, but an agreement that everyone fully understands; which has the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the community; and which provides for their needs is vital. So I think it’s important that we can’t just say at the end of the day that it’s the government’s decision. In some cases, yes, the government has committed to everyone that they’re going to protect this area, but they often came to that decision with the help of scientists and policy-makers from conservation organizations.

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Q: How do conservationists do this?

A: I mean, having worked on these issues for so many years, Conservation International has really tried to build this in to our work at every level through our rights-based approach (RBA) to conservation. From having indigenous staff who are working with us at the local, regional and global scale, overseeing our global indigenous and traditional peoples program, having these conversations at the board level, having an indigenous advisory group — we’ve put these issues at the heart of our approach. Twenty years ago, the conversation would have been, “We need to think about the indigenous people after we had already planned an entire strategy.” That has changed. We are not going to be effective if we are not investing in the people who are closest to the issues by collaborating with them, supporting their local solutions, and helping them access the funding they need to succeed.

I think it is really important that the conservation community embraces indigenous voices at all scales — and that it’s not just perceived as us providing funding or training, but that it really is mutual learning. I think it is important that institutions don’t just have indigenous voices in the field, but that they integrate them across all levels of the organization, even at the board level, so that it is understood and integrated. And I think the important part is how we as institutions can help our partners get direct access to financial resources, which means adapting some of what we do. It’s helping to build the financial capacity of these indigenous organizations to receive funds and securing their rights to land and resources. It’s not just conservation, it’s the whole package.

Bruno Vander Velde is the editorial director for Conservation International.

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