There is no accurate figure for the total number of people evicted worldwide to make way for conservation. Governments tend not to keep records of how many people forest guards booted out of their homes during the establishment of protected areas.
Even where records do exist, it’s difficult to know how many people were affected when the people evicted are nomadic hunter-gatherers, and are not included in government census data.
Some estimates put the figure in millions.
And the evictions haven’t stopped. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the rights of indigenous peoples, told Reuters this week that,
“There are still a lot of indigenous people who have been evicted – and are still being evicted – from their territories because of the creation of national parks, and (for) those who have been evicted, there is no recourse.”
Human rights abuses against indigenous peoples and local communities living in and around protected areas continues.
Tauli-Corpuz recently produced a report on “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples” to be presented to the UN General Assembly later this year. In the report she writes that,
Protected areas have the potential of safeguarding the biodiversity for the benefit of all humanity; however, these have also been associated with human rights violations against indigenous peoples in many parts of the world.
Fortress conservation and “wilderness”
Conservation has a violent history. Protected areas were created by taking land from indigenous peoples.
The first “modern” protected areas were established in the USA towards the end of the nineteenth century. Native Americans were violently expelled from their lands that became Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.
Protected areas were perceived as “wildernesses”, free from people. Except, of course, the tourists.
Tauli-Corpuz explains that three assumptions lay behind these protected areas:
- protected areas should be created and governed by States;
- the goal of protected areas should be strict nature preservation with emphasis on biodiversity conservation; and
- protected area management required protected areas to be uninhabited and without human use of natural resources.
Fortress conservation spread from the USA to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Asia, and Latin America. It was the dominant model for more than a century and still influences protected area management today.
A new paradigm?
In the past two decades, new approaches to conservation have emerged, recognising (at least on paper) indigenous peoples’ rights.
An important milestone was the World Parks Congress held in Durban in 2003. The Durban Accord announced a “new paradigm for protected areas”, and the Durban Action Plan specifically recognised the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Action Plan includes three targets:
- All existing and future protected areas shall be managed and established in full compliance with the rights of indigenous peoples, mobile peoples and local communities
- Protected areas shall have representatives chosen by indigenous peoples and local communities in their management proportionate to their rights and interests
- Participatory mechanisms for the restitution of indigenous peoples ’ traditional lands and territories that were incorporated in protected areas without their free and informed consent shall be established and implemented by 2010.
“Regretfully”, Tauli-Corpuz writes, “these three Durban Action Plan targets are still far from being achieved.”
“Considerable implementation gaps remain”
Tauli-Corpuz notes that,
While the conservation community is in the process of adopting conservation measures that respect the human rights of indigenous peoples, considerable implementation gaps remain and new threats to human rights-based conservation are emerging.
Many of the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples have high levels of biodiversity. When indigenous peoples are given land rights, their lands are significantly better conserved than adjacent areas.
But the role of indigenous peoples as environmental guardians has not received due recognition, Tauli-Corpuz argues. Data from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre shows that less than 5% of the world’s protected areas are managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
Since 2001, when the UN established the mandate for the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the special rapporteurs have received many allegations of serious abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples as a result of conservation measures.
The special rapporteurs have raised concerns about the impact of protected areas on indigenous peoples in Argentina, Botswana, Chile, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, the Russian Federation, South Africa and the United States of America.
Tauli-Corpuz is currently in Hawaii to present the findings of her report at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
On 3 September 2016, Tauli-Corpuz gave a presentation at an event during the Congress. She made clear that conservation organisations cannot hide behind the governments of the countries in which they are working to evade their responsibilities to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights:
“The legal obligation to consult rests with the state, but conservation actors, I believe, should make sure that such obligations have been adequately complied with before initiating any activity affecting indigenous peoples.”
And although the number of direct evictions to make way for protected areas may be declining, preventing indigenous peoples from entering their forests also has a devastating effect:
“The forced displacements, the reports of these that we have been receiving, has diminished in recent years, but indigenous peoples are denied access to the resources and thus deprived of their livelihood and cultural and spiritual rights. When this happens, they are forced to abandon their territories.
“Violence still exists, such as recent cases of burning of houses of indigenous peoples, arrests, beatings, destruction, and also killings of indigenous peoples who have been protecting the rights to their lands and territories which include protected areas.”