What’s the difference? Protected areas versus indigenous rules

A new report released during the meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity in Cancun highlights the problems that protected areas have caused for indigenous peoples in Central America. The report also argues for an approach to conservation that recognises the the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples

The report was written by Andrew Davis and Susan Kandel of the PRISMA Foundation (Programa Regional de Investigación sobre Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente), an NGO based in El Salvador that carries out research into development and the environment. The report, titled “Conservation and Community Rights: Lessons from Mesoamerica” is published by PRISMA, Rainforest Foundation US, and Clark University.

Since the 2003 World Parks Congress, the conservation community has recognised a “new paradigm” for protected areas that involves respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. But in an interview with Mongabay, Andrew Davis, one of the lead authors of the report says,

“There’s still an enormous gap between the rights-based approach that has been outlined in these frameworks and what’s actually happening on the ground, and what’s actually happening on the ground in many cases continues to be a serious violation of indigenous rights in these territories that in many cases is undermining the communities and the conservation of biodiversity itself.”

And Norvin Golf, the president of a coalition of Miskito tribes from Honduras, told Climate Home that,

“The protected areas have had a terrible impact on our people. And when you look at the maps you can see it. It is clear that on lands that we manage, the forests are standing, and where there are protected areas and no people, there is invasion and destruction.
“By not recognising the indigenous peoples as owners of the protected areas, the government opens our territories to an invasion of people seeking to expropriate the land, destroy the forests, and turn our ancestral home into a source of money.”

The report includes case studies from Mexico, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala. The authors conclude with the following recommendations:

  • Recognize and secure indigenous and community rights to land and natural resources in national legislation and conservation policy.
  • Invest directly in communities to strengthen rule systems and enterprises aligned with the long-term health of local ecosystems
  • Ensure that local communities have free, prior and informed consent about protected areas and collaborate with them to develop agreed upon rules for conserving biodiversity, including restitution of indigenous and community rights.
  • Avoid parallel or conflicting rule systems in favor of complementary roles and strategies. Where threats are largely external to communities, governments and conservation organizations can help with boundary defense; where threats are internal, they can support dialogue for the resolution of conflicts and development of shared rules.
  •  Prioritize legitimacy in the eyes of local communities as key for compliance with regulations, emphasize developing shared rules, solve disputes and address unequal enforcement issues quickly, inform and empower with scientific information, and focus less on regulating behavior.
  • Support indigenous peoples and local communities in broader efforts to defend their territories against large-scale threats, beyond the scope of individual projects.

Conservation Watch will return to this report in future posts. In the meantime, here’s an extract from the report on the differences between the rules for managing protected areas and the rules established by indigenous peoples to manage their territories.

What’s the difference? Protected areas versus indigenous rules

Rights are materialized in rules on the ground that determine who can access which plants, animals and resources, and how the benefits and costs of these activities will be shared and divided. General distinctions can be made between the rules instituted by protected areas, on the one hand, and the rules that guide traditional and indigenous systems, on the other. These distinctions show how the overlaying of these systems has caused tensions and conflict.
Approaches to the establishment of rules in protected areas tend to be fairly uniform: a specific area is demarcated as protected and the restrictions on the use of resources within the area are set up. These restrictions range from complete prohibition of human activity to more modest regulations on productive practices. Formal rules in protected areas tend to be written, abundant and administered through central government offices frequently far removed from local communities. It is common for local communities to be unaware of these rules, or for the rules to be regarded as illegitimate. In many cases, indigenous peoples and local communities have little say in the rules developed, and changing these rules to adapt to varying social or ecological conditions is often exceedingly difficult.
Traditional rules cannot be easily encapsulated in a single definition: their sheer variety from one location to another is a defining feature of such systems. Nevertheless, such rules can be characterized in general terms. Traditional rules are often flexible and adaptive, the result of trial-and-error efforts to thrive, long term, in a given landscape. Through these efforts, people and cultures learn how to manage interactions between the community and the ecosystem. Local rules are the expression of this continuous learning.
In Mesoamerica, a broad array of shifting cultivation methods developed in relation to specific local environments. One of the most well-known is milpa, the traditional inter-cropping of beans, corn and squash in rotating fashion, generally in symbiotic relationships with forest ecosystems. These methods generally leave trees in place and incorporate the forest, including successive vegetation stages, as an important and productive part of the landscape. These practices are sometimes conflated with destructive frontier methods of slash-and-burn agriculture which eliminate trees and convert land permanently to pasture within a few years, but they are historically and qualitatively different from frontier slash-and-burn farming.
Traditional practices are generally applied with great discernment and knowledge of ecological imperatives, depending on local soils, wildlife, topography, climate and precipitation. While some communities use fixed divisions separating conservation areas from other areas, many local systems are more aptly described as a mosaic pattern of rules that vary depending on specific resources or species, relative abundance, season or context. For example, collective rules that help communities maintain reserves for emergencies or shocks are common. Rules are also often intertwined with livelihood strategies and cultural identity. Thus, they are often not locally conceived as conservation per se, but are rather part of the productive strategies and social norms that make up broader community life.
A number of studies have highlighted the advantages of local rules as systems that can adapt to changes and allow users to iteratively improve them through experience. Local rules are also more likely to be perceived as legitimate, and therefore to be followed, than externally devised rules. Nevertheless local rule systems are not a panacea; rather than posit one type of rule system as ideal, many studies have emphasized the importance of understanding these differences for a more complementary and constructive relationship between rule systems. This sort of complementary relationship can be seen in the community concessions of the Petén, in contrast to tensions in the Rio Platano Reserve in the Muskitia, Honduras.


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