Cornered by protected areas: Victoria Tauli-Corpuz calls for the wall of “fortress” conservation to be taken down

Last month, the Rights and Resources Initiative launched a new report and website, “Cornered by Protected Areas”. The website includes an open letter from Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, posted in full below.

The report finds that,

“fortress” conservation approaches — those grounded in a historical concept of protected areas as pristine, untouched lands — are perpetuating a system of abuse and human rights violations against the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who have traditionally inhabited and protected these lands.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz explains to The Guardian that by “fortress” conservation, she means, “the idea that to protect forests and biodiversity, ecosystems need to function in isolation, devoid of people”.

The report includes case studies from five countries on the struggle for rights in protected areas:

  • In India, conservation authorities are resisting the full implementation of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, which offers adivasi and other forest dwellers the possibility of claiming land rights. In the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, for example, the Soliga adivasi, who were forcibly relocated after the reserve’s creation in 1974, are being stymied from claiming their rights by notification of the sanctuary as a tiger reserve, potentially requiring the further relocation of eight communities.
  • The Indigenous Peoples living in their ancestral lands in Peru’s Manu National Park are malnourished and vulnerable. The national park was created in line with the conventional conservation concept that protected areas are pristine, untouchable areas and the Indigenous Peoples in the area have mostly been ignored or suppressed. This can clearly be seen in the zoning of the Manu National Park and its many restrictions, in which biodiversity conservation is prioritized over improving living conditions through the full recognition of indigenous rights. None of the four “stable” communities of Indigenous Peoples living in the park has titled land, representing a debt owed by the state and to which the communities lay claim.
  • In Panama, the government is yet to recognize a number of the customary lands of Indigenous Peoples because of their location in, or proximity to, protected areas. The Ministry of Environment has held up titling for over two years, with more than two-thirds of indigenous land claims pending due to overlaps. The situation has become a major bottleneck in the recognition of indigenous land rights in Panama.
  • In Indonesia’s Gunung Halimun Salak National Park, a national inquiry found that changes in forest governance and the status of customary territories have caused a lack of community control over and access to forests, the depletion of resources and livelihoods, the decline of cultural order, and a decreased quality of life for the Kasepuhan. Overlap between Kasepuhan territories and the national park has disrupted the Kasepuhan’s farming systems and reduced their food security.
  • In the Republic of the Congo, the Ba’aka were expelled from the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park when it was created and their hunting suppressed. Those Ba’aka have gravitated toward logging towns, losing, over time, much of their connection with their traditional way of life. Although legal avenues may exist for the Ba’aka to claim some of their rights, full redress in terms of the restitution of lands and traditional usage rights, or meaningful compensation, seems a distant prospect.

The report calls for a “new approach” to conservation and to “take down the wall of fortress conservation”. It lists four actions that are urgently needed:

  1. Create a conservation monitoring and grievance mechanism
  2. Create national accountability and reparation mechanisms for conservation
  3. Ensure that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is centrally placed in all measures on biodiversity conservation and climate change
  4. Strengthen and promote rights-based approaches and conservation models

A Letter from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Tropical forest loss is at an all-time high, fomenting the global climate crisis. The result is rising seas, threats to global food security, and conflict across the globe. Along with this violence against the earth, there is growing violence against the people who defend it. Last year, Global Witness tallied 197 murders of land rights and environmental defenders. Year after year, around 40 percent of these deaths are Indigenous Peoples.

Even initiatives put in place to protect forests can end up hurting forest guardians. This new research finds that Indigenous Peoples face significant human rights abuses in the world’s protected areas, part of the disturbing uptick of criminalization and even extrajudicial killings that I have observed in my role as Special Rapporteur.

When bulldozers or park rangers force Indigenous Peoples from their homes, it is not only a human rights crisis — it is also a detriment to all humanity. Indigenous Peoples have long stewarded and protected the world’s forests, a crucial bulwark against climate change.

The rate of tree cover loss is less than half in community and indigenous lands compared to elsewhere. Where community rights to own their lands are legally recognized, the difference is even greater. Worldwide, community lands hold at least a quarter of aboveground tropical forest carbon — equal to four times global greenhouse gas emissions for 2014 — and likely much more.

This research also shows that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are investing substantially in conserving their forests — up to $US1.71 billion in the developing world. They are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas, making investment in Indigenous Peoples themselves the most efficient means of protecting forests.

Yet while Indigenous Peoples and local communities customarily own more than 50 percent of the world’s land, they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent.

World leaders have a powerful solution on the table to save forests and protect the planet: recognize and support the world’s Indigenous Peoples. We have stood as a proven solution to climate change for generations. Recognize our rights, and we can continue to do so for generations to come.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz
UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


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