Conservation as green colonialism in Ecuador’s Cayambe Coca National Park

“How Conservation became Colonialism” is the title of a recent article by journalist Alexander Zaitchik published by Foreign Policy.

The article starts in Ecuador with a group of indigenous Cofán men patrolling the Cayambe Coca National Park. In 2017, the Cofán set up la guardia to keep trespassers out of their ancestral lands.

Small-scale gold-miners are invading their land and use pollutants, including mercury, that are destroying local fish stocks. Poachers hunt for armadillo, monkey, and peccary, and fishers use dynamite.

All of his illegal under National Park rules. Alex Lucitante, one of the guards tells Zaitchik that,

“The state claimed this land in 1970 and told us how to live in our own territory, but it does nothing to protect it or enforce park rules.”

The Cofán were not consulted when the Ecuardorian government established the park’s boundaries.

Mining concessions

The NGO Amazon Frontlines works with the Cofán and states that between December 2017 and February 2018, the Ecuadorian government handed out 20 new gold mining concessions in the headwaters of the Aguarico River, a tributary of the Amazon. Most of the concessions are inside the Cayambe Coca National Park.

Despite the impacts on the Cofán’s livelihoods, their river and their land, there was no process of free, prior and informed consent before the government granted the concessions.

The miners started operations without an environment license, or water permits. They have been mining illegally outside the concessions.

In September 2017, Mario Criollo, the president of the Cofán community, met officials from the Environment Ministry to report pollution from the gold miners. The officials suggested that the Cofán should set up a payment system and act as brokers for illegal mining.

In April 2018, David Hill, a journalist with The Guardian reported on the Cofán’s struggle to defend their land. Alex Lucitante explained why it’s so important to the Cofán that the river is not polluted:

“The River Aguarico is a source of life. As indigenous peoples, we rely on it for our families’ subsistence. It has already been difficult enough following the contamination caused by oil companies [downriver], which was never cleaned up. But now, with this mining, it would be a kind of double hit – a very serious risk.”

In July 2018, the Cofán filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian Ministry of Mining aiming to get the court to declare the mining concessions invalid.

Yellowstone and Yosemite evictions

In his article, Zaitchik gives a brief history of conservation. In the 19th century in the United States, Native Americans were forcibly evicted when Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks were created. The parks were established, and the evictions took place, during the US genocidal war against Native Americans.

The number of national parks worldwide has increased to more than 100,000 today. But as Zaitchik notes, it was only in the 1990s that “a critical mass of mainstream conservationists began to conside the idea that an environmental model that ignore indigenous inhabitants was bound to fail”.

In 2003, delegates at the World Parks Congress in Durban made a commitment to rights-based conservation. The Durban Accord urges commitment “to involve local communities, indigenous and mobile people in the reation, proclamation and management of protected areas.”

In 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right “to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use”.

Little has changed

But one of the key findings of the Rights and Resources Insitute’s recent report, “Cornered by Protected Areas” is that little has changed since the commitments made in Durban 15 years ago. In the report, the Rights and Resources Initiative makes the following observations:

  • Indigenous and local communities continue to suffer no or only limited recognition of their rights and contributions to conservation in many new and existing protected areas.
  • National laws in Africa, Asia, and Latin America threaten Indigenous Peoples and local communities with the risk of expropriation without compensation.
  • Widespread allegations exist of human-rights abuses in protected areas and of the obstruction of justice by governments.
  • And little has been done to restitute Indigenous Peoples and local communities for past human-rights violations, decriminalize customary practices in protected areas, or direct a greater share of conservation and climate financing (such as for reduced deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries -REDD+) to support the essential stewardship role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme tells Zaitchik that,

“A lot of conservation organizations feel their jobs are at risk if they adopt the new paradigm. Others don’t have confidence that indigenous people can look after these areas.”

Colchester refers to WWF’s role in Cameroon, where eco-guards – funded and equipped by WWF are accused of serious human rights abuses against the Baka and Bagyeli indigenous peoples.

Zaitchik describes the imposition of protected areas on indigenous peoples as “a sort of green colonialism”. Although national parks may be created with the intention of protecting threatened biodiversity, the reality, Zaitchik writes, is that,

The way these protected areas have been established and maintained has damaged the lives of the indigenous peoples who live within their borders, forcing them into what is effectively a landlord-tenant relationship with the state that deprives them of control over their land. Because the local governments often lack the will or resources to prevent industry encroachment, many such arrangements also end up undermining their creators’ explicit goal: conservation. This double failure is part of the complicated legacy of the modern conservation movement.


PHOTO Credit: Amazon Frontlines.

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