Conservation and Indigenous Peoples


A Study of Convergent Interests

A crucial issue before tribal societies (at the national political level) and lobbyists on their behalf (at the level of international pressure and advocacy) is to find strategies that will enlist the energies of others to act on their behalf. Many sympathetic human rights groups at the international level have begun to lobby for better aboriginal entitlement, and in other political struggles arising out of resource exploitation projects, national linguistic policies, mass tourism proposals or improved social services, there is also much of interest and relevance to the movement for improved aboriginal entitlement. Of all these concerns, none approaches as close a coincidence of interests as the conservation movement.

The coincidence of interests characterizing the indigenous peoples' movement and the international lobby for better management of natural resources has been apparent for some time. Since 1975, for example, the IUCN has had a "Task Force on Traditional Lifestyles" examining the interplay of traditional peoples and the natural environment. For the purposes of the Task Force, "traditional lifestyles" have been defined as,

The ways of life (cultures) of indigenous people which have evolved locally and are based on sustainable use of local ecosystems; such lifestyles are often at subsistence levels of production and are seldom a part of the mainstream culture of their country, though they do contribute to its cultural wealth.

One of the best recent formulations of this convergence of objectives appears in a paper by Dr. Leslie A. Brownrigg entitled "Native Cultures and Protected Areas: Management Options."

"Native populations and national resource managers are appropriate allies," Brownrigg writes. "Given...the close union of the goals of native people to preserve the environment in perpetuity with the goals of the advocates of protected areas, alliance is a logical step."

In the same paper. Dr. Brownrigg delineates the common goals more explicitly:

For resource managers, the benefits of working with native peoples include gaining an additional constituency, recruiting personnel with profound knowledge of local areas and learning about long-term resource strategies which have proven their adaptability for thousands of years. For native peoples, the benefits include legal recognition of ecologically-sound traditional land-use practices, appropriate employment of their traditional lands and new advocates at the national level.

The argument that indigenous peoples and conservationists are "natural allies" is made with particular force when strategies to preserve tropical forests (traditional homeland to a variety of isolated forest-dwellers) are discussed. The clash between what might be called the "resource-extractive dynamic" and hitherto isolated or uncontacted peoples seems most acute in regions of dwindling tropical forest cover. A recent issue of The Ecologist, for example, argued that...maintenance of primary forest and its use in traditional ways, preserving it for millennia in balance with indigenous life-styles, might well be consistent with the local people's aspirations for an improved subsistence life-style based firmly on their own culture, their own society and on local self-determination.

This is not the only area where cooperative possibilities between conservationists and indigenous peoples exist: similar management objectives for mangrove forests, coral atolls or upriver watershed protection may be better served by links with appropriate indigenes(1).

Indigenous Lifestyles or Indigenous Peoples?

In principle, a comfortable convergence exists. Pragmatically however, considerable difficulties belie an easy assumption that interests are automatically shared. The key principles of the conservation movement originate "from the urban society of highly developed countries." These principles promote "a system of mainly restrictive control patterns upon the ecosystems that are set up by national governments." The paper also notes that "correlations with traditional cultures that inhabit resource management areas" have not been well studied(2).

To protect territory, one must exclude certain categories of outsiders or specific activities judged to be harmful. Because the power to exclude is so inescapably political, national governments not surprisingly reserve this power for themselves (legitimized by national authorities on grounds of "national development," "national security" or "resource conservation"). Indigenous peoples almost never initiate this exclusion.

To this extent, therefore, protected areas (of whatever description and for whatever purpose) continue to be, for indigenes, paternalistically devolved and implemented. Precisely for this reason, a national park in areas of traditional settlement is more likely to be feared as "taking something away" rather than welcomed for the protection it bestows. Useful contrasts between indigene reactions to national park creation in Canada, the USA and Australia have recently been described, and it appears that even active involvement of indigenous peoples in protected area planning and administration yields uneven results, largely because most resource management agencies are still perceived as "taking something away" - if only in an intangible sense. A history of unequal dealing with dominant "settler cultures" supports indigenes' suspicions. Development per se is not always resisted by indigenes; what troubles (and rallies) them is their powerlessness vis-à-vis the outsider.

Just as indigenes misunderstand conservation tradeoffs, so also may conservation planners misjudge the extent to which aboriginal groups living within or adjacent to proposed protected areas actually wish to work for (or guard) the attainment of conservation objectives. For example, assumptions that traditional lifestyles practiced by the indigenes necessarily complement conservation objectives often turn out to be wide of the mark. Some commentators acknowledge this: for example. Dr. Brownrigg writes that, the social and behavioral patterns of native populations have been integrated with natural environment variables in a way which usually, though not always, results in ecologically sound long term use of an area (emphasis added).

To illustrate how choice of new technology poses awkward problems to conservationists, the following indicative examples might be noted:

* Some Inuit whale hunters now favor using explosive harpoons and other contemporary technology.

* Gasoline-powered chainsaws accelerate land clearing by slash and burn agriculturalists.

* Explosives are occasionally used to stun or kill fish in traditional Maori hunting and fishing areas of New Zealand.

These examples suggest that some contemporary manifestations of traditional "lifestyles" no longer can be assumed to conform to a harmonious prototype.

In part many of these misapprehensions result from protestations from the fledgling international indigenous peoples movement, which attributes all the disruptive ecological consequences of possessive individualism to Western colonizers. The following extract from a report to the International NGO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Land, held from 15-18 September 1981 in Geneva, illustrates the point:

In the world of today there are two systems, two different irreconcilable "ways of life." The Indian world - collective, communal, human, respectful of nature and wise - and the western world - greedy, destructive, individualist and enemy of mother nature.

Similar views embellish pronouncements from the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. While the sincerity of such statements cannot be disputed, the likelihood of their being true is open to question. Such formulations by the indigenes themselves support the view that indigenous lifestyles are, almost by definition, compatible with conservationist goals. Such statements not only ignore past adoption of biologically disruptive technology by aboriginal peoples, but also in a curious way buttress the fallacy of the "noble savage," a uniquely European concept. The same misconception lies buried in the automatic assumption that indigenous peoples will accept or even welcome cultural stasis as a condition of their involvement in conservation management. The specialist literature shows many examples of national parks or protected reserves having, as one objective of a multiple use design, the goal of retaining traditional technologies, settlement patterns and food gathering. While this is a worthy objective, incorporation of endangered tribal cultures into conservation areas must be subject to the caveat that these peoples may maintain their isolation only for as long as they desire to do so(3).

To act otherwise leads to results as coercive and contrived as the disruptive development which "anthropological reserves" are designed to prevent. During their occupation of Taiwan, for example, the Japanese turned the small island of Lan Yu (ancestral home to the Yami people) into a private botanical/anthropological museum with living exhibits and severely limited admission. Until defeated in 1945, Japan restricted access into Lan Yu to officials and anthropologists, making no effort to raise material living standards or to intervene with medical or educational services. This achievement was as paternalist as the imposition of government-initiated economic development in tribal territories.

While the idea of creating coterminous nature/anthropological reserves is not new, the concept has gained renewed support in repent years. Raymond Dasmann, Harmut Jungius, Gardner and Nelson, Sylvanus Gorio and many others have written about protecting indigenes' habitat and local ecosystems by creating multi-purpose national parks. The countries choosing to do so are as disparate as the Congo (Odzala National Park), Botswana (Kalihari Reserves), Peru (Manu Park), USA (Gates of the Arctic Monument), Canada (the Yukon's Kluane Park), Australia (Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory), Papua New Guinea (Varirata National Park) and Honduras (Rio Platono Biosphere Reserve). Nearly all of these areas have been established in the last decade (the list above is indicative only)(4).

At the levels of principle and practice therefore, conservationists have become increasingly aware of the close interrelationship between ecological factors rural traditions...and cultural patterns (like sustained self-reliance land use, intimate knowledge and adaptation, self-restriction and conservation) that offers tangible direct benefits, including reserve guardianship and ranger functions, field knowledge of local fauna and flora and long-term resource strategies which have proven their adaptability for thousands of years.

What is needed is a more balanced view of the opportunities present in this cooperation.

Indigenes and Conservation areas: Some Lesser Options

The territory inhabited by indigenous peoples need not be coextensive with the protected conservation area. Just as there is a recognition that hitherto neglected parts of the human habitat (which traditionally have not been included in national park activities) now need urgent attention, so also is there a significant range of opportunities to involve indigenous peoples at any place along the "spectrum" of acculturation to the national society - from the virtually uncontacted to the almost entirely acculturated(5). Indeed there may be good reasons why tribal groups (or national governments) do not welcome tribal incorporation into entirely "conservation-specific" entities like national parks: tribes find this may compromise their land claims to the same or adjacent areas; inclusion in a park may constrict customary livelihood activity; or the park design may restrict too severely the territory's future resource-extraction possibilities. In addition, national governments may not welcome parks with an "anthropological" element because inclusion of affected tribes in park planning may "tribalize" them (i.e., politicize them to the extent that their tribal solidarity is enhanced by reaction to outside pressure).

At this juncture it might be salient to explore New Zealand's experience in developing "halfway house" possibilities, which (although they fall well short of creating extensive nature/anthropological reserves or parks) illustrate a variety of collaborative possibilities with indigenous peoples.

New Zealand protects over 2.6 million hectares of national parks and special-purpose reserves, much of it gifted directly to the nation by Maori tribes. For example, elders of the Ngati Tuwharetoa gave land for the country's first national park at Tongariro in 1889; other examples include the gifting of scenic reserves at Lakes Rotoiti and Okataina to the nation and more recently a grant of land at Taranaki to comprise Egmont National Park.

New Zealand's legislation (the National Park Act 1952 and the Reserves Act 1977) now promotes gifting of land for conservation purposes, and the management of "multiple use reserves" (which includes indigenous use) permits interesting alternatives to public ownership of land. Some of the indigenous uses which reserves and national parks in New Zealand quietly accommodate include food and herb gathering (usually done on horseback) in the North Island's Urerewa National Park, mutton-bird hunting on Kaitoreti Spit and active assertion of traditional fishing rights on Lake Waikeremoana by the local tribe (which also rents the lake to the surrounding national park).

Conservation objectives are also being enlisted to deal with difficulties inherent in the Maoris' communal tenure. Although 75% of New Zealand's 300,000 Maoris (approximately 10% of the total population) now live in urban areas, 1.3 million hectares of rural Maori land remain. By custom, Maori communal landowners share the land in equal portion with all progeny, so that each generation adds to the total number of owners of each communally-held block. This leads to two difficulties: the land is not able to support all the owners, and special arrangements are necessary to enable landowners to make binding decisions about future land use. Up to now, Maori land has been leased - often to European New Zealanders - but new responses to indigenous tenure have evolved. One quarter of Maori land is unoccupied, and considerable areas are still in primary or secondary bush. Much of this is administered as Maori Reserve Land under the relevant legislation, and one option being investigated by the New Zealand government is the creation - with full tribal support - of "tribal reserves," entry to which will be restricted to owners whose usage will conform to specific conservation objectives.

Some of this experience has guided New Zealand's assistance to the fledgling Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal. Some 2,500 of Nepal's estimated 20,000 Sherpa people live in the 430 square miles of the park (which also includes the Khumbu area, famous for Mount Everest).

The treks and mountaineering following the opening of the area to outsiders in 1950 has led to worrying changes in traditional Sherpa life, associated with the depletion of manpower (for porters) and firewood (it is estimated that each expedition needs 30,000 kilograms of wood for fuel).

In association with New Zealand rangers, the park's managers have determined upon the following objectives, directed specifically at the inclusion of the indigenous Sherpa in the park's activities:

* constant liaison with monastery lamas;

* restoration of religious structures within the park;

* retention and protection of all monastery buildings;

* maintenance of traditional village water supply schemes;

* active encouragement of the traditional character and architectural styles of villages within the park;

* prohibition of all trekking within sacred areas (including whole mountains) where guardian spirits reside;

* employment of Sherpas as rangers on a preferential basis;

* retention as far as possible of firewood as the Sherpas' fuel (rather than displacement by kerosene or other new - and imported - fuel technology);

* internal modification where possible of traditional Sherpa houses to minimize heat losses and consequently reduce firewood consumption; and

* revival of Sherpas' traditional forest-use control system, i.e., the 'Shing-i Nawas' ("protectors of the forests") who were empowered to allocate wood for families.

These objectives demonstrate an active involvement of a partially-acculturated indigenous people in a park which is not co-extensive with the indigene territory. Briefly, the conservation objectives of Sagarmatha are to arrest a situation where over half of the forest cover within the park territory has disappeared and to revive, within a system catering also to outsiders' mountaineering expeditions, a pattern of traditional usage in which, prior to the influx of tourism and mountaineering, the Sherpas were managing a partly modified landscape under a system of social and community controls which ensured wisest use of forest resources and minimized long-term forest degradation.


The launching in March 1981 of the World Conservation Strategy brought the convergence of indigene and conservation interests into sharp focus; the strategy deals with global problems such as deforestation, desertification, depletion of fisheries, soil erosion and misuse of crop lands - all matters of direct concern to aboriginal populations. The logic behind this compatibility of interests has already occurred to the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, which was invited by the United Nations Environment Program in 1980 to prepare a study on "environmental degradation in indigenous areas." The WCIP is following closely the operation of the international agreements such as the 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This Convention was followed by the Man and the Biosphere Program, resulting in a number of "biosphere reserves" created in various parts of the world, many with a direct effect on the indigenous peoples in situ. The Mosquitia biosphere reserve in Honduras is a case in point; the reserve is designed, inter alia, to protect two indigenous tribes.

As suggested above, outright conflict between conservationist and indigenous objectives has occurred in the past. Tribes have been expelled from National Parks or denied the use of resources within the park: e.g., the Shakilla were driven from Lake Rukana Park in Kenya and the Ik expelled in Uganda. Understanding of conservation objectives by aboriginal peoples remains low (battles erupt in Ethiopia's Simien Park over wood-cutting rights, for example). Some conflict even has an international dimension; enforcing the Migratory Birds Convention and accommodating native Indian demands have caused headaches for governments in Canada and the USA. Whaling Commission sessions grapple with Inuits who oppose bowhead whale-hunting prohibitions, and argument still revolves around Inuit rights to use modern whaling technology.

Several commentators have advanced suggestions for successful involvement of indigenous groups with an interest in territories in which restrictive land use policies are tied to conservation objectives. Brownrigg offers four management options for resource managers contemplating cooperation with indigenes:

1. reserves, where a protected natural area corresponds with the territory of a particular native population;

2. native-owned lands, where the protection of the area is by native peoples;

3. buffer zones, where a protected area serves as a physical or ecological barrier between native lands and the lands of others; and

4. research stations, where certain areas under native management are organized as agricultural or ecological research stations.

Brownrigg concludes that:

Each option of relations between native cultures and protected areas will fit only in certain circumstances. The appropriateness of a particular option and its details must be determined on a case by case basis, and certain elements for different options can be combined to form new models.

In his 1976 article about Peru's Manu Park, Jungius urges incorporation of indigene-inhabited territories into a national park and creation of a buffer core. Indigenes are to practice traditional hunting patterns with exceptions only where species are endangered. The objective is to provide for "gradual social and economic development on the basis of [the peoples'] own culture and traditions."

Dasmann argues that national parks should "permit indigenous people to maintain their isolation for as long as they wish to do so," and allow them "to become the protectors of the parks, to receive a share of park receipts and in other ways to be brought to appreciate its value."

Gardner and Nelson analyze national park agencies, paying close attention to institutional character, extent of management control, extent of indigenous or park agency control of land and links between the agencies and indigenes in three parks in the USA, Canada and Australia respectively. They find that the best indigene/conservationist relations occur when:

* indigenes see national parks as assisting to maintain their culture (and to provide employment);

* indigenous organizations have strong bargaining positions (related to unambiguous title to their lands); and

* permitted land-use in the park is well-defined.

In addition to these guidelines, the following issues should be addressed by conservationists:

* The suspicions of indigenous peoples need to be directly countered with arguments that demonstrate clear advantages from supporting conservation aims;

* National parks, reserves or even restrictive land use policies in general should not be seen as foreclosing indigenous economic or self-development opportunities. Indeed, in some parts of the world argument often centers on the "retention of resource-extraction possibilities" by indigenous populations;(6)

* Conservation areas of whatever description should not be seen as pre-determining title to the lands in question; however, the creation of conservation reserves co-extensive with areas inhabited by indigenous peoples can be a first step toward acknowledgment of native title to the area in question;

* Whatever indigene/conservation deal is struck, the terms of the agreement should be beyond reach of other, separately empowered bureaucracies of the national authority (e.g., department of interior or security);

* If fully restrictive nature/anthropological reserves are created (or established in all but name), some hard decisions must be faced. Intrusions by census-takers, missionaries, tourists, security forces or even medical personnel must be kept to a minimum if the integrity of the reserve is to last.

At the country or field level, conservation lobbies (particularly at the international pressure-group level) should become conversant with the following areas of direct concern to threatened indigenes:

a. The economics of import-dependent agricultural projects, extractive silviculture or mass resettlement schemes (such as Amazonian small holdings or Indonesia's "transmigration" programs). These endeavors are often poorly reasoned. By analogy to well-founded second thoughts about the advantages of mass tourism, opportunities exist to take pressure off non-renewable resources (and the indigenes who may live among them), especially if feasible alternatives in the form of intensive/improved productivity techniques (such as new rubber-tapping methods or quicker regeneration of exotic trees) can be offered to national planners.

b. The creative use of existing legal remedies. For example, recognition by national authorities of indigenes' animist religions and sacred sites can yield unexpected results; in most states, places of religious significance invariably enjoy legal protection from all development.

c. Intimate local knowledge of local fauna and flora is frequently acknowledged, but inventories of such knowledge (e.g., pharmaceutical benefits from tropical biota) are lacking. The material advantages of such knowledge (which in the dominant national societies is protected by copyright or other "intellectual property" statutes) wait to be quantified.

d. Tribal lands include not only those areas inhabited at any given time, but other tracts which are used only intermittently. There are two possibilities here: first, many countries permit acquisition of rights to land by prescription, i.e., continuous and uncontested use of the land for a determined number of years. A wider definition of particular indigene land "uses" can lead to successful tribal land claims. The second possibility concerns the systematic, non-damaging land use practiced by intermittent users such as hunter-gatherers (the Kalahari San or Australian Aborigines) or pastoralists (Fulani or Masai of Africa, the Gujjars of India or the Bedouin of the Middle East). The advantages of these practices need to be demonstrated quantitatively to national authorities(7).

Together with a summary of some other analyses of convergent indigene/conservation interests, I have tried to suggest guidelines and areas of further research that should make genuine collaboration more likely at the national, or "field," level as well as at the level of principle. The essence of the task seems to be in the choice of strategies to enlist the support of indigenous peoples themselves for conservation objectives (whether in the form of reserves or practices), while retaining the confidence of the national authorities. Tribal peoples have suffered for centuries under the impact of exogenous expansion into areas that once supported greatly larger numbers of indigenes, and the process has led to decimation and even extinction of many tribal populations. Some indigenes have proved to be demographically resilient, retaining tribal identities while acculturating to the national (or "settler") society. Some - the Surui or Parakanans in Brazil, the Andaman islanders, the Semang and Sakai in Malaysia, the Todas in India or the Pygmy in Zaire - live precariously close to cultural or even physical extinction. The starting point, it seems to me, for cooperation with tribal peoples or their advocates is to recognize that national society and the indigenes need to be persuaded that conservation objectives can be married to the quest for better aboriginal entitlement to the lasting benefit of all parties. It is not an easy task, but it is one worth doing, and worth doing well.


1. The potential for liaising with indigenous peoples in island, estuary or tidal flats environments is often neglected. Traditional fisheries and marine lifestyles depend closely on the retention of-basic character of these particular ecosystems; and cooperative possibilities between indigenes and conservation managers exist. See, for example, an IUCN paper prepared for the Second Regional South Pacific Symposium on the Conservation of Nature by G. Carleton Ray (SPC-IUCN/2 RSCN/WP.5:1975), which envisages incorporating traditional usages into the management of marine reserves. See also: Auburn, F.M., "Convention for the Preservation of Man's Cultural Heritage in the Ocean," Science, 185(4153)1974, and Kearney, R.E., "Some Problems of Developing and Managing Fisheries in Small Island States," in Island States of the Pacific and Indian Oceans (edited by R. Shand), Australian National University, 1980.

2. G. Carleton Ray (cited in Footnote 1 above) also makes the point: "The protectionist approach emphasizes a drawing of legal or geographic boundaries, which do not really exist ecologically, around what is considered, usually on a highly selective basis, exploitable and what is not." Other rigid Western notions may similarly impede the development of indigenous approaches to conservation: "Western emphasis on public ownership and control has until recently inhibited the establishment of national park systems in areas under a form of traditional ownership," Willheim, E., "Cultural Problems in Treaty Negotiation: A Case Study of the International Convention on Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific, Apia, 1976" in Anand (ed.) Cultural Factors in International Relations, New York, 1981.

3. Note the following remarks from the World Bank Report (1981): "Enforced 'primitivism' is a disruptive policy occasionally practiced on a reservation. This policy is often followed either to promote tourism...or it is defended as a means of preserving the tribe's cultural identity. However, whereas enforced 'primitivism' is always damaging, elective 'primitivism' can be beneficial, as in the case of the Cunas of Panama. Minority culture never has been a static entity which must be preserved exactly as it is found or as it is believed to have been. Rather it is a dynamic reality which should be provided with conditions adequate for development in a natural and progressive manner. Cultural continuity should be encouraged in all spheres, but the choice of whether to continue to modify old ways should be left to the tribal people themselves and not imposed upon them."

4. Other examples include a proposed reserve at Siberut (an Indonesian island near Sumatra where traditional Mentawai lifestyles are threatened by timber concessions), the Ngorogoro Crater (where the Masai have the right to graze their cattle), the Ghin forest reserve in India (which permits traditional gathering by the Maldhari people), several of Sweden's National Parks (where the Lapps still graze reindeer) and the Manu National Park in the Amazon area of Peru (where three tribes inhabit the Park's 1.5 million hectares).

5. The World Bank (1981) distinguishes four successive phases of acculturation or integration into the national society: completely uncontacted tribes; semi-isolated groups in intermittent contact; groups in permanent contact; and integrated groups retaining a residual sense of tribal identification.

6. Indigene control of their own economic development appears to be increasingly a feature of the politicization of partially or extensively acculturated tribes. Examples include horticultural export ventures by New Zealand Maoris, the Navajo Forestry Project in Colorado and the Lumni tribe's Aquaculture School in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.

7. The IUCN has recently advocated a revival of traditional Bedouin rangeland management designed to restore exhausted grazing lands in West Asia and preserve traditional cultural patterns. IUCN presented the plan calling for reactivation of the "hema" system at a meeting of the UN Economic Commission for West Asia on 9 May 1981 in Damascus.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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