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Conservation Policy and Indigenous Peoples

The creation of protected areas has been a central element in conservation policy since its beginnings in the 19th century. From their inception, protected areas were conceived as areas of land alienated to the state and managed for the benefit of future generations but to the exclusion of residents. National parks, pioneered in the United States, denied indigenous peoples’ rights, evicted them from their homelands, and provoked long-term social conflict. This model of conservation became central to conservation policy worldwide. But the emergence of indigenous peoples as a social movement and as a category in international human rights law has contributed to conservation agencies rethinking their approach to conservation. A new model of conservation can now be discerned based on a respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and other bearers of “traditional knowledge.”

Conservation policies emerged at a time of fierce prejudice against indigenous peoples and led to the worldwide acceptance of a model of “colonial conservation” which has caused, and continues to cause, widespread human suffering and resentment. Advances in human rights and in the thinking of conservationists have led to an acceptance that conservation can and must be achieved in collaboration with indigenous peoples and based on respect for their internationally recognized rights. However, on the ground, protected areas continue to be imposed according to the colonial model, calling into question the extent to which there is a real commitment to giving conservation a human face.

The First National Parks
The idea that certain areas of land valued for the natural species that live there should be set aside for recreation and protected from other uses can be traced back to Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C. From there it spread east and west, into India and Europe (Colchester 1994 [2003]). The first national parks were established at the same time as a tumultuous rush of land-grabbing during the American conquest of the Wild West, when covered wagons, the U.S. cavalry, gold miners, cowboys, and Indians struggled to impose their different visions of life and land use on the continent.

The first such park, established in Yosemite in California in 1864, followed a bloody war of extermination of the Miwok people, and involved the repeated, forced eviction of remnant Miwok settlements over the following 105 years (Keller and Turek 1998). The Yellowstone National Park, established 34 years later in what is now Wyoming, also involved the denial of indigenous peoples’ rights. The Yellowstone National Park was created at a time when a devastating series of “Indian Wars” was being waged to subdue Indian autonomy and realize the United States’ “manifest destiny.” The indigenous peoples who lived in and made use of the extensive woods, plains, and waters of Yellowstone—the Shoshone, Lakota, Crow, Bannock, Nez Perce, Flathead, and Blackfeet peoples—were thus excluded, leading to resistance and the subsequent killing of hundreds of Indians (Keller and Turek 1998).

Underpinning this approach to conservation lay the idea that nature could only be preserved as “wilderness,” areas conceived as “primitive and natural” and which must be kept uninhabited—set aside for recreation and science but otherwise left untouched. John Muir, one of the main forces in the national parks movement in the United States, argued vehemently and successfully that wilderness areas should be set aside for recreation to fulfil an emotional need for wild places (Colchester 1994). Most protected areas established in the United States followed this approach although the great majority of these areas overlap lands owned and claimed by indigenous peoples (Keller and Turek 1998). In the following century, the U.S. model of nature conservation was to be exported worldwide and strongly influenced conservation policy in many countries.

Summarizing the recent history of conservation, the former chairman of the World Commission on Protected Areas has noted, “The opinions and rights of indigenous peoples were of little concern to any government before about 1970; they were not organized as a political force as they are now in many countries” (Phillips 2003). Social Impacts of Protected Areas

It has been estimated that, as a result of these policies, some 1 million square kilometers of forests, pasture, and farmlands were expropriated in Africa to make way for conservation, but equivalent statistics are lacking of the number of people displaced as a consequence (Nelson and Hossack 2003). An all-too-common testimony of such forced relocation comes from a Twa who was expelled from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s (Kwokwo Barume 2000):

We did not know they were coming. It was early in the morning. I heard people around my house. I looked through the door and saw people in uniforms with guns. Then one of them forced the door of our house and started shouting that we had to leave immediately because the park is not our land. I first did not understand what he was talking about because all my ancestors have lived on these lands. They were so violent that I left with my children.

Denied their traditional lands and livelihoods, these Twa—traditional hunting and gathering “Pygmies”—now exist in a number of squatter camps on the fringes of their once extensive forest territory. They suffer extreme malnutrition, landlessness, demoralization, and despair. As another Twa explains: “Since we were expelled from our lands, death is following us. The village is becoming empty. We are heading toward extinction. Now the old people have died. Our culture is dying too.”

Accurate statistics about just how many people have been displaced to make way for protected areas in Asia are also lacking. One estimate suggests that as many as 600,000 tribal people have been displaced by protected areas in India alone (PRIA 1993). The statistics in Latin America are equally unavailable. Sources suggest that as many as 85 percent of the protected areas in Latin America are in fact inhabited (Amend and Amend 1992).

However, though we lack overall numbers, the local consequences of these impositions of protected areas on the lives of indigenous peoples have been better documented. Summarizing the extensive literature and field studies[1], indigenous peoples commonly experience:

• Denial of rights to land
• Denial of use of and access to natural resources
• Denial of political rights and the validity of customary institutions
• Disrupted kinship systems
• Disorganized settlement patterns
• Loss of informal social networks, fundamental to the local economy
• Undermining of livelihoods, loss of property, no compensation
• Poverty
• Disruption of customary systems of environment management
• Enforced illegality. People become “poachers,” “encroachers,” and “squatters” on their own land and are subject to petty tyrannies by park guards.
• Forced resettlement
• Leadership systems destroyed, for if the community leaders accept the relocation they are accused of betraying their people, but if they resist they are proved powerless. Forced resettlement presents a no-win situation to community leaders.
• Symbolic ties to environment broken
• Cultural identity weakened
• Intensified pressure on natural resources outside the protected areas
• Popular unrest, resistance, incendiarism, social conflict, and ensuing repression

It is now widely recognized that the exclusion of indigenous peoples and other local communities from protected areas can also undermine their conservation objectives by creating conflict between local communities and parks managers. As a World Wide Fund for Nature-International (WWF) report notes (Carey, Dudley and Stolton 2000): Loss of traditional rights can reduce peoples’ interest in long-term stewardship of the land and therefore the creation of a protected area can in some cases increase the rate of damage to the very values that the protected area was originally created to preserve … Putting a fence around a protected area seldom creates a long term solution to problems of disaffected local communities, whether or not it is ethically justified.

New Principles of Conservation
Since 1975, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and World Parks Congress (WPC) have been making important statements implying recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the need to accommodate these rights in protected areas. The Kinshasa Resolution of 1975 recognized the importance of traditional ways of life and land ownership, and called on governments to maintain and encourage customary ways of living. It urged governments to devise means by which indigenous peoples could bring their lands into conservation areas without relinquishing their ownership, use, and tenure rights. It also noted that indigenous peoples should not normally be displaced from their traditional lands by protected areas, nor should protected areas be established without adequate consultation with the peoples to be directly affected. The same resolution was recalled in 1982 at the World National Parks Congress in Bali, Indonesia, which affirmed the rights of traditional societies to “social, economic, cultural, and spiritual self-determination” and “to participate in decisions affecting the land and natural resources on which they depend.” The resolution advocated “the implementation of joint management arrangements between societies which have traditionally managed resources and protected area authorities.”[2]

At the World Congress on Protected Areas held in Caracas in 1992, a central issue addressed by the participants was the fact that the great majority of protected areas are in fact inhabited, notably by indigenous peoples. The congress recognized that the denial of the existence and rights of residents was not only unrealistic but counter-productive. At that time the IUCN defined a “national park” in terms of state ownership or control: “Where the highest competent authority of the country has taken steps to prevent or eliminate as soon as possible exploitation or occupation of the whole area.”[3]

In 1996, following several years of intensive engagement with indigenous peoples’ organizations, the WWF adopted a Statement of Principles on Indigenous Peoples and Conservation, which endorses the Draft U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; accepts that constructive engagement with indigenous peoples must start with a recognition of their rights; and upholds the rights of indigenous peoples to own, manage, and control their lands and territories and benefit from the application of their knowledge. That same year the World Conservation Congress, the paramount body of the IUCN, adopted seven resolutions on indigenous peoples, including one that recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands and territories—particularly in forests, marine and coastal ecosystems, and protected areas—and a resolution that recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to manage their natural resources in protected areas either on their own or jointly with others. A third resolution endorses the principles enshrined in International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 and the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In 1997, the IUCN published a two-volume resource guide, Beyond Fences, which makes suggestions about how conservation objectives can be achieved through greater collaboration with local communities. The guide notes that the collaborative approach is not only justifiable in terms of conservation effectiveness but is also required if conservation is to be morally and ethically responsible.

In 1999, the World Commission on Protected Areas adopted guidelines for putting the principles contained in one of these seven resolutions into practice. These guidelines emphasize the co-management of protected areas, agreements between indigenous peoples and conservation bodies, indigenous participation in protected areas, and recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to “sustainable, traditional use” of their lands and territories. The link between sustainability and secure tenure has also been clearly recognized. As the 1999 IUCN study Global Tenure and Sustainable Use concluded: Co-Management is often hailed as the appropriate middle ground, within which the needs of all stakeholders can be negotiated and acceptable compromises achieved [but]… this would seem to be only part of the solution. Co-management strategies can only be effective if they are accompanied by parallel efforts to address issues of tenure in the related territory. If tenure arrangements do not secure the interests of local users, there is no incentive to practice sustainable use.

Obstacles to Implementation
Putting these new principles into practice is easier said than done. Conservation initiatives take place within the same constraints as other “development” activities. They must deal with the same competing enterprises and vested interests that confront local communities everywhere. In particular they have to confront the all-too-common ingrained prejudices against indigenous peoples, held by both the general public and personnel in government agencies.

A review carried out by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) over the past seven years, which has included an examination of the experiences of indigenous peoples with 36 protected areas in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, has found that the new principles of conservation are not yet being widely applied in developing countries. The three regional conferences at which these case studies were presented and discussed concurred that, in general, protected areas continue to be established and administered in violation of indigenous peoples’ rights and in ignorance of the new standards. In Central Africa, protected areas continue to oblige the forced relocation of indigenous peoples, often without any plans for resettlement or compensation (Nelson and Hossack 2003). Serious impoverishment is widely reported and participation is at the most elementary level. Only in southern Africa have participatory wildlife management systems gained currency (Duffy 2000). The San peoples have experienced uneven treatment: being evicted from reserves in Botswana,[4] while enjoying the restitution of some of their lands in South Africa (Chennells 2003).

In Asia, while the overall pattern of denial of rights remains clear, reform efforts are underway in some areas. Overall national laws and policies continue to be framed by the colonial model of conservation, but benefit-sharing through integrated conservation and development projects have a wider currency and in some areas sincere efforts have been made to involve local communities in decision-making and to accommodate (if not legally recognize) indigenous peoples’ land rights.

In Latin America, the picture is more mixed. Most national constitutions now recognize indigenous peoples and the legislatures have enacted laws that recognize indigenous peoples’ rights. Although implementation of these laws still leaves a lot to be desired, significant progress has been made. But corresponding reforms of conservation laws and policies lag behind these changes and most examples of indigenous-owned and run protected areas have been achieved outside the official protected area systems (Gray, Newing & Padellada 1997). Parallel studies suggest that conservationists in Latin America are only in the first phases of incorporating local communities into protected area management. Typically these measures include employing local people in such jobs as park guards, rangers, cooks, and secretaries. Community development projects are then the next stage of participation, after which involving communities in natural resource management is attempted. Actual recognition of rights in protected areas is, often, not yet even on the national agenda (Dugelby and Libby 1998).

These findings echo studies made in the United States, where the gradual move toward an accommodation of indigenous peoples’ rights in protected areas took over half a century. As Robert Keller and Michael Turek note in American Indians and National Parks: To begin, park/Indian relations seem to fall into four phases: (1) unilateral appropriation of recreation land by the government; (2) an end to land-taking but a continued federal neglect of tribal needs, cultures and treaties; (3) Indian resistance, leading to aggressive pursuit of tribal interests; (4) a new National Parks Service commitment to cross-cultural integrity and cooperation.

The Forest Peoples Programme review finds that, in all three of the regions examined, examples can be found of protected areas where sincere efforts to apply these new standards are being made. These examples demonstrate that it is possible to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and achieve conservation goals in the same areas. The case studies also show that a number of serious obstacles stand in the way of an effective recognition of indigenous rights in conservation practice. These include:

• Entrenched discrimination in national societies’ attitudes toward indigenous peoples such that indigenous peoples’ ways of life are seen as backward, dirty, or subhuman. In the context of conservation initiatives, the result may be a denial of rights and a feeling among affected peoples that they are treated as worse than animals.

• Absence of reform of government policies and laws regarding indigenous peoples. Many governments, especially in Asia and Africa, pursue integrationist or assimilationist social policies toward indigenous peoples, designed to elevate them from backward ways into the national mainstream while ignoring or denying their cultural traditions, customary institutions, rights, and preferences.

• National laws and policies with respect to land which deny indigenous peoples’ rights to own and manage their lands.

• National conservation policies and laws still based on the old exclusionary model of conservation. Few of the countries studied have adopted legislation that would encourage community-owned protected areas in line with the revised IUCN protected area category system, which would allow communities and indigenous peoples to own and control protected areas.

• Conservation agencies and NGOs lack appropriate training, staff, and capacity to work with communities. In many cases, national chapters of the large conservation organizations have not been informed about the new policies and principles which have been adopted at the international level.

A New Paradigm
In September 2003, some 150 persons representing indigenous peoples and loosely coordinated through an Ad Hoc Indigenous Peoples Working Group for the WPC attended the Fifth WPC, held in Durban, South Africa. They called on the 3,000 conservationists present at the meeting to respect their rights and to develop a work program to give such declarations real effect. Support organizations such as the Forest Peoples Programme, which had helped raise funds for this mobilization, also issued a series of publications (MacKay 2002) that called on conservationists to:

• Reaffirm their commitment to respect and uphold indigenous peoples’ internationally recognized rights in all their protected area programs

• Give priority to reforming national laws, policies, and conservation programs so that they respect indigenous peoples’ rights and allow protected areas to be owned and managed by indigenous peoples

• Ensure that sufficient funds are allocated to national conservation programs, and to the regional and international programs that support them, to carry out these legal and policy reforms

• Retrain conservation personnel in both national and international bureaus so that they understand and know how to apply these new principles

• Establish effective mechanisms for open dialogue, the redress of grievances, and the transparent exchange of information between conservationists and indigenous peoples

• Encourage other major international conservation agencies to adopt clear policies on indigenous peoples and protected areas in conformity with their internationally recognized rights and these new conservation principles

• Combat entrenched discrimination in national and international conservation programs and offices and, where necessary, adopt affirmative social policies that recognize and respect cultural diversity

• Support the consolidation of indigenous peoples’ organizations as independent, representative institutions

• Support initiatives by indigenous peoples to secure their territorial rights • Initiate transparent, participatory, and effective procedures for the restitution of indigenous peoples’ lands, territories, and resources incorporated into protected areas and compensate them for all material and immaterial damages in accordance with international law.

The strong presence of indigenous peoples in Durban was successful in getting conservationists to accept a new approach to protected areas. The Durban Accord, the consensus document of the whole congress, announces that the WPC has accepted a new paradigm for protected areas, “integrating them equitably with the interests of all affected people.” The accord celebrates the conservation successes of indigenous peoples. It expresses concern at the lack of recognition, protection, and respect given to these efforts. It notes that the costs of protected areas are often borne by local communities. It urges commitment to involve indigenous peoples in establishing and managing protected areas and to participate in decision-making on a fair and equitable basis in full respect of their human and social rights.

To implement this new vision, the Durban Accord Action Plan notes that the costs of past successes in establishing a global protected area system have been inequitably borne by local communities. To rectify this disparity, the congress now seeks as a major outcome that that the rights of indigenous peoples be recognized and guaranteed in relation to natural resources and biodiversity conservation (see pages 23 and 61 this issue). There are currently some 100,000 officially recognized protected areas worldwide covering as much as 12 percent of the land surface of the planet. The great majority of these areas are owned or claimed by indigenous peoples. Reforming these in conformity with international law and in line with the new commitments made in Durban is now going to require a major effort from policy makers and development agencies.

From Stakeholders to Rights-Holders
The history of indigenous peoples’ relations to protected areas can be seen as one of social exclusion and marginalization. Having once been independent nations within their own territories, many indigenous peoples have been pushed off their lands, which have been expropriated by government agencies in the name of conservation. This has facilitated the entry of a number of interests into these areas, ranging from the private sector to academia. Current development discourse, insofar as it recognizes indigenous peoples at all, tends to characterize them now as stakeholders who must compete with other interest groups to get their voices heard. This recognition is not enough. International law recognizes that indigenous peoples have rights to own, manage, and control their lands, and conservationists have now accepted this as the basis for a new paradigm of conservation. The challenge is to allow indigenous peoples to move back into control of their lands.

1. For detailed reviews see: West and Brechin 1991; Kemf 1993; Colchester 1994; Ghimire and Pimbert 1996; Gray, Parellada and Newing 1997; Colchester and Erni 1999; Chatty and Colchester 2002; Nelson and Hossack 2003; Cernea and Schmidt-Soltau 2003 2. See 3. Cited in West 1991 4. See

Marcus Colchester is director of the Forest Peoples Programme.

References and further reading
Amend, S., & Amend, T., Eds. (1992). Espacios sin habitantes? Parques Nacionales de America del Sur. Gland: IUCN.

WCPA & IUCN. (2000). Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and Protected Areas: Principles, Guidelines and Case Studies. Gland, Switzerland: Beltran, J., Ed..

Borrini-Feyerabend, Grazia, Ed. (1997). Beyond Fences: Seeking Social Sustainability in Conservation, 2 Volumes, Gland: IUCN.

Carey, C., Dudley, N. & Stolton, S. (2000). Squandering Paradise? The importance and vulnerability of the world’s protected areas. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature- International.

Cernea, M. & Schmidt-Soltau, K. (2003, May 19-23). Biodiversity Conservation versus Population Resettlement: Risks to Nature and Risks to People. Paper presented to the International Conference on Rural Livelihoods, Forests and Biodiversity, Bonn.

Chatty, D. & Colchester, M., Eds. (2002). Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development. Oxford: Berghahn.

Chennells, R. (2003). The =Khomani San of South Africa. In From Principles to Practice: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in Africa. Nelson, J. & Hossack, L., Eds. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme. Pp 269-289.

Colchester, M. (1994). Salvaging Nature: Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation. UNRISD Discussion Paper 55, Geneva [and 2003, Revised Second edition, World Rainforest Movement, Montevideo].

Colchester, M., & Erni, C., Eds. (1999). Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in South and Southeast Asia: from Principles to Practice. Forest Peoples Programme and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen.

Duffy, R. (2000). Killing for Conservation: Wildlife Policy in Zimbabwe. Oxford: James Currie.

Dugelby, B. & Libby, M. (1998). Analyzing the Social Context at PiP Sites. In Parks in Peril: People, Politics and Protected Areas. Brandon, K., Redford, K. & Sanderson, S. Washington D.C.: Island Press. Pp 63-75.

Forrest, S. (1999). Global Tenure and Sustainable Use. Washington D.C.: IUCN Sustainable Use Initiative.

Ghimire, K. & Pimbert, M., Eds. (1996). Social Change and Conservation: Environmental Politics and Impacts of National Parks and Protected Areas. London: Earthscan.

Gray, A., Newing, H. & Padellada, A., Eds. (1997). Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America: from Principles to Practice. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs & Forest Peoples Programme.

IUCN. (1996). World Conservation Congress: resolutions and recommendations. Gland: IUCN.

Keller, R., & Turek, M. (1998). American Indians and National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Kwokwo Barume, A. (2000). Heading Towards Extinction: Indigenous Rights in Africa – the case of the Twa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Copenhagen: Forest Peoples Programme and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

MacKay, F. (2002). Addressing Past Wrongs: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas: the right to Restitution of Lands and Resouces. Moreton-in-Marsh, U.K.: Forest Peoples Programme.

Nelson, J. & Hossack, L., Eds. (2003). From Principles to Practice: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in Africa. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme.

Society for Participatory Research in Asia (1993, October 28-30). Doon Declaration on People and Parks. Resolution of the National Workshop on Declining Access to and Control over Natural Resources in National Parks and Sanctuaries. Dehradun: Forest Research Institute.

West, P., & Brechin, S., Eds. (1991). Resident Peoples and National Parks: Social Dilemmas in International Conservation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

World Wide Fund for Nature-International (1996). WWF Statement of principles: indigenous peoples and conservation. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.

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