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“Indigenous Peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish  and implement assistance programmes for  Indigenous people.” - UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 29.1 


Worldwide, approximately 40 to 50 percent of protected areas have been established on lands traditionally occupied or used by Indigenous Peoples. For decades, Indigenous Peoples have been shedding light on the negative impacts of the mainstream conservation movement, which largely has taken a “keep out” approach and ignored the contributions Indigenous Peoples have made to protecting the world’s biodiversity. It is no coincidence that 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity is found on Indigenous lands: it is because of Indigenous Peoples’ stewardship and relationship with the environment. The journal Nature Sustainability estimates that Indigenous Peoples, who make up approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, use or have management rights to more than a quarter of the Earth’s surface—roughly 14.7 million square miles of land in 87 political regions. Yet, about  70 percent of the world’s population does not hold a registered title to their land.  

In 2016, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, released a thematic analysis for the UN Human Rights Council on conservation measures and their impact on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The report summarized the main concern: “Protected areas have the potential of safeguarding the biodiversity for the benefit of all humanity; however, these have also been associated with human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples in many parts of the world.” According to the report, only five percent of all protected areas practice shared governance of Indigenous Peoples with local communities. A 2015 analysis undertaken by the NGO Rights and Resources Initiative of 21 countries where conflicts affect Indigenous Peoples in protected areas concluded that inadequate, inconsistent, and poorly implemented legislation is a key obstacle to advancing rights-based conservation. The analysis determined that “only 8 of the 21 countries enacted or reformed their protected area legislation related to community land and resource rights during this time period.”

An underlying factor of this stark inequity is the rampant lack of recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and unsecured titles to land. A 2016 study by the Rainforest Foundation of 34 protected areas in  5 countries in the Congo Basin (Cameroon, Central  African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo) found that  Indigenous communities have virtually no tenure security over their traditional lands in any of those countries. The creation of at least 26 of the protected areas resulted in partial or complete relocation or displacement of local Indigenous and farming communities present in the area prior to park establishment. There was no reparation for the displacements. Of the 34 protected areas studied, 25 bordered with logging concessions, 19 overlapped with mining concessions, and 9 overlapped with oil concessions, illustrating another threat to conservation and Indigenous Peoples’ rights: the extractive industry.

The report made several recommendations to  States, including adopting necessary policy, legal, and administrative measures for the full recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their lands, territories, and resources as enshrined in international human rights law; complying with the duty to consult and  obtain the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)  of Indigenous Peoples before the development of conservation initiatives that may affect their rights; supporting partnerships between government authorities and Indigenous Peoples to encourage intercultural  engagement in order to build trust and collaboration  in favor of shared goals of sustainable conservation;  and establishing accountability and reparation mechanisms for infringements on Indigenous rights in the context of conservation and to provide redress for  historical and contemporary wrongs. 

Tauli-Corpuz further urged conservation groups to respect and support the rights of Indigenous Peoples as recognized in international human rights law and enhance their ability to engage in conservation by advocating for recognition of their collective rights; to develop mechanisms for solid partnerships for regular and continuous engagement with Indigenous Peoples, including ensuring their full and effective participation in designing, implementing, and monitoring conservation initiatives; to support Indigenous Peoples with their own  conservation initiatives; and to ensure culturally appropriate complaint mechanisms. In addition, she wrote, donors should require and monitor conservation organizations to adopt and practice human rights policies and support Indigenous Peoples’ own conservation initiatives, and UN agencies like UNESCO should reform the Operation Guidelines, address the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopt procedures for FPIC, and improve monitoring of conservation practices on Indigenous Peoples. Conservation groups should also use their leverage to advocate for  Indigenous rights and promote a rights-based approach. 

Cultural Survival recently spoke with Tauli-Corpuz.

CS:  What are the current issues Indigenous Peoples are facing with conservation efforts?

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz: The situation of Indigenous Peoples in protected areas and conservation areas is not very good because Indigenous Peoples are still victim to the government deciding that their traditional territories should become protected areas. This is an injustice, because Indigenous Peoples are the ones who have been protecting these areas even before the governments came into the picture and they have shown that they are able to protect these areas. But they are subjected to all these kinds of human rights violations. This is, of course, very much related to their rights over territories and resources, as well as their rights to participate in making decisions that affect them. There are also violations of Free, Prior and Informed Consent because they are not asked whether they would like those territories to be designated as protected areas. In the process there are also Indigenous Peoples who have been relocated, and there is no compensation for them.  That kind of injustice continues to happen.

What do you see as the fundamental reason for conflicts stemming from conservation efforts?

VTC: It’s mainly a conflict over how the government regards the lands of Indigenous Peoples, because when States were formed, they made laws that all the lands belonged to the government. Many Indigenous Peoples don’t agree with that, because these lands are the territories which they have cared for since time immemorial and where their cultures and identities have emerged from. When States make a claim on the forest for its “protection,” they are doing it in violation of that right. But they are also doing these kinds of actions because of a discriminatory mindset that thinks Indigenous Peoples cannot protect those lands. They refuse to see that Indigenous Peoples have their own traditional protection systems and governments where laws and policies regarding how their territories are being shaped and protected are enforced. Many governments don’t like to look at that because there’s a feeling of superiority; that the government knows best.

Can you comment on the obstacles to legal ownership of collective lands?

VTC: Indigenous Peoples are facing a lot of challenges.  Number one, many of them are still being evicted and their houses burned in the name of conservation. For example, in the case of India, the government expanded tiger sanctuaries and have displaced the Baiga and Gond. We have situations in Africa where protected areas have been created and the Pygmies who depend on and live in these forests have been displaced as well. Those are some of the reports that I have been receiving, as well as Indigenous Peoples not being able to go into protected areas to do their traditional practices like hunting and gathering and beekeeping, or to get to the traditional medicines that they use. All of these activities are being denied to them because they are considered protected areas and nobody is allowed to go there.

How do international laws help protect Indigenous lands?

VTC: I am suggesting to governments that they should abide by their human rights obligations like respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands and territories and respecting the right of self-determination; that they should be included in decisions regarding taking protected areas and that they should continue to practice their livelihood and cultures and maintain their sacred sites. In other words, I am calling on the governments to adhere and comply with the human rights obligations that they have signed onto, as well as the obligations to environmental conventions. The Convention on Biodiversity, for instance, says that Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowl-edge, innovations, and practices should be supported by governments. Indigenous Peoples should be consulted, but the other thing is to look at how to redress these kinds of  injustices that Indigenous Peoples continue to suffer from, what kinds of redress mechanisms have been put in place  by governments as well as conservation organizations so   that they will be able to be brought back to their traditional territories or be relocated to lands that are equally valuable  to the lands they were displaced from, among others. These kinds of injustices need to be addressed.

 Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says that Indigenous Peoples’ rights to continue their conservation activities should be allowed. There are several articles on Free, Prior and Informed Consent that say any decisions regarding the use of their lands should obtain their FPIC. ILO Convention 169 says as well that consultation needs to be done with Indigenous Peoples before any policy or administrative action is being taken that will affect them.

Awareness of these laws is key. What can Indigenous Peoples do?

VTC: Indigenous Peoples really need to strengthen their capacity to use existing mechanisms to be able to pressure the governments to do the right thing in terms of complying with their obligations. But they should also strengthen the possibility of doing their own monitoring and evaluation of existing protected areas, and to make reports that expose rights violations to the general public so that more pressure will be exerted on the State and conservation organizations that are responsible for these kinds of developments.


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