Q&A: Why conservation must include indigenous rights

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people. Photo by: Rasmus Kongsøre / Norad / CC BY-NC-ND

OSLO, Norway — Indigenous peoples and local communities conserve lands and forests for a quarter of the cost of public and private investments in protected areas, according to new findings released at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum last week, yet “fortress conservation” strategies often see indigenous peoples driven from their land in an effort to protect it from human activity.

The report, co-authored by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, shines a light on the role of local communities as stewards of forests; warns about the spike of human rights abuses in those territories; and makes the case for conservation models that include — rather than evict — indigenous peoples.

Communities customarily own about half of the world’s land, but they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, according to the report. It notes that indigenous peoples protect vital climate resources, given that community lands hold at least a quarter of aboveground forest carbon, and the rate of tree cover loss is less than half in those areas. But the overlap between protected areas and the lands of indigenous peoples — estimated at 50 to 80 percent — creates “an ongoing potential for conflict.”

Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous leader from the Philippines, was placed on a list of “terrorists” by the government earlier this year, alongside other indigenous and human rights defenders. She is supported by fellow U.N. special rapporteurs, who say the listing is a result of her opposition to government policies.

She spoke to Devex on the sidelines of Oslo’s forest forum about the main challenges to achieving a rights-based approach to conservation, and the role donors and development practitioners could play.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The report you have co-authored examines the role of indigenous forest dwellers in helping achieve climate and development goals. Why look at this issue and why now?

The relationship between protected areas and indigenous peoples is now being discussed at a high level, globally. There is a realization that many of the initial efforts to protect forests and the climate but excluded communities have failed. In parallel, indigenous peoples have better organized themselves to assert their rights, and there is growing evidence that forests are better taken care of when communities’ rights are respected.

This report is not the first one to explore the issue. What new insights does it offer?

“Available evidence suggests that respecting the rights of indigenous peoples is a more cost-effective approach to protecting forests.”

The report provides specific figures, which are what scientists and policy-makers understand. For example, it highlights the fact that indigenous peoples and local communities outperform other land managers in terms of cost-effectiveness. Globally, communities invest up to $4.57 billion per year in land conservation, including up to $1.71 billion in forest conservation. This is as much as 23 percent of the amount spent on land and forest conservation by governments, donors, NGOs, and foundations combined. Yet, indigenous peoples only receive a small percentage of official conservation funding.

Research also shows that legally recognized community forests store more carbon and suffer lower rates of tree loss than forests under other tenure regimes, including protected areas.


What do these insights mean from a policy-making perspective?

Available evidence suggests that respecting the rights of indigenous peoples is a more cost-effective approach to protecting forests, so I would hope to see more policies that reflect that. States should identify the discrepancies between laws and policies for forest protection, and respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples. As it is, they often contradict each other.

There has been concrete evidence on the contribution of indigenous peoples to conservation for over a decade, but the report notes they still have only limited recognition of their community land rights in protected areas. What are the main obstacles to achieving a rights-based approach to conservation and development?

The matrix for measuring development is very much skewed in favor of extractivism. Governments keep thinking that unsustainably extracting resources from forests will bring more economic growth than protecting them.

Even when there are policies in place to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and restitute their lands, they are totally trumped. I have often seen them bypassed by investors or laws on mining and infrastructure.

Another reason is the persistence of discrimination against indigenous peoples by the dominant society, particularly by decision-makers. They cannot believe that people they have labeled as primitive are doing well — or even better at conservation than they are.

Finally, there is the division inside indigenous communities themselves. When projects are brought in, governments often prefer to talk to those members that might be keener to support their goals, and they use a divide and rule strategy. That is a major reason why the existing evidence is not being put to good use.

What strategies do you put forward to address these challenges?

We need to take action at three levels. We must put pressure on states to respect human rights. Many states seem to find it easier to comply with the demands of investors and economic powers than with human rights obligations. To exert pressure, it is crucial that indigenous peoples network a lot more effectively among themselves and with other allies.

Other civil society organizations should also find common ground with indigenous peoples. We need them to raise their voice much more strongly against forced evictions from protected areas, and to support a rights-based approach to conservation. The fortress conservation approach aggravates the risk of marginalization, poverty, and food insecurity among indigenous peoples.

What role should the private sector and development practitioners play?

The private sector needs to understand it is in its self-interest to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and that we are not enemies. If investments are constant sources of conflict, how will they recover their capital or raise funds?

Development actors have a very important role to play when it comes to shaping a development model that is truly sustainable, socially just, and more considerate of the rights of indigenous peoples. Traditional livelihoods are an example of sustainability and should receive a lot more support, instead of being undermined, destroyed, and even criminalized.

“The matrix for measuring development is very much skewed in favor of extractivism.”


The brief says that more conservation finance should be channeled to community-led conservation initiatives. Are you planning to engage with funders such as the World Bank, the Global Environmental Facility, and impact investment firms?

Yes, we would like to expand our engagement with them. The World Bank’s forest conservation program already has a dedicated grant mechanism involving indigenous peoples. Concerning the GEF, it should conduct a much more robust evaluation of its investments in national parks. This is key to take stock of failures and successes, and to be able to implement lessons learned.

Impact investment firms must also make sure their activities are much more respectful of human rights and social justice. They sometimes make lots of references to environmental sustainability, but they neglect other aspects of a rights-based approach such as ensuring benefits are equitably distributed. In this regard, I am already in touch with the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, a first-of-its-kind initiative launched late last year to expand collective investor action on a range of critical human rights issues.

The report makes four recommendations: Creating an independent conservation monitoring and grievance mechanism; creating national accountability and reparation mechanisms for infringements on the rights of indigenous peoples in the context of conservation measures; fully integrating the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in all future targets and measures on biodiversity conservation and climate change; and promoting conservation models with the involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities. How confident are you they will get implemented?

It depends on the uptake of these recommendations by decision-makers and the global conservation and development community. We must maintain the pressure on decision-makers to adequately address the overlaps between protected areas and indigenous territories, and we must continue providing evidence on the role of communities as stewards of forests.

I am now seeing some good steps in the right direction, such as the work of the Land Tenure Facility and of some funds that aim for better protection of communal tenure rights to forests. With such additional financial and technical support, we shall be able to advance those goals.

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About the author

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    Gloria Pallares

    Gloria Pallares is a journalist reporting on sustainable development, global health and humanitarian aid from Africa and Europe. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including El Pais, Forbes, CIFOR’s Forest News and the leading media outlets in Spain via the multimedia newswire Europa Press.