Conservation’s people problem


Jeremy Hance, Mongabay

Date Published


Part 4 of 4 in a series by Mongabay.
See link for photos.
My five-year-old daughter loves pretending to be Yanomama. She goes outgoside, collects branches and leaves, and makes “food.” She turns over rocks looking for insects and watches the birds. She talks about things like poison arrow frogs and three-toed sloths. The Yanomama, or Yanomami, is a highly imperiled indigenous tribe living in the Amazon rainforest. You’d think my daughter might have learned about them from her environmental-journalist father, but in fact it was from her preschool class, which spent three weeks studying the rainforest.

My daughter loves pretending at Yanomama, but she doesn’t yet know how bad things are for the world’s indigenous tribes. Throughout history, indigenous peoples have been brutalized, belittled, and decimated by powerful interlopers. Whole groups have gone extinct, their traditions, language, and culture vanishing forever like a puff of smoke.

And the process continues. One of the most glaring — and least reported on — human rights crises today is the treatment of indigenous peoples at the hands of power-hungry governments, amoral corporations, and waves of settlers.

But conservation too has played a role. Governments have used the preservation of land and wildlife as justification to remove indigenous peoples from their homes, sometimes with the support (or simply silence) of conservation groups.

Since its beginnings, conservation has had a people problem. Indeed, the biggest internal crisis the field has faced over the last century is its treatment of local people, and most acutely indigenous people. An ugly past has made re-gaining trust and building relationships with people living near areas targeted for protection one of the toughest aspects of conservation today.

But, after a long, hard look in the mirror, the field has changed. Many conservationists and groups now embrace the establishment of indigenous reserves as one of the most innovative — and frankly effective — ways of protecting species from extinction. Many conservationists also work directly with indigenous groups, asking and listening instead of telling and demanding. But still there is much work to do.

Ugly past — and present

In the 1990s, the Botswana government began kicking San and Bakgalagadi people out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Ironically, the park was created, in 1961, in part to allow the indigenous bushmen to live and hunt unmolested inside its borders, making their living as they had for millennia. It was also created to safeguard its rich wildlife. But things changed after a number of ecologists and officials raised concerns that wildlife populations were declining in the reserve. This gave the government an excuse to establish control over the bushmen and, allegedly, secure the diamonds underneath their land.

The government’s response proved, unsurprisingly, to be a human rights disaster. It forced the bushmen to resettle outside the reserve, where they must depend on government handouts for survival. Security forces have routinely beaten them for attempting to return to hunt or forage in their homeland (though wealthy trophy hunters can pay to shoot animals inside the park: they are exempt from the national hunting ban that applies to locals). Today, the San and Bakgalagadi are still waging a legal war to return to the land their ancestors called home.

Botswana’s bushmen are hardly alone in being subject to abuse or displacement in the name of conservation, typically to make way for a new protected area or to shield wildlife from traditional hunting. Indeed, when one of the first modern protected areas — Yosemite National Park in California — was established, the people who lived there, the Miwok tribe, were killed or forced out over a period of decades.

It’s almost impossible to know the full extent of conservation’s impact on locals, but one paper estimated that as many as 14 million people in Africa alone have become “conservation refugees” since the beginning of modern conservation, including the Maasai of eastern Africa, who were pushed off their traditional grazing lands to make way for many of the parks that foreign tourists enjoy today. India’s government also admits to over a million, most of them moved to protect tigers. But few other hard numbers exist.

“The problem for indigenous peoples is this kind of conservation is ‘conservation without humans’ or ‘conservation that avoids people,’” said Mina Susana Setra, an activist from the Dayak tribe in Indonesian Borneo who works for the rights NGO the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelagos. “[It] promotes only nature, flora and fauna, but not humans.”

She pointed to the ongoing “Nature is Speaking” campaign by the NGO Conservation International (CI) as a good example of this kind of thinking, with its message at the end of every video that “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”

Setra told me, via email, that the Indonesian government has “copied” this style of conservation and “disregard[ed] our own community based ‘conservation’ system.”

She said this has led to numerous indigenous groups being moved out of their territories to make way for national parks in the country, such as the Dongi-Dongi people for the creation Lore Lindu National Park in Sulawesi, the Banding Agung for Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, and the Kasepuhan Karang for Mount Halimun Salak National Park in Java.

“The Kasepuhan Karang now struggle to carry out economic and cultural practices that have sustained them for generations,” said Setra, who pointed out that the indigenous group had lived on land for over 600 years that is now a part of the park.

In part, this ugly history between conservation and indigenous peoples grew out of the fact that many early conservation schemes were started by European colonial governments, which not only exploited their colonies’ material wealth, but also valued their wild riches. Racism, of course, also played a major role. Invaders and governments depicted indigenous peoples (and some still do today) as backward, other, and requiring re-education and conversion to western religion and lifestyles in a bid to save their heathen souls — and steal their land.

At the same time, governments worldwide have used conservation as an excuse to remove, debilitate, or simply exterminate indigenous groups, including as a tactic in the U.S. government’s war against Native Americans that lasted into the twentieth century. But conservationists themselves are hardly blameless, having long advocated for parks overlapping indigenous areas and — at least in the past — viewing indigenous peoples as grave threats to nature rather than as protectors.

Conservationists began by propagating the idea that true wilderness must be emptied of people, according to Jonathan Mazower, Advocacy Director for Survival International, a London-based activist organization devoted to indigenous groups.

“A prevalent view among conservationists has been that all human presence poses a direct threat to the natural environment, and that certain areas need to be returned to ‘wilderness’ by evicting people from their land,” he told me through a spokesperson.

He called this view of wilderness “a colonial idea based on [a] false assumption,” since such lands had “been managed by indigenous peoples for millennia.”

Most of the world’s so-called wildernesses have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, at least. Really the only wildernesses on the planet left unshaped by people by the time the Polynesians conquered the Pacific around 1000 AD were Antarctica and the deep sea. Today with climate change, ocean acidification, and trawling nothing remains unaffected.

Still, Don Weeden, director of the Bedford Hills, New York-based Weeden Foundation, which supports wildlife-conservation projects, asserted that the belief that indigenous groups have been gravely harmed by conservation in the past arises from looking at the unfortunate exceptions, not the general rule.

“You take any sort of set of policies and actions and you’re always going to find those that had unintended consequences or perhaps are a little misguided, but those are fairly rare and [do] not typify traditional conservation,” he told me.

While experts debate the extent of the impact and damage, very few dispute that bad things have been done to indigenous and local people in the name of conservation.

Conservation groups wake up

After over a century of similarly repeated abuses, the conservation world had an awakening — of sorts. In part, this was promoted by a growing awareness among conservationists and a sometimes-painful recognition of past sins. But there were also failed projects to reckon with and mounting research showing that indigenous peoples were often as good or better protectors of their lands than establishing formal protected areas.

The longtime approach of evicting people from their homelands in order to make way for wildlife — often described as “guns and fences” or “fortress conservation” — came under fire. The first real sign of evolution came in 1975. That’s when the World Parks Congress, a decadal conference organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), adopted a resolution that recognized the rights of indigenous and traditional people.

Growing political empowerment of indigenous tribes around the world furthered the process, according to Fred Nelson, executive director of the Burlington, Vermont-based Maliasili Initiatives, an NGO that works with conservation groups in Africa to link human needs and environmental benefits.

Nelson pointed to greater recognition and some territorial rights granted to indigenous peoples across South America, Australia, and Canada, beginning in the 1990s. Not only were conservationists realizing they were in the wrong to marginalize indigenous groups, but in many parts of the world indigenous groups were rising up and demanding a say.

“[They] forced conservation to change and work more collaboratively with indigenous people that are securing clear rights over their territory, as well as much more influence in development and policy processes,” said Nelson.

On the academic side, Nelson touted the work of the late Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom, who studied how some communities have been able to sustainably manage ecosystems over long periods of time.

Today, most big conservation groups have developed policies for working with indigenous groups and many conservationists have begun to see them as partners, and sometimes even as mentors. Out of this have come not only dynamic partnerships between conservationists and local people, but also new and arguably better methods of protecting wildlife and wild lands that are becoming de rigeur in the field. These include so-called “community conservation” projects and expanding land rights for indigenous people.

Traditional, new, and community conservation

Attitudes towards indigenous and local people began changing just before the rise, in the last three decades, of a new philosophy in conservation. “New conservation,” as it has been called, focuses on how nature benefits people and their economic concerns. Its methods include developing certification schemes to promote more sustainably produced commodities, payment for ecosystem services schemes that aim to get the market or government to pay to maintain ecosystems for the services they provide humanity, and partnering with the world’s biggest industries in order to stem the damage they do.

The new philosophy rose to the fore in a number of large conservation NGOs, such as CI, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). And it jibed nicely with the new way of thinking about indigenous and local people as partners in conservation.

“We understand that you cannot conserve wildlife at the expense of people, that ultimately the social and environmental dimensions at the landscape level go hand-in-hand,” Deon Nel, WWF-International’s Global Conservation Director, told me.

Still, according to Nelson, new conservation isn’t responsible for conservationists’ shift in thinking about local and indigenous people. Rather, it is a partial product of that awakening.

“[The shift] has happened in 1,000 different ways in 1,000 different places around the world, and has gradually accumulated into systemic changes within conservation thought and practice,” said Nelson.

He added that new conservation programs today are “partly a function of the gradual recognition that conservation must, to be successful, speak to the needs and interests of rural communities around the world — who are ultimately the majority of conservationists on the ground.”

Nelson argued that more traditional views of conservation — such as the mandate to preserve nature as a moral and cultural good — are a “post-colonial way of thinking and acting” and simply do not work in places like eastern and southern Africa where his organization operates.

“[It is] an operational dead-end to think that poor farmers in Mozambique or Rwanda should sacrifice their well-being and life options because conservationists in the US or Europe value the existence of wild animals in Africa,” he said. “For most people in rural Africa who actually encounter them, elephants and lions are terrifying. And unless those people receive countervailing value or benefit, it is ludicrous to expect people to want to have them around. So making wildlife valuable to those people is, to me, the frontlines of conservation in Africa.”

While the rise of new conservation has also led to impassioned debate over its efficacy and approach, the people problem is one of the few areas where new conservationists and traditionalists are generally in agreement.

For example, although traditional conservationists largely focus not on people but rather on protecting wild lands and wildlife, some work closely with locals, seeing them as the best resource in protecting endangered species and places.

Noga Shanee, co-founder of the NGO Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC), told me that while her group is strictly traditional in its aim to protect species in northern Peru, it depends on local people to instigate its activities. “The communities we work with are doing most of the conservation work themselves. They chose the areas they want to conserve and are doing so to the best of their abilities,” she said.

NPC works with farmers to develop their own community-conservation parks, something she said the locals are eager to do. Community conservation means that locals, rather than NGOs or governments, are the top decision-makers and set up their own rules governing their protected area. However, in order to work they also must convince the government to recognize their parks.

Villagers vote in favor of establishing a conservation area to protect yellow-tailed woolly monkey habitat. Photo credit: Sam Shanee/Neotropical Primate Conservation.

“Many of the projects we are working with had actively looked for an organization that would help them realize their dreams. We didn’t need to convince them and definitely not fight them,” Shanee explained.

The upsides of working in this way are undeniable, according to Shanee. “These reserves are much more respected by the local communities…and some suffer from lower deforestation rates than the state-run ones.”

But Shanee cautioned that the Peruvian government makes it needlessly difficult for community conservationists to succeed, likely because it doesn’t like to forfeit control of the land. “Local people just can’t deal with the paperwork and payments themselves,” she said of Peru’s onerous bureaucracy around community conservation. “I am sure that it is completely intentional.”

This lack of support can lead to violence. Shanee noted that local people working with her group have been socially outcast, and even been subjected to kidnappings and death threats. Local environmentalists and indigenous leaders often risk it all when they stand up to governments or industry for the environment. According to the international environmental and human rights NGO Global Witness, at least 1,024 environmental and land activists were assassinated or murdered between 2002 and 2014.

Community conservation is, of course, also happening at organizations that have tilted towards new conservation in recent years. CI started out focused wholly on biodiversity, but the group did a major shift over the last decade or so to focus its mission around people, specifically how nature helps people.

At Bird’s Head Seascape off the coast of West Papua in Indonesia, CI helped set up locally managed conservation areas. The group says the project effectively cut illegal fishing by 90 percent and increased dive tourism, bringing in revenue for locals. (CI was also the first large conservation NGO to put an indigenous person on its board of directors, Megaron with the Kayapo tribe of Brazil.)

Still, research on the effectiveness of community conservation is somewhat mixed. While there are many positive and effective programs out there, community conservation also faces challenges, such as skeptical governments, lower than expected economic benefits, local governance problems, and often a single-species focus that leaves other wildlife out. In short, many of the same issues that can trip up conservation in general also threaten the success of community conservation.

Indigenous land rights: conservation’s Holy Grail?

Conservationists have recently begun realizing that indigenous territories and indigenous land rights are potentially game-changing conservation tools. Indigenous territories, called indigenous protected areas in Australia, are places where the government legally recognizes an indigenous group’s right to the land, allowing the group to manage it collectively.

According to a report called Common Ground released in March by an Oxfam-led trio of NGOs, around 50 percent of land on Earth is claimed by “customary land users” — indigenous or local people who have been living on and using the land for a certain amount of time. However, the report notes that ownership of just 10 percent has been legally recognized. The majority of this is in just five countries: the main one, Brazil, where indigenous territories cover about 110 million hectares or 13 percent of the land, as well as Australia, Canada, Mexico, and China. (Reservations for indigenous groups in the US are not included in this list as they may or may not be part of traditional territory, represent a vast reduction of what was historically occupied, and were often forced on native Americans after decades of war and broken pledges.)

In most of the world indigenous and local people do not have any legal rights to their land. In Africa, for instance, the World Bank estimates that 90 percent of community-run rural land is currently unrecognized by governments, leading to a plague of land grabbing on the continent.

Conservationists are belatedly recognizing what has long been obvious to indigenous activists: that instead of threatening nature, tribal ways of life cause far less harm to the environment than Western lifestyles and that tribes are incredibly effective protectors of their land.

“Forest for Indigenous Peoples is the resource for everything; connection to the spirits of their ancestors that continuously guide the way through millennia; food and water for their generation and the next to come; shelter for their peoples; medicines for those who are sick; cultural defense in the dynamic and changing world; a dignity and identity in the crisis of value, that makes them proud to be indigenous,” Setra said. “It is their home and they would die fighting to keep it safe.”

Indeed, a growing body of research shows that indigenous territories are often as good as strict protected areas at stemming deforestation and in some cases they are even better. And there’s so much potentially claimable high-biodiversity land that vast tracts could be protected and managed by indigenous stewards, rather than by governments; but they would still be respected by governments, which could make all the difference.

“Certainly, I think that all of us in the conservation field have recognized that indigenous peoples have an important role to play in conservation and that indigenous reserves make a lot of sense,” said Weeden.

Given this, many conservationists are now promoting the concept of indigenous land rights, contributing expertise to land-rights movements, and helping set territorial boundaries through mapping. In some cases they are helping manage indigenous territories once they are set up, usually taking a back seat to indigenous leaders.

“Those of us who have been in the conservation movement for a long time have always engaged in such activities because experienced conservationists who work in the field in the remote corners of our planet know that you can’t succeed without partnering with people,” said Russell Mittermeier, CI’s Executive Vice-Chair and past president, and a renowned tropical forest conservation scientist.

Legal title allows indigenous peoples much greater latitude to keep industries — such as logging, mining, and fossil fuels — out of their land. It gives them the ability to turn to the government if squatters or land grabbers infiltrate their land. It also allows them, if they wish, to establish strict protected areas on their land.

“It is basically impossible for local communities to practice conservation if they do not have legal rights over their land and territories; they cannot control their environment without such rights,” explained Nelson by email. “The conservation community needs to become MUCH more pro-active around community land rights reform than it has been.”

Of course, legal land title for local groups also comes with risks for conservation. One is that indigenous or local owners could decide to allow industry into their land at some later date. For example, in Papua New Guinea, ruthless companies have used bribery, intimidation, and even force to get at forests that supposedly belong to the communities living there.

Another risk is that as populations rise and needs change over time, indigenous groups could begin to impact their environments more severely. Indeed, research has shown that the extinction of megafauna across all continents except Africa around 10,000 years ago (think woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and woolly rhinos) was not due to climate change but to small groups of hunter-gatherers wiping out most of the large, slow-breeding animals. It may be that if the global population continues to grow at its current staggering rate, and if forests continue to be overhunted and oceans overfished, there will be no easy choices left. These are the sorts of fears that keep conservationists awake at night.

But proponents of indigenous territories as a conservation tool — and not just as a human rights issue — say that indigenous peoples are much less likely to invite industry into their forests than governments are, and that given their centuries of knowledge and tradition they will remain far better protectors of the forest than wildlife rangers and fences.

One way to confront conservation concerns is for indigenous territories to specifically stipulate broader protections for nature. Mittermeier pointed to Suriname, where indigenous communities declared a massive conservation corridorspanning 7.2 million hectares (28,000 square miles) last year with support from both CI and WWF-Guianas. “This is an area about the size of Ireland and is inhabited by only about 3,000 people living in eight communities,” said Mittermeier.

This indigenous area not only protects the tribes living there, but also specifically protects natural resources like rivers in its agreement.

For Dayak activist Setra, the one thing the Indonesian government must do “before all other things” is to grant indigenous people the legal rights to their land.

“Our call is: support community mapping and recognize Indigenous territories and collective lands and provide strong, secure legal protections for the people who protect forest, nature and environment,” she said.

Still, this battle for land-title recognition has also bumped up against one of the biggest conservation initiatives developed over the last few decades. The UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+) program would pay developing countries — and potentially local communities — to keep forests standing in order to mitigate climate change. But many indigenous groups view REDD+ as just another way for governments and big conservation NGOs to grab power over their forests — as a rerun of national parks co-opting their land. A number of indigenous groups have battled hard to keep REDD+ out of their forests, while others contend that the long, bureaucratic process has left them out in the cold when they were hoping to benefit economically from the program.

REDD+ falls decidedly under the new conservation banner. And although new conservation touts itself as being all about people, it appears to dwell in a paradox. On the one hand, new conservation at its core views people, and especially economic benefits for them, as essential to moving conservation forward. But at the same time, payment for ecosystem services programs like REDD+ have not only proven difficult to implement but have begun to alienate some of the indigenous groups on whose environments certain programs would rely.

New conservation has further been seen as undercutting its people-first message via its emphasis on partnerships with powerful industries and massive corporations, including some of the world’s largest mining and fossil fuel companies with ugly records when it comes to indigenous communities and locals. For example, one of CI’s partners, Chevron, is currently embroiled in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit with several indigenous communities in Ecuador over oil spills and pollution that the company inherited when it merged with Texaco. The case has taken numerous twists and turns, but indigenous communities contend that Chevron has falsified evidence and paid off officials to avoid paying court-ordered reparations. Still, CI remains partners with the oil giant.

Traditional protected areas and saving wildlife

Of course, given traditional conservationists’ longtime focus on wildlife and wild places over people, it’s even easier to criticize them for overlooking human needs — and doing so for over a century.

But Weeden, who has a degree in public health and worked in the aid sector in developing countries, told me the story is more complex. He said allegations that old-school conservationists are “elitists” or “don’t care about human suffering or poverty” are “false.”

“It’s not being anti-human at all, it’s just caring passionately about the 10 to 15 million other species,” he said.

And, in an age where extractive industries are moving farther afield to gain access to dwindling natural resources, conservationists and indigenous people now sometimes find themselves both supporting strict protected areas. Paul Salaman, the CEO of the Virginia-based traditional conservation group the Rainforest Trust, told me he sees more and more indigenous groups embracing, not fighting, traditional protected areas as a way to keep corporations and settlers out, especially if they are involved in the process.

“There are a number of indigenous communities that welcome strict protected areas adjacent to their land, and as much as anything to avoid companies, oil palm growers, timber companies, gold miners…coming in and destroying that area,” he said.

He pointed to the Rainforest Trust’s work with the Matsés indigenous peoples in Peru. After the group helped the Matsés establish an indigenous reserve, the Matsés supported setting aside adjacent land as a strict nature reserve, according to Salaman. In 2009, the Rainforest Trust and its local partner, CEDIA, helped found the Matsés National Reserve, covering over 1 million acres.

“And we were just in time,” said Salaman. “There has been a gold rush in the area.”

Indeed, strict protected areas are not always a bad outcome for people living nearby. Research has shown that communities close to protected areas are actually better off than similar communities far away, providing further evidence that traditional conservation can benefit people — so long as they are included in the discussions and their rights respected.

“There are no forest rights without forest,” Phil Dickie, a spokesperson for WWF-International told me. “So protection matters.”

Even wildlife-focused conservation efforts can benefit locals, too. Andrew Terry with Jersey-Island-based Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust said that his organization, which focuses wholly on saving incredibly endangered species from extinction, has found that its efforts often help people living nearby.

For example, Durrell’s Madagascar pochard project has delivered a number of benefits to local Malagasy people. Durrell is working to restore La Sofia wetlands and lake as a place of future release for the Critically Endangered Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata) — a duck that has a global population of around 100, three-quarters of it in captivity. The wetlands around the lake suffer from widespread deforestation on the banks, siltation, poor water quality, low biodiversity, and exotic fish, said Terry, who pointed out that even so, this freshwater ecosystem is among the most ecologically healthy in central Madagascar.

Durrell is now working with locals to enhance water quality and better manage the wetlands by improving livestock management, diversifying crops, and supporting primary education, among other tactics. Many of these activities are new-conservation-style programs, and Terry said his group, although largely traditional in its outlook, will employ any tool it determines will help get the job of saving species done. In addition to the immediate benefits of improved agriculture and education, the project will ultimately benefit the local populace by providing cleaner water and improved local freshwater fisheries.

“Species are intrinsically connected to their broader environments — one cannot save a species without considering the pressures acting on their ecosystem and the other elements that make up that ecosystem,” said Terry. “We believe, and can demonstrate, that a focus on species can actually bring people together and bring a focus to address whole ecosystem problems.”

In other words, even wildlife-focused conservation can benefit local communities, simply by improving the health of the environment and working with locals as partners. Durrell didn’t get involved in the area because of the poverty of locals, but because of a nearly extinct duck. In the end, though, both may well see a better future.

Can emphasis on people go too far?

As the notion of including local and indigenous communities in conservation decisions has gained traction, it has also received some pushback. John Payne, head of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, said that sometimes efforts to work with and appease every local or so-called stakeholder group have “gone beyond a joke.”

“Years can go by while all that talking is going on, and attrition of forests and animal populations occurs, potentially to the point of total loss. In the long run, little of biological value will be saved by the consultation process, and we will still have lots of poor and disadvantaged people,” Payne told me.

He pointed to the establishment of two parks in Malaysian Borneo as examples, Tabin National Park in 1984 and Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in 1997. “Neither of those protected areas would have been established if there was a stakeholder consultation process along the lines that we imagine has to be done nowadays,” he said.

Tabin National Park would have likely been derailed by a local village and logging interests, according to Payne. As for Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, he said locals almost universally opposed the park and it only went through due to the will of a handful of government officials.

Today, however, the local view of Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary has done a complete 180, according to Payne. Locals now see the park as one of their only economic alternatives in a region drowning in monoculture plantations — and one of the last reminders of a bygone world.

“There is regret that the bulk of the region is oil-palm plantations, whose owners live far from the region, and whose labor force is foreign,” he said, adding that, today, eco-tourism in the park provides at least some locals with a different career path.

In Payne’s view, the lesson is that people in the area simply couldn’t imagine that most of the forest they had lived off for generations could be transformed into oil palm, so the value of establishing a reserve was unclear. That’s typical, he said. Establishing new protected areas sometimes requires the “leadership and persistence of a few people, against the views of the majority.”

Shanee with NPC also cautioned that conservationists must be wary of local expectations. She said her group does not work with communities if their primary goal is economic improvement — locals fixated on the idea that REDD+ will bring in money, for instance.

“Some people really believe that if they will conserve land, money will instantly come pouring in,” she said. “This is the result of the very confusing and problematic discourses of these kinds of schemes.”

But this is often how such schemes are sold to local and indigenous people: conservation will make you wealthier, conservation will bring you economic improvement, conservation will help your family. While conservationists may desperately want that to be true, the reality is much more complex. Potential economic benefits often take years of hard work to materialize — if they ever do — as in the case of ecotourism ventures, handicraft and other small-scale commercial enterprises, or payment for ecosystem services programs.

Once people realize they won’t become rich, they “get back to their normal activities, which are usually quite destructive,” Shanee added.

Instead, NPC works with communities who want to protect nature for other reasons — their spirituality, a commitment to sustainability, or the chance to gain greater recognition by the government and the broader Peruvian society among them. Certainly, economic betterment may come as a result, but it must not be the focus, said Shanee, or conservationists risk alienating local people.

Controversy persists

For all the progress, the relationship between conservationists and local people remains complicated. Memories of past abuse persist and locals continue to lodge accusations of elitism, disrespect, and stealing traditional land for protected areas.

Even when conservationists want to work in partnership with locals, they sometimes face bad decisions by governments that treat indigenous peoples as second-class citizens or want to grab power over minority groups.

Any notion that the conflict between conservation and indigenous and local people has ended is naïve, according to Mazower with Survival International.

“Many of the big conservation organizations — WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, African Wildlife Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy — are guilty of abusing tribal peoples’ rights,” he said. “They never speak out against evictions, they fund projects that violate tribal rights, and they treat complaints like ours as public relations ‘issues’ rather than acting swiftly.”

The group recently lodged a formal complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development against WWF for its alleged links to abuse of Baka indigenous people in Cameroon. The complaint charges that WWF helped set up a series of protected areas without proper consent from the Baka, and that protected-area rangers, largely funded by WWF, have destroyed Baka homes and threatened them with violence.

However, Dickie, the WWF-International spokesperson, rejected these claims. He said that not only did WWF outperform formal requirements for establishing a protected area in the region, but also spent five years working with local communities to refine the park proposal based on their input, paying particular attention to involving politically and socially marginalized community members.

He added that WWF has been funding human-rights training for all ecoguards since 2006. “Investigation of incidents is difficult, particularly in the absence of detail, but where WWF has been able to verify any incidents of abuse involving ecoguards, it has taken the issue up with the ministry and other stakeholders. Some of those interventions do seem to have had some impact,” Dickie said.

The situation here is volatile and complex. Working in parts of the world like Cameroon — where poverty, conflict, and lack of governance prevail — forces conservationists to walk a tightrope between the desires to preserve species, protect forests, and mitigate human suffering.

The region is home to both the Baka (who lived in the forests for generations) and Bantu-speaking farmers who hold most of the local political power. Add to that a recent influx of war refugees from the Central African Republic and navigating tribal tensions becomes a constant difficulty. At the same time, poaching has become increasingly militarized, Dickie said, and some Baka have become involved, especially in killing elephants. But like so many poor, marginalized groups, the Baka are only being used as foot soldiers in the war over wildlife, acting on orders from more powerful actors, he said.

Dickie insisted WWF is doing what it can to improve life for both the Baka and the Bantu while also safeguarding wildlife, including working with Baka community organizations, helping to set up community policing initiatives, and increasing the number of Baka rangers. (Until recently the Cameroonian government permitted only Bantu to become rangers.)

“Unfortunately, we have trouble matching what [elephant] poachers are prepared to pay,” said Dickie.

WWF has policies governing how it engages with indigenous groups that recognize them as “key stewards” of their land and make “special efforts” to secure their rights. And Dickie added that “WWF has for some considerable time been trying to see if Survival is prepared to collaborate on initiatives which could benefit the Baka” — so far to no avail.

But Mazower contended that while WWF’s and other conservation groups’ policies “sound excellent on paper” they are “often ignored in practice.” He charged that big conservation groups continuously choose industry, corporations, and tourism over indigenous people.

And he is not alone in his critique of today’s conservation. For all the work going on with locals and indigenous groups, many conservationists still have a mindset that hasn’t moved much beyond the nineteenth century, according to Shanee.

“I think conservation had changed a lot in its discourses, but very little in essence,” she said, pointing out that many early parks were established to secure game animals for wealthy big-game-hunting colonists. She said this privileged mentality still exists in many conservation circles today.

“Local farmers trying to save their crops or feed their families are called poachers, whilst rich white people killing for amusement is perceived as a noble conservation effort,” Shanee said, referring to the support of groups like WWF and IUCN for trophy hunting under certain conditions. “It is a racist, socially unjust concept which alienates local people from conservation.”

Even the rush to develop eco-tourism projects, which are often billed as income-generators for locals, can suffer from the same attitude, according to Shanee: a focus on wealthy, privileged westerners over the people who actually live in the area.

“They launder the idea a bit better these days with names such as ‘Integrated Conservation and Development Program,’” she said, but “the idea is basically the same, conservation is largely used as a justification for territorialism.”

But Nelson said that in Africa, at least, eco-tourism is really the only thing keeping wildlife alive. “Where westerners may see Serengeti National Park through the lens of a precious global heritage set aside in perpetuity, the reason that the Serengeti is generally well managed and receives so much investment, is that it is an extraordinarily valuable commodity through tourism,” he explained.

Same thing with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. “They have not only survived but increased through years of political crisis and war in that region, because they are such a valuable commodity to those countries — a single gorilla trekking permit now is sold by the government for $750! — and this is what generates the highest level of often-elusive ‘political will’ to protect them,” Nelson said. “Those few hundred gorillas literally underpin Rwanda’s entire tourism industry.”

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Conservation will only succeed in Africa if it “speaks to the social, economic, and political aspirations of African people and societies — [if] it takes those away then conservation will lose,” according to Nelson.

Nature needs people?

Given the ongoing messiness of conservation today, it might be time to consult experts from different fields, according to Terry with Durrell

“It is a real mistake to look at approaches developed by humanitarian aid specialists or sociologists and think that we as biologists know how to apply them effectively. We need to see stronger collaborations with other sectors,” he said.

As conservationists have demanded more and more of themselves — and had more and more demands placed on them by governments and the public — they have often failed to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, they can’t do it all. Certainly, not well. I mean, just preventing mass extinction is a pretty tall order. So perhaps it is time to start working with experts far and wide. Not just economists and business leaders, but psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, trauma specialists in conflict areas, and of course indigenous and local community leaders.

Conservation’s people problem is not solved, not fully. And, given the very nature of conservation, there may always be tensions. According to Setra, we all may need to rethink how we view nature and how we think of our own species.

Indigenous peoples “have been and still are in many cases, the true conservationist, long before [conservation] itself first existed, they’ve been doing this for centuries,” she said. And then she changed CI’s campaign catch phrase (“Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”) to make her point.

“Conservation needs people. Nature needs people,” she said.