Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón
The world is at a crossroads: the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent while deforestation, which generates 24% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions and 58% of the emissions in Latin America, is growing at an alarming rate. However, a study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that the rate of deforestation was two to three times less in territories where the rights of indigenous and local communities were recognized and protected. Brazil is an example of how these groups maintain and preserve the forests; the lands belonging to indigenous peoples and communities contain 36% more carbon per hectare and emit twenty-seven times less carbon dioxide from deforestation than forests protected by governments.
In his book Indigenous Peoples, National Parks, and Protected Areas, Stan Stevens explains how the establishment of the first national parks in the United States during the 19th century prevented non-native people from settling in areas of special value, but also expelled indigenous people who had lived sustainably in these places for generations. This protectionist approach, based on the idea of a pristine natural environment without man’s intervention, was then replicated in the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, this perspective, which expropriated and reassigned native lands to create parks, began to change, emphasizing the importance of incorporating sustainable development as a basic element of conservation. In the year 2000, with the strengthening of the indigenous and human rights movements, major changes were made in the global conservation framework. In 2003, during the Fifth World Parks Congress, a new paradigm for protected areas was established with the signing of the Durban Accord, in which signatories pledged to support the integral relationship between people and protected areas, and local and indigenous communities were guaranteed a role in the creation, definition, and management of these areas.
In January 2011, at the conference on power sharing organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Commission on Economic, Environmental, and Social Policy (CEESP) in Whakatane, New Zealand, indigenous representatives, presidents from three of the IUCN commissions, and employees from International Conservation and Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) gathered. This conference resulted in the “Whakatane Mechanism,” which is intended to assess protected areas around the world and propose and implement solutions in areas where people have been negatively impacted by environmental protections. The mechanism also celebrates and supports successful partnerships between people and protected areas.
But not all has been overcome. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stated in 2016 that the conservation community has not fulfilled their commitments to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. According to her report, there are still projects being supported by the main conservation organizations that have displaced local populations from their ancestral homes.
The establishment of twenty-six to thirty-four protected areas in the Congo Basin has displaced local populations. The National Parks of Boumba Bek and Nki in Cameroon are on the list.
Local populations have been illegally evicted from their homes in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in India.
In Colombia, the boundaries of the El Cocuy National Park are intertwined with the territory of the U’wa people. The park remains under government jurisdiction despite environmental degradation and violations of sacred areas, caused by tourists.
In 2014, the government of Nepal declared the Chure region a protected area without consulting the leaders of the indigenous communities.
In Kenya, the Ogiek and Sengwer peoples live and maintain the forests that protect the water supply for millions of people downstream. However, these communities have been forcibly removed from their lands and their homes have been burned, all in the name of forest conservation.
According to a study conducted in 2012 by Luciana Porter-Bolland and other collaborators, indigenous peoples and local communities are essential for the preservation of forests. Conservative calculations allocate 20% of the stored surface carbon in tropical forests to lands claimed by indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, the Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. However, only a small part of these territories are legally recognized.
In Central America, 51% of the most important forests are within or adjacent to areas inhabited and used by indigenous peoples, equivalent to 282,000 square kilometers – five times the size of Costa Rica. This is due to the traditional ways that indigenous peoples use their environments, as well as development policies, social organization, and the dominant culture. Just listen to the words of Cándido Mezúa, leader of the Emberá ethnic group in Panama and member of the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests: “When we talk about models of conservation and our way of life, we are talking about the same thing. Indigenous communities simply don’t see it as conservation, but as a way of life, because we are immersed in that world. We are part of nature, our communities have adapted to it.”
Despite the experiences indigenous peoples have had with forest conservation, according to Tauli-Corpuz, it is clear that strong guarantees are needed to prevent some of our climate solutions from having a terrible impact on the people who are already the best guardians of our resources. There is a clear example in Panama: the Darien region, made up of jungles and marshes in the Bayano hydrographical basin; the Guna Yala region; and the Darien province, which has the most diverse living systems in the country. The rich ecosystems of this region remained mostly intact through traditional rotational farming, hunting, and the harvesting systems of the indigenous peoples, until the start of two major infrastructure projects in the 1970s: the Bayano hydroelectric dam and the Darien highway, which resulted in the destruction of marshes and forests, and the displacement of indigenous peoples. More recently, in 2016, Panama also experienced the displacement of several residents of the Ngäbe-Buglé region due to the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam.
But it’s not all bad news. After centuries of struggle, last year the Miskito people of Honduras were granted legal rights to nearly 2.5 million acres of their ancestral lands (equivalent to 7% of the country’s land area). A considerable portion of this land is located within the threatened Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. The new rights guaranteed by the title have spurred on new negotiations about how the Miskito people and the government of Honduras can govern the park.
According to Mina Setra, leader of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), in Indonesia, indigenous communities and their forests are at risk of unjust expropriation and capture by more powerful interests. “Our people are at risk of being displaced. When this happens, then there will be no one to protect the forests,” she said.