Conserving natural areas without a trail of tears

by Andy White
Thursday, 13 November 2014 15:00 GMT

Native Brazilians stand chained to a post in front of the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Joedson Alves

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the World Parks Congress gathers in Sydney this week, many countries still fall far short of respecting the rights of indigenous peoples in protected areas

In 1864, one hundred and fifty years ago, idyllic Yosemite Valley in California was set aside by the US as one of the world’s first park reserves. What isn’t celebrated is the military campaign 13 years earlier that cleared out the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the valley.

The history of the United States National Parks system is replete with tragedies like this, full of bloodshed and forced migrations. Consider Yellowstone, the first preserve managed as a national park. Yellowstone had been the home of small bands of Eastern Shoshone who gave up their lands in a treaty that was never ratified. The only part of the treaty that was enforced was the removal of the Eastern Shoshone.

The controversy surrounding the announcement of Yellowstone National Park had nothing to do with the treatment of the Indigenous Peoples that called it home, however. Instead, the largest outcry was from those who wanted to tap the new Park’s natural resources, and the biggest debates were over enforcement. Now that the Indians had been removed, who could patrol the more than 2.2 million acres and prevent the natural beauty from being despoiled?

The solution to this dual set of problems proved elusive for the first several decades of the U.S. National Park system. The U.S. army was deployed until Congress established the National Park Service in 1918, setting a precedent for the militarization of protected areas for decades to come.

The truth is, however, when the Eastern Shoshone were forced out of Yellowstone, the Park lost its natural protectors, a people whose lives were invested in the region’s upkeep. If the land thrived, they thrived. But when they were removed, money had to be spent protecting the area.

The same story played out across the American West: the Blackfoot were removed from Glacier National Park, the Paiute removed from Zion National Park, and the Ute removed from Mesa Verde, to name just a few.

Sadly, the U.S. model for national parks and protected areas was largely upheld and propagated across the world in the 20th century. The term “conservation refugee” was coined for the uncounted numbers of indigenous peoples and local communities across Africa, the Americas, and Asia that were forced from the lands they tended when parks were created.

It was in this light that Martin Saning’o, a Maasai leader from East Africa, declared that they were “enemies of conservation” in 2004. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The Maasai took great care of their portion of the Serengeti and maintained their livestock in harmony with the land.

The year before Saning’o’s declaration, the World Parks Congress, which met in Durban in 2003, produced an accord which committed conservation agencies and organizations to securing and then respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities when protected areas were established. This commitment was further enshrined at the 2004 United Nation Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

However, as the next World Parks Congress gathers in Sydney, Australia this week, many countries still fall far short of respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples in protected areas. Despite high-level commitments in Durban, few reforms have occurred since.

Where reforms were enacted, with the exception of Venezuela, they did not focus on restitution of lands to Indigenous Peoples and communities, but rather on enabling co-management or provisions for communities who already own land to include their lands in national protected-area systems.


The situation unfolding in Nepal illustrates this disconnect perfectly. The Chure region in the south of the country, also known as the Siwalik Hills, has long been under pressure from many competing interests: logging, mining, and gravel quarries wreaked havoc on one of the country’s most important biodiverse areas.

In response, though, Nepal’s government, supported by international environmental organizations, declared the entire region to be a conservation zone—without consulting the communities that live within the region. While past research has shown that secure land rights preserve Chure’s forests, the government considers more than half of the historic community residents to be "illegal settlers" and thus without rights.

It is time to realize that the 19th century U.S. model for conservation—to forcibly remove all Indigenous Peoples—is a gross violation of human rights and should stay in the 19th century. It has no place today.

For a successful approach, governments should look to Australia, which has restored protected area ownership to its Aborigine peoples and established effective co-management between the conservation agencies and the local communities—under the communities’ leadership. Or the Philippines, where the government has restored legal ownership of land and resources within the national parks, and are now at work negotiating new models of conservation.

And there are positive shifts in the US, even if some 150 years late. In South Dakota, the South Unit of Badlands National Park has been co-managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the U.S. National Parks Service since 1976. This unit—two areas within the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation—had been forcibly taken by the US government to establish a bombing range during World War II.

The Oglala Sioux have helped the natural area recover, and are also working to re-incorporate traditional economic uses. This includes transitioning from grazing cattle on the grasslands to raising buffalo, with an eye towards returning an icon of the Sioux heritage back to their lands. The two governments are now working to turn this location into the first U.S. tribal national park.

It is now past time for the world’s environmental agencies and organizations to fully embrace indigenous peoples and local communities, and help them to continue to maintain the world’s most important natural resources. This week’s World Parks Congress can serve as a rallying call to put lofty words into concrete action. After all, if Australia and the US, with bloody histories of wars against their native peoples, can find a path to this important goal, any nation can.

Andy White is the coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (@RightsResources). Andy has a PhD in Forest Economics and an MA in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota.