Indigenous peoples are our best environmental wardens, it’s time to stop locking them out



Indigenous communities, when empowered and supported, are among the most effective conservationists in the world. A new report released by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) titled ‘Cornered by Protected Areas’ (co-authored by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People), has made it clear that community-led conservation is more cost-effective than government-led programs. But the widespread practice of ‘fortress conservation’ too often sees Indigenous peoples driven from their lands, often violently, in the name of an antiquated idea that optimal conservation requires minimal human presence.

World leaders need to move away from the fortress conservation model and adopt a human rights-based approach. This would both help end the widespread violation of human rights in the name of conservation and improve outcomes for ecosystem preservation.

Indigenous communities represent just 5 per cent of the global population, but make up some 15 per cent of the world’s poor. Programs that put conservation into the hands of Indigenous communities can reduce poverty through work that is meaningful, self-empowering and that promotes culture and traditional connections to land.

By expanding legal recognition of traditional ownership of protected lands, governments could also help to reduce the rate of violence against Indigenous communities. The Guardian reported that 197 land rights activists and environmental defenders were murdered in 2017. A massive 40 per cent of them were Indigenous people.

The ‘Cornered by Protected Areas’ report also reproaches governments for contributing to violence, citing reports of expropriation without compensation, forced evictions, extrajudicial killings, denial of access to spiritual sites and obstruction of access to justice.

Indigenous people's strong record of environmental protection

Indigenous peoples are effective environmental wardens because conservation is frequently at their heart of their traditions, cultures and shared histories. They have successfully lived in balance with their local ecosystems for tens of thousands of years.

Many communities also practice controlled slash-and-burn to encourage new growth and reduce the risk of wildfires, like those that have taken lives and countless homes in Australia and California in recent years. A 2011 study found that uncontrolled wildfires were significantly less common in multiple-use protected areas managed by local communities in Asia and Latin America, compared to government-managed protected areas.

In locally-managed lands, tree cover loss occurs at less than half the global average rate. It is even lower where community land rights are legally recognised. Despite customary ownership over about 50 per cent of global lands, Indigenous peoples and local communities only have secure legal rights to 10 per cent. This gap offers room for governments to both improve conservation and support Indigenous communities.

Indigenous management is also the most cost-effective form of conservation. The RRI report found that Indigenous communities conserve forests and land with equal or better outcomes for a quarter of the cost of government or private interventions in protected areas.

Indigenous conservation in Australia

Since 1997, Australian Indigenous Protected Areas have been managed by local Indigenous people who combine traditional methods with environmental science. The program was described by Pew Research as ‘one of remote Australia’s great success stories.’ In a country where Indigenous policies rarely attract such glowing praise, the new Morrison government would be wise to put its full weight behind the program and address accusations of being selfishly preoccupied from Greens leader Richard DiNatale that attracted global attention.

To its credit, in May this year the former Turnbull government announced additional funding to establish five new Indigenous Protected Areas. Katherine Njamme, one of the Traditional Owners of the new Ngururrpa Indigenous Protected Area, welcomed the new funding, saying that ‘we want to take our young people out there and show them where their grandparents and great-grandparents walked the country, keep them out of trouble in town, get them working hard on country, both young men and young ladies.’

Despite the success of the program, however, Indigenous communities in Australia remain vulnerable to being outbid by multinational mining companies and foreign investors. By integrating the protection of Indigenous rights within conservation policy, both domestically and internationally, Australia could ensure that Indigenous conservation programs also serve the whole Indigenous population. Otherwise, a government that supports Indigenous Rangers when they offer a cost-effective conservation service, but bulldoze their human rights when foreign investors offer short-term monetary gain, will start to look more exploitative than empowering.

A global effort

Deforestation and biodiversity loss are two of the major global environmental challenges of our time. They both exacerbate and are in turn exacerbated by climate change, in one of the planet’s many negative feedback loops. They have been included in all of the major international environment agreements, including the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In part thanks to these efforts, some 15 per cent of global land surfaces outside Antarctica, and 7 per cent of the world’s oceans are now protected areas. These agreements represent our best efforts at coming together as a planet to agree on a way forward to protect the earth. It is dismaying, then, to note that every step forward in international conservation has effectively meant two steps back for Indigenous rights. While the achievements of these agreements should not be dismissed, the reality is that they were largely drafted with the notion of fortress conservation in mind.

The Paris Agreement, the most recent global collective effort, did recognise the contribution of Indigenous knowledge in dealing with climate change, but it failed to endorse land rights for Indigenous conservationists. International frameworks must expressly recognise the rights set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and should guarantee local communities the lead role in conservation projects.

Until then, existing agreements will remain vulnerable to misuse by those who would deny the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples in the name of conservation. But as the weight of evidence shows, conservation and protection of Indigenous rights are not mutually exclusive goals; they are complementary. Conservation should not exclude local communities, it must be led by them.

Tess Van Geelen is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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