Indigenous Peoples Versus Colonial Conservation | Opinion

Earlier this month, Indigenous Maasai people in Tanzania were violently attacked by state security forces for protesting government plans to evict them from their ancestral lands. Hundreds of police officers came to clear the area to make way for a new game reserve. When the Maasai protested, they were beaten, shot, and arrested. These brutal police crackdowns forced thousands of Maasai people to flee their homes and become refugees in neighboring Kenya, where there is limited food and resources.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated situation. After investigating 10 protected areas, my team of researchers found a systematic pattern of human rights violations against Indigenous peoples worldwide. International organizations including the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Society are partnering with local governments under the guise of environmental protection. But behind the scenes, there is a tremendous cost to the people who have been the stewards of these lands since the beginning of time. Now, they are being displaced, as if their very existence were a threat to biodiversity, and replaced with hunting game reserves or ecotourism, absent of Indigenous involvement or consent.

We spoke with communities in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Nepal, and Uganda. For each one, the findings were the same. Indigenous peoples in protected areas are subject to forced displacements, losses of ancestral lands, beatings, sexual violence, looting, extrajudicial killings, and the torching of property, often perpetrated by militarized law enforcement personnel and park rangers.

In Chitwan National Park, Nepal, more than 20,000 Tharu people were displaced when the park was established in 1973 and continue to live under constant threats. They are beaten when going to the river to fish, which has been part of their way of life for generations. Meanwhile, local tourists can fish without repercussions. During the evictions in 2019 and 2020, the army raped 27 women, six of whom were killed after refusing to leave their village.

"This type of violence affects our culture, rituals, language, food habits, livelihoods, occupations, and traditional practices," said Chini Maya Majhi, chair of the National Indigenous Women's Federation in Nepal, who contributed to our report.

Similarly, when Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was created, Indigenous peoples were forced out of the forest, which they relied on for subsistence hunting and fishing. They were pressured to turn to agriculture for food, which isn't sufficient to meet their basic needs, nor consistent with the preservation of their culture. When one man returned to the area and was suspected of fishing, he was publicly executed. Rape, torture, and other types of abuse are common in this national park, and against all Indigenous peoples who are simply trying to survive and maintain their way of life.

These crimes and violations will repeat themselves unless we do something differently. Fortunately, there is an opportunity to do just that.

Women from the Masai community
Women from the Masai community take part in a Global Climate Strike organized by Fridays For Future, to demand climate reparations and action from world leaders to take genuine climate action, at Magadi in Kajiado county on March 25, 2022. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

Coming up this fall is the U.N. Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), where the 30x30 policy is set to be approved. This worldwide initiative aims to increase protected areas from approximately 16 percent of the Earth's land and water to 30 percent by 2030 in order to mitigate climate change. So far there has been a lot of lip service around the need to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples through this policy, but we know from experience that this will not be the case, unless there is a new approach to conservation.

First, Indigenous peoples must be included from the start as peer stakeholders with equal decision-making authority. Second, there must be no violence allowed against Indigenous peoples as part of the enforcement of these policies. Finally, Indigenous peoples must maintain ownership of their land. After all, they are the best conservationists.

There is staggering evidence that the current, Western-centric conservationist model is leading to systematic human rights violations and needs a root and branch change. As Maud Salber from the Rainforest Foundation U.K. said, "This pattern won't be overturned until the conservation industry shifts away from military-style enforcement and recognizes that Indigenous communities have a fundamental right to own and make decisions over their traditional lands and resources."

Without decolonizing conservation, the outcome of the global effort to mitigate climate change through land conservation will likely be permanent displacement—and the possible extinction—of Indigenous peoples worldwide.

Today the Maasai are getting attention for the egregious abuses committed against them, but every day Indigenous peoples bear the burden of international organizations seeking to "preserve nature." I urge those developing the 30x30 policy to make sure that this does not become what Indigenous groups are referring to as potentially the biggest land grab in history.

Nicolás Süssmann-Herrán is project lead at Project Expedite Justice.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.