Conservation and human rights abuses: why is this still happening?

Helen Newing

In the past few weeks there has been a flood of news coverage about human rights abuses in the name of conservation. Some of these abuses may be due simply to a lack of adequate selection, training and supervision procedures for armed park guards in parts of the world where the rule of law is weak. Others, however, go deeper: they are related to the continued dominance in conservation of a model that is based on state-run national parks and other protected areas, many of which exclude local people from the land and resources on which they depend for a living, leaving them destitute. There is a long history of these kinds of conflicts in conservation and the global conservation community has made repeated commitments to respect human rights, most notably at the 2003 Worlds Parks Congress in Durban. Why, then, do human rights abuses remain so widespread, and what are the alternatives to state-run protected areas?

Chilean fishers
Courtesy of Rodrigo Oyanedel

As far as alternatives to state protected areas are concerned, there has been much work over several decades on more inclusive approaches to conservation. These approaches have included conservation education; outreach and development assistance to local communities around protected areas; different forms of stakeholder consultation and collaboration; approaches involving the use of financial incentives such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) and nature-based tourism, and from 2003, recognition of community-governed protected areas (Indigenous and Community Conservation areas: ICCAs). However, these approaches have developed in addition to, rather than instead of, exclusionary conservation, which all too frequently continues to involve human rights abuses. That is why conservationists are still viewed by local and indigenous communities in many parts of the world as adversaries rather than allies.

Why then does this situation persist? A paper just published in Nature Sustainability takes us one step nearer to the answer. It reports the results of a survey of more than 9,000 conservationists across 149 countries on different approaches to conservation. One finding is that whilst 85% of respondents agreed that conservation should do no harm to people, 40% felt that it is acceptable for people to be displaced to make space for protected areas. So there is a mismatch between what the respondents feel is appropriate in principle and what they feel to be acceptable in practice.

What might the future of conservation look like?
Courtesy of Rodrigo Oyanedel

As someone who works on community approaches to conservation, I am constantly struck by the huge opportunities that exist to build on the common interests between conservation and local communities. Conservation initiatives by indigenous peoples and local communities themselves are extremely widespread, and often mirror the efforts of conservation organisations. To give just a few examples:  communities in Guyana are employing sophisticated drone technology to map their lands and control illegal natural resource extraction – just as conservation organisations have done.  Communities in Indonesia are working to save forests and inland waterways from palm oil expansion – as are conservationists. Communities throughout the world are setting up and managing their own Conservation Areas on their lands. In fact, evidence has been compiled to demonstrate that local community initiatives are contributing to every one of the twenty Global Biodiversity Targets. Of course this is not to say that there are no conflicts between conservationists and local communities, but nonetheless, there is enormous potential for collaboration and it is extraordinary that conservationists are not doing more to support these kinds of initiative. Those who begin to do so, and to seek negotiated compromise where there are genuine conflicts, will be at the forefront of a more ethical future for conservation.