Are indigenous people’s livelihoods and conservation compatible?

In the early 1960’s, many environmental protection NGOs started to promote conservation of ecosystems all over the globe. Greenpeace’s first stated mission is to “protect biodiversity in all its forms”. For WWF its principal objective is to “conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.” Conservation and climate change have become an important part of the international discussion.

Many countries have begun to implement policies in favor of biodiversity conservation, as demonstrated by the protected areas that are found in almost all countries in the world. Yet there is an important issue with the way protection schemes are implemented: most conservationists do not think about indigenous people when lobbying for environmental protection. Indigenous people are often forbidden entry to newly created protected areas even if their ancestral ways depend undeniably from the resources they can obtain from the territories they occupied for, sometimes, thousands of years. And that is the reason why NGOs, like Survival, that defend the rights of tribal people are pleading to include the indigenous people’s knowledge for managing natural capital. But it seems that combining indigenous people’s socio-economic development and protection of the environment is a difficult task that has only recently been acknowledged.

The need for environmental conservation might not be straightforward for everyone. Conservation is necessary because it provides environmental services such as pollution mitigation, climate regulation, pollination, CO2 sequestration, flood defense, recreational services, etc. Furthermore, ecosystems are valuable to people for very diverse reasons: people enjoy the views, landscapes, and the smell of a forest, for example. Also, conservation is beneficial from a strict business point of view: national parks attract a lot of people. Last year, in the US alone, there were more than 330 million visits to national parks and those people spent an estimated amount of 18.4 billion dollars on parks surrounding local economies, which is surprisingly more money than what the global music industry accounted for in the same year. In Germany, estimations point out that 9.5 million tourists visit national parks annually creating an additional 487 million euros in turnover according to recent studies. But people also attach indirect value to ecosystems. For example, a family today might be planning to go on vacations next year on a safari trip to the Serengeti National Park. People sometimes just enjoy seeing a rainforest in a high-definition BBC documentary on their computer screen even if they avoid leaving the city. For skeptics of this concept, environmental economists call it non-use value.

If we agree that conservation is something that must be done, the following question is: how to do it? The first known precedent of ecosystem protection is the Yosemite Grant Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in June 1864. The act mentions that the Federal Government grants what they called the Yosemite Valley—where the Ahwahneechee people lived for generations—and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California. The condition of this grant was that the state had to ensure that the property would be held for public use, resort, and recreation. Nevertheless, leasing and special privileges were allowed if they did not exceed 10 years. Also, the act stated that all incomes from leasing would be used solely for maintenance or to be invested in the property. The first known national park as we know it is Yellowstone National Park. The content of the act that created this protected area in 1872 is similar to that of the Yosemite Grant Act. However, the Yellowstone act states explicitly that all human settlements are illegal. In both these protected areas there were indigenous communities that refused to leave what had been their land for centuries.

As early as the Yosemite precedent, many governments implemented laws to force people out of those areas using too often violent measures. The principal problem is segregation and the lack of inclusion of indigenous leaders in the conservation process. All across the world, the national parks and protected areas recurrently became synonymous of poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, drug use, and many other social diseases for indigenous communities, a pattern that apparently defines indigenous people since colonization. These problems continue to exist, surprisingly, in 2017. It seems that there is a certain tension between two very important objectives: conservation and economic development of indigenous communities.

A National Geographic article speaks about people known as Pygmies cultivating marijuana in the Virunga National Park, which is famous for having one of the last populations of mountain gorillas in the world. The article points out that Pygmies were evicted from the park since its creation and were forced to sell the illegal substance —present in their culture for centuries—to survive. Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo have an income 50% lower than the rest of the population. The same type of clashes between conservation efforts and indigenous peoples are found all over the world. Such cases range from the recent protest in the Brazilian capital for territory demarcation to the #resistance150 movement in Canada or the extended social problems in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the US.

Although the obstacle in conservation is clear, research led by multidisciplinary teams has led to several options that might provide a solution to the problem at hand. One attractive idea is the Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). It is defined by Wunder and others (2008) as an economic transaction of previously defined environmental services between a provider and a beneficiary. The idea behind this concept is to reach efficiency by creating a framework (market, contract, etc.) where environmental negative externalities can be internalized.

An example of PES can be found in Australia. Approximately 20% of Australia’s area is considered Indigenous Estate, in other words land owned by aboriginal communities. One example is the West Arnhem Land and Fire Abatement (WALFA) program which is a private partnership between several companies and an indigenous community living in a region where labor and commercial activities are insufficient. The objective is to prevent wild fires, provide employment options, and in the process reduce the carbon footprint of its investors.

Another example of this is the FONAFIFO program in Costa Rica. It is a ministerial program where the state and private actors can invest in natural capital. The FONAFIFO is a fund that initially intended to provide credit options for landowners that were willing to provide environmental services in four areas: greenhouse gases mitigation, aquifer protection, sustainable use of land, and conservation and scenery protection. Now, FONAFIFO also gives direct payments to prevent deforestation of primary forests in Costa Rica.

Nevertheless, PES programs must be implemented intelligently and a lot of quantitative research is being done at the moment on that subject. An additional challenge is that indigenous people are not always willing to sustainably manage their environmental resources. As an example, there are records of Inuit communities preferring explosive harpoons for killing whales.

For reaching the objective of biodiversity conservation, the paradigm concerning protection of ecosystems must change. In an era where economies are more and more dependent on knowledge capital, the management of natural capital must include indigenous people, not only in the physical maintenance of protected areas, but also in the implementation, research, and decision making components of conservation.

by Felipe Ramírez Goñi


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