World Rainforest Movement

Africa: Impacts of Protected Areas on Indigenous Peoples

It is now well-documented how indigenous communities face serious discrimination from their societies, are exploited by others, and possess little protection for their resource rights upon which they rely to secure their livelihoods. Many of these groups also live in areas where local, national and international conservation organisations maintain strong interests. New conservation principles for conservation projects affecting indigenous communities were therefore approved by the World Conservation Congress in 1992, setting out standards and implementing guidelines promoted by the World Commission on Protected Areas, WWF and the IUCN.

Key concepts embodied in these principles, include:

– Recognition for “the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and territories and natural resources, as well as their role in management, use and conservation,” and the “role and collective interests of indigenous peoples”;
– The obligation to “protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements”, as set out in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD);
– A recognition of indigenous peoples property rights based upon traditional occupation and use, as recognised through the African Charter on Human Rights.

Forest Peoples Project (FPP) is reaching the end of almost three years of collaborative work to document the impact of conservation areas on the lives of indigenous peoples from seven African countries, which completes a suite of collaborative projects carried out by FPP in Latin American and Asia since 1997.

In Africa FPP supported local groups to prepare nine case studies on the basis of community consultations with Batwa from Nyungwe Natural Forest and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga and Bwindi National Parks in Uganda, and from around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Maasai from around the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority in Tanzania, Ogiek from the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya, Khomani San from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (formerly Kalahari Gemsbok National Park) in South Africa, Bagyeli from the Campo Ma’an National Park in Cameroon, and Baka from the Dja Reserve and Boumba Bek and Lobéké National Parks in Cameroon.

Conservation authorities from these countries also provided information and participated in regional project meetings, and after the 2001 Kigali conference organised by CAURWA –the Rwandan Twa NGO– and FPP, several conservation authorities from case study areas met with indigenous representatives to discuss park policies – in most cases for the first time.

One of the most worrying findings of initial work by our partners was that the widely agreed World Commission on Protected Areas’ principles are not being applied in any of the cases. The failure of conservation organisations to implement these international standards has led to serious impacts on indigenous communities, including:

– forced expulsions from their lands without compensation;
– the elimination of their rights over their traditional lands;
– the progressive destruction of their livelihoods;
– the loss of their identities, and;
– increasing socio-economic marginalisation of their communities.

“You speak to me of the parks, and all that I know is that the authorities and soldiers came from far away, in order to chase us away with guns, and tell us never to return to the volcanoes, where we were forbidden to hunt, look for honey, water and wood.” (Twa, Rwanda)

A persistent complaint from indigenous communities in almost all of the cases criticises the lack of consultation with them over conservation plans. In most cases their problems were compounded by the lack of recognition for their traditional access and use rights within lands now zoned as protected areas.

“When they were setting up the park, no one came to consult with us, the Bagyeli. Maybe they went to talk to the Bantu, but me I don’t know anything about this. They do not know us.” (Bagyeli, southwest Cameroon)

Conservation management plans for lands upon which indigenous peoples rely have almost always been accompanied by restrictions against indigenous hunters, gatherers and pastoralists without their consent, restricting their use of areas where they have traditionally exercised access and use rights. This holds true even when it is well known that they were the first inhabitants of the area, traditionally the main criteria for securing long term customary rights to natural resources in Africa.

When “community consultations” have been held by conservation organisations with communities over plans, they have usually been in the form of broad community meetings to introduce and discuss new rules, fora in which the interests of marginalised groups tend to be neglected, and indigenous communities are often ill-informed about the processes in play. The lack of translation facilities and background documentation in an accessible language generally puts them at a distinct disadvantage in most of the discussions held, especially given the high illiteracy rates amongst these groups generally.

As the World Parks Congress nears in September, conservation organisations working in Africa are looking more closely at how they can address community issues “beyond boundaries”, at the same time holding an eye out for new sources of funding from donors who will want to know how their funds will be supporting people’s livelihoods AND the sustainable use of natural resources AND biodiversity protection. Elsewhere there is strong rhetoric about the need to enhance new, local “partnerships,” for example in the Congo Basin, in order to promote more efficient and sustainable conservation projects, without there being any mechanism to enable local communities to be consulted about their plans.

Recent moves by some conservation organisations to highlight their “community orientation” may simply be posturing to enable good public relations during a high profile international conference focussing on this theme. However their accompanying rhetoric raises expectations amongst NGOs and communities about how they will actually address practical questions about indigenous peoples’ rights in and around protected area projects, where many of these people live, and how these projects will lead to the generation of benefits in exchange for the loss of rights. This is particularly important for marginalised communities who rely on protected areas for their livelihoods, especially for those who hunt, gather and herd. These groups often have very strong prior claims to lands targeted for conservation.

“Your question- we have found one answer. The forest, the men of the Dobi Dobi (conservationists) would like to enter the forest. This man (a Baka) he was raised in the forest. They (the Dobi dobi) should come to him and give him something, in order to secure permission to go into the forest. If they do not give him money, then he will not give permission to enter the forest behind his house, because that forest is for him.” (Baka, southeast Cameroon)

Indigenous representatives from all of the countries involved in this project will participate in World Parks Congress discussions in Durban (South Africa), along with other indigenous community representatives from all over the world. This is therefore a prime opportunity for conservation organisations to reassert their commitment to implement the WCPA Guidelines on indigenous peoples, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. If they fail to do this, and to explain in detail the practical changes they will make to their conservation programmes to address indigenous rights and aspirations it will become increasingly difficult to convince communities that conservation bodies will be able to promote benefits for them in return for the loss of their livelihood base. The long-term sustainability of many protected areas in Central Africa hangs in the balance.

FPP is continuing its work in Central African countries to support indigenous forest communities to protect their rights and livelihoods. Most of these groups have a hunting and gathering past, and most still rely on the forest to serve many or all of their subsistence needs. However few of them are regarded as valid stakeholders by forest ecosystem conservation projects, whose managers generally do not consult with them over conservation plans over the lands and resources they control.

“If you do not gather, you cannot get soap, if you do not fish, then you cannot eat salt, if you do not have any area to plant, you have to go out and buy food, but we cannot buy – If you have clothes like this you cannot afford to go buy food. You can see how I am dressed. And I am all alone now – because I can do nothing already – because they want to prevent me from using the forest.” (Baka, southeast Cameroon)

FPP’s goal is to promote constructive and more equal dialogue between forest communities and conservation agencies, and to develop new models of working together founded on a recognition of local peoples’rights. This project has enabled several such processes to begin, but there are still important impediments to enabling the WCPA guidelines to come into force. They include reasons from the lack of appreciation for the need for local participation by indigenous communities, to unfair persecution of them by ecoguards; a lack of consultation by conservation authorities, and; the lack of funding for “social” work at the expense of biological inventories, commercial bushmeat hunting surveys, and the development of local paramilitary infrastructures.

In addition to core protected zones, many conservation projects subsequently secure the “protection” of surrounding areas using funds earmarked for “community-oriented” programmes linked to more regulated zonation schemes with “community managed-hunting zones, etc. A minority of these schemes have involved some of the dominant local groups in discussions over the management of these areas. However, where such processes that do exist in Central Africa, from Cameroon to Rwanda, the views of Twa, Baka, Bagyeli, Bakola, Mbendjelle, Ba’Aka, Mbuti and other indigenous forest populations have almost always been ignored. All of these communities’ rights, and with them their livelihoods, are under increasing pressure; in some contexts indigenous communities’ land rights have been totally eliminated, and they have been pushed out of their ancestral areas, forced to resort to begging or working for others for little or no remuneration in order to survive. Many indigenous communities face deepening poverty and increased livelihood instability as conservation projects establish themselves in their areas.

In Durban this year, along with a range of conservation standard-setting exercises, many deals over funding for conservation will be agreed, and this will help guide conservation direction over the next decade. If people are to become the new focus for conservation, then the reality of peoples’ lives and rights must be addressed by conservation projects, especially if they are going to face serious negative impacts from parks or reserves. The development of new mechanisms to ensure that indigenous peoples’ views and rights are taken into account during project planning is an essential first step if this is to start to happen.

By: John Nelson, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: , web page:

(A book entitled “Indigenous peoples and protected areas in Africa: from principles to practices”, which sets out the lessons from this project is now available from FPP in French and English. A video containing community views will also be made available in September as an MPEG-CD, playable on most PCs. Both will be available to delegates in Durban.)