World Rainforest Movement

Wilderness Parks or Community Conservation?

Conservation through the establishment of ‘National Parks’ was an idea born in the United States during the 19th century at a time when it was waging war on Indians and colonizing the ‘Wild West’. The world’s first National Park, Yosemite, was established on the lands of the Miwok people after a bitter war and was followed by the eviction of the remaining people from their land. Setting up the park at Yellowstone also triggered conflict with the local Indians. Nearly all the main National Parks in the USA today are inhabited or claimed by indigenous peoples. Yet according to US law these areas are ‘wildernesses’, defined by the US Wilderness Act as places ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. It is this wilderness model, exported by western conservationists, that became the dominant approach to nature conservation throughout the tropics during the era of ‘development’ after the second world war.

Though fundamental to much western thinking about nature, many indigenous peoples reject the notion of wilderness, as Jakob Malas a Khomani hunter from the Kalahari, whose lands were classified as the Gemsbok National Park, has noted:

“The Kalahari is like a big farmyard. It is not a wilderness to us. We know every plant, animal and insect, and know how to use them. No other people could ever know and love this farm like us.”

Ruby Dunstan, of the Nl’aka’pamux people of the Stein Valley in Alberta, Canada, who have been fighting to prevent the logging of their ancestral lands, has likewise remarked:

“I never thought of the Stein Valley as a wilderness. My Dad used to say ‘that’s our pantry’. We knew about all the plants and animals, when to pick, when to hunt. We knew because we were taught every day. It’s like we were pruning everyday… But some of the white environmentalists seemed to think if something was declared a wilderness, no-one was allowed inside because it was so fragile. So they have put a fence around it, or maybe around themselves.”

The results of the imposition of the wilderness model are shocking. Millions of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands. Millennial systems of natural resource management disrupted and destroyed. Communities impoverished and deracinated. Rights trampled and colonial forms of administration and enforcement imposed. Getting sound data on the scale of these evictions is hard, they don’t get recorded in the ‘red data’ books, but in India alone it is estimated that 600,000 ‘tribal’ people have been expelled from their lands to make way for protected areas. These impositions have also bred conflict. Protected areas imposed against the will of the local people become management nightmares, conservation fortresses laid siege by local people who have to ‘squat’ and ‘poach’ to stay alive. Ironically, too, the expulsions of human settlements may even impoverish the biodiversity of local areas, many of which were managed landscapes not wildernesses, where customary land use systems helped sustain ecosystem diversity and multiplied the niches for wild animals and plants.

But aren’t forests better defended by securing local peoples’ rights? Many conservationists don’t think so, arguing that native people are no better than anyone else at conserving nature. The fact that, in the past, forests were preserved in indigenous areas, they argue, was mainly due to the lack of transport, low populations due to warfare and disease, and simple technology. Once roads are built, communities pacified, clinics curb child deaths and the people adopt chainsaws and pick-up trucks, indigenous communities are as liable to destroy nature as anyone else, they claim. They point to Indians selling timber from their reserves in Brazil and the depredations of the bush-meat trade in the Congo basin to underline their argument. However, other data support the contrary case. For example only some 5% of the Brazilian Amazon is locked up in Protected Areas, while over 20% is in officially recognized Indian Reserves. Recent research by the Woods Hole Research Center shows that forests in Indian reserves are in good shape and what forest loss has occurred has been mainly caused by illegal invasions, not by the Indians.

Most of the big international conservation agencies, like the WWF-Internatiomal, the World Conservation Union and the World Commission on Protected Areas, have now adopted policies that recognize indigenous and ‘traditional’ peoples’ rights and promote their involvement in conservation. In theory, these agencies should no longer be establishing protected areas without first ensuring that the indigenous peoples’ land rights are recognized, the people consent to the establishment of protected areas on their lands and they participate fully in management. The Convention on Biological Diversity also makes (somewhat ambiguous) provisions securing the rights of indigenous and local communities. These changed policies recognise a ‘new model’ of conservation, which promotes community-based conservation as an alternative to the old exclusionary model based on establishing ‘wildernesses’. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given their history, it is the large US-based conservation agencies that have been most reluctant to endorse this new approach

Despite advances at the policy level, on the ground the situation is not very encouraging. Few governments accept that recognising indigenous peoples’ rights is a logical part of their national conservation strategies. Most protected areas continue to be managed in the old way, excluding communities, denying their land and resource rights and obliging their resettlement. In part this is because most developing countries adopted their conservation laws in the 1960s and 1970s, when the exclusionary model of conservation was still being preached. Another reason is that the local personnel of international conservation agencies have often not even been informed about the new policies adopted at headquarters, let alone trained to implement them. Besides, many protected area administrators of the old school are reluctant now to cede power to those they see as truculent native people grown too big for their boots. The colonial mind-set dies hard. It will be some time before these old dinosaurs die out.

By: Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: . For extensive case studies and other documentation on this subject see See also