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"Pristine" Parks are hurting Indigenous Peoples and local communities. These examples from 5 countries call for a new approach to conservation.

Lindsay Bigda

Senior Officer, Communications & Advocacy

Rights and Resources Initiative

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Faced with growing environmental threats, governments and the international community have sought ways to halt biodiversity loss and realize global climate and development priorities. But a recent analysis has found that “fortress” conservation approaches—those grounded in a historical concept of protected areas as pristine, untouched lands—are perpetuating a system of abuse and human rights violations against the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who have traditionally inhabited and protected these lands.

The idea that conservation requires emptying the land of its customary inhabitants fails to acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the most effective and efficient guardians of the forest. Their lands store at least 24 percent of aboveground tropical forest carbon, and they achieve at least equal conservation outcomes with less than a quarter of the budget of protected areas.

These snapshots of protected areas in Peru, Panama, India, Indonesia, and the Republic of the Congo reveal how this this has played out across the world—and why it’s so urgent that the international community change its approach to conservation.

Indigenous Peoples and local communities are losing their livelihoods.

The Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of the Congo was established explicitly as a "wilderness" area, modeled on US national parks. When it was created in 1993, the Ba’aka people were expelled from the park and forbidden from hunting.


The NNNP—abutted on three sides by active logging operations—exemplifies the challenges that arise when nature conservation and extractive industries in Africa vie for lands customarily held by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Many physically or economically displaced Ba’aka have now gravitated toward logging towns. Over time, they have lost much of their connection with their traditional way of life.


When women are barred from their customary lands in the name of conservation, they—and their families—suffer.


In Indonesia, an overlap between the Gunung Halimun Salak National Park and territories belonging to Kasepuhan communities has disrupted the Kasepuhan’s traditional farming systems. Unable to access forests, Kasephuhan women—who are largely responsible for their communities’ food security—must travel to the nearest markets and buy groceries. This can lead to communities becoming trapped in a cycle of dependence on markets and money-based systems to meet their families’ needs.

The loss of access to forests also results in the reduced availability of medicinal plants, such as herbs used by indigenous women to control hemorrhaging in childbirth. Also lost are the materials needed for teaching about their culture and traditional way of life, disrupting the transfer of indigenous knowledge to younger generations and, ultimately, causing irreparable loss of traditions and heritage.

Conservation restrictions can harm ecosystems.

In India’s Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT), local communities no longer recognize their customary forests.

When the sanctuary was declared in 1974 in Karnataka state, the local people living in the forest—mostly Soliga adivasi—were forcibly relocated to colonies along the main road or on the periphery of the reserve. They were banned from practicing shifting cultivation, setting fire to the forest (part of their traditional management practice), and hunting animals. 

The Soligas used fire annually, just before the monsoons, to maintain the forest as a woodland savanna and source of food. The ecology of the woodland savanna was therefore closely linked to human practice, but the system was disrupted by the conservation restrictions that came with the BRT. The ban on fires created a denser forest riddled with weeds—resulting in adverse ecological impacts that can only be reversed with immediate action.

"Fortress" conservation models are leaving out some of our best environmental stewards.


There is a close relationship between forest sustainability and the recognition of indigenous rights, which enables Indigenous Peoples to continue acting as guardians of ecosystems and species. In Peru, for instance, legal recognition of community forest rights reduced deforestation and disturbance by as much as 81 percent in the year following titling, and by 56 percent the year after; in other words, securing land rights can lead to immediate environmental benefits.

However, in Peru’s Manu National Park, indigenous communities have been largely ignored and their customary practices suppressed. This can clearly be seen in the zoning of the Manu National Park and its many restrictions, in which biodiversity conservation is prioritized over recognizing indigenous rights, including the titling of their lands. However, the administration of the Manu National Park is now moving toward a social model in which the indigenous population is an integral part of the park and its welfare.

The problem of overlap: conservation policies often override commitments to indigenous rights.


Panama’s Darién National Park was the first national park in Central America to recognize and include cultural diversity and the role of Indigenous Peoples in its management, and the customary tenure of indigenous inhabitants is accepted in part of the park.

Yet, despite these progressive actions, the government has yet to recognize a number of the customary lands of Indigenous Peoples because of their location in, or proximity to, the park. The Ministry of Environment has held up titling for over two years, with more than two-thirds of indigenous land claims across the country pending due to overlaps. The situation has become a major bottleneck in the recognition of indigenous land rights in Panama.


A new approach is needed for effective and equitable conservation.


As countries move to address this historic imbalance of power, protected area co-management plans should not only include Indigenous Peoples, but also reflect their cosmovision and traditional practices, and include investment in community planning, natural resource management, and sustainable livelihoods. Critically, conservation efforts and community rights do not need to be at odds with each other. Rather, recognizing communities as partners in conservation can complement traditional park management strategies—both benefiting local livelihoods and bolstering our collective fight against climate change.

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