Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas - Gains at the global level

Down to Earth No 59  November 2003

Indigenous peoples made important gains at the fifth World Parks Congress (WPC) held in Durban, South Africa, 8-17 September 2003. Over 130 indigenous peoples' representatives attended this major event, organised by the IUCN, which gathers together all the major conservation organisations every ten years.

A statement issued by indigenous peoples at this year's congress highlighted the fact that their internationally recognised rights have been "systematically violated in protected areas, including the right to life". This refers to protected areas policies which exclude people. They may involve the forcible - sometimes violent - removal of local peoples, or relocation in enclaves which severely restrict their use of lands and resources.

The indigenous statement asserts "Indigenous Peoples are rights-holders, not merely stakeholders". Indigenous representatives were able to press successfully for recognition of their rights in existing and proposed protected areas.

The Congress approved an Action Plan with concrete targets and measures to achieve what it called a "new paradigm for protected areas". It also adopted a number of Recommendations relating to Indigenous Peoples, including No. 5.24 on Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas. This includes the recommendations that governments, inter-governmental organisations, NGOs, local communities and civil societies should:

  • "ENSURE that existing and future protected areas respect the rights of indigenous peoples;
  • CEASE all involuntary resettlement and expulsions of indigenous peoples from their lands in connection with protected areas, as well as involuntary sedentarization of mobile indigenous peoples;
  • ENSURE the establishment of protected areas is based on the free, prior informed consent of indigenous peoples, and on prior social, economic, cultural and environmental impact assessment, undertaken with the full participation of indigenous peoples;
  • ENACT laws and policies that recognise and guarantee indigenous peoples' rights over their ancestral lands and waters..."



Recommendation 5.24 also includes a provision, proposed by Indigenous groups and adopted by the Congress, to address past injustices, by establishing:

"participatory mechanisms for the restitution of indigenous peoples' lands, territories and resources that have been taken over by protected areas without their free, prior informed consent, and for providing prompt and fair compensation, agreed upon in a fully transparent and culturally appropriate manner;"

plus a "high level, independent Commission on Truth and Reconciliation on Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas".

If implemented, this recommendation will have a huge impact on indigenous communities in Indonesia whose lives have been devastated by the imposition of national parks and other protected areas on their territories. But the main obstacle to implementation in Indonesia remains the government's failure to adequately recognise indigenous peoples' customary land and resource rights. The test for the conservation agencies working in Indonesia will be whether they recognise adat rights, and initiate measures to address past injustices based on adat claims. Or whether they adopt what may seem a politically 'safer' option of making token concessions to indigenous communities that would not challenge the Indonesian government's position.


Mining in protected areas

Executives from top mining, gas and oil companies, including Shell, BP and the former Rio Tinto chair Sir Robert Wilson, took part in a WPC panel discussion on protected areas and extractive industries. This is part of the IUCN secretariat's initiative to embark on a formalised 'dialogue' with the extractive industries - a move strongly opposed by some of the IUCN membership, NGOs and indigenous peoples. In their closing statement to the Congress, the indigenous representatives said: "The mining lobby continues to reject proposals that they should respect our right to say 'No'. The IUCN should listen to the outcry against greenwash."


Peoples and Parks

The tension between conservation measures and indigenous rights is analysed in WRM and FPP's newly updated report, Salvaging Nature, Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation.

The report describes how, since the 1990s, conservation organisations have attempted to continue to implement Northern models of biodiversity conservation whilst trying to accommodate the needs of indigenous and other local communities, who own, use or claim the majority of land designated as protected areas in developing countries. Such attempts - which have met with very limited success - include buffer zone schemes, Man and Biosphere Reserves, the employment of local people as guards and tour guides, eco-tourism and, more recently, joint-management or co-management of protected areas with local communities.

The report documents the gradual adoption, since the 1970s, of new language by the conservation organisations, which recognises the rights of indigenous peoples under international law. It asserts that these new principles have not, in the majority of cases, been put into practice. This argument is based on evidence collected by the Forest Peoples Programme over the past seven years, from three regional conferences in Latin America, South and Southeast Asia and Central and Southern Africa. These heard numerous cases, presented by the communities themselves, of indigenous experiences with protected areas.

The report presents a critique of major international conservation organisations and describes how fundraising and financial relationships with corporations may take priority over implementing their commitments to recognise indigenous rights.


Indigenous Peoples want restitution for loss of forests

At September's XII World Forestry Congress in Quebec, indigenous peoples also called for restitution and compensation for past infringements of their rights and the loss of the use of forests. The demand is part of the Wendake Action Plan drawn up at the Indigenous Peoples' Forest Forum at the Forestry Congress. For more details see


Salvaging Nature identifies a number of serious obstacles which stand in the way of effective recognition of indigenous rights in conservation practices, including:

  • Entrenched discrimination in national societies' attitudes towards indigenous peoples;
  • Absence of reform of government policies and laws regarding indigenous peoples (especially in Asia and Africa, where many governments pursue integrationist or assimilationist policies towards indigenous peoples);
  • National laws and policies which deny indigenous peoples' rights to own and manage their lands;
  • National conservation policies and laws based on the old exclusionary model of conservation;
  • The lack of appropriate training, staff and capacity in conservation agencies and NGOs to work with communities (national chapters of the large conservation agencies may not have been informed about the new policies and principles adopted at international level);
  • The failure by many of the large US-based conservation agencies to adopt policies towards indigenous peoples.

One of the report's main conclusions is that rapid action is now needed by leaders in the conservation world to address indigenous peoples' concerns.

"It is time that conservationists began to start their work on areas inhabited by indigenous peoples from the assumption that they are dealing with local people with legitimate rights to the ownership and control of their natural resources."

However, there is also a warning against the assumption that once an area is under indigenous ownership and control, the problem is solved. Many indigenous communities are fully aware of the fact that outside pressures and changes within their own economies and social organisation require new mechanisms to control and use their resources sustainably and that outside assistance may be required. But this assistance should come in the form of partnership, and not seek to take control. As noted by the International Alliance of Indigenous Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests in 1996,

"Indigenous peoples recognise that the expertise of conservation organisations can be of use to their self-development and seek a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust, transparency and accountability."

(Sources: The Durban Action Plan, World Parks Congress - see Indigenous Peoples' Declaration to the Vth World Parks Congress, Durban, 8-17 September 2003WPC 8-17th September Closing Plenary - Statement by Indigenous Peoples; Salvaging Nature)


Salvaging nature. 
Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation

(Also available in Spanish and French)
Revised edition, 2003: 155 pages. WRM and FPP. £10.00 
To order tel: +44 (0)1608 652893 or see