Adamson: International conservation - Friend or foe?

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It has long been understood that corporations and their bedfellows - the respective government for wherever company operations reside - want unfettered exploitation of indigenous territories. They are transparent in this goal. However, an equally insidious but far less honest enemy of indigenous peoples is emerging and they are the international conservation NGOs that covet protected areas and national parks.

These protected areas or national parks form the basis for coercive conservation tactics that in short preempt rightful indigenous land claims. It is a culmination of corruption within the environmental movement.

Before I explain more let me be the first to say not all environmental and conservation organizations are guilty. There are some great allies out there. But today the entire environmental movement needs to reassess its values.

Before the Washington Post ran a series of breathtaking front-page articles (May 4 - 6: don't miss them) on The Nature Conservancy, one would have been reluctant to believe the planet's wealthiest - and one of its most prominent - environmental organizations was despoiling the species and places it claims to protect. Who would have believed it? - an esteemed organization whose mission is to make business development compatible with conservation, in the process protecting the environment from the worst excesses of capitalist development, was actually, among other things ? destroying endangered birds and defrauding a fellow environmental philanthropist while pumping oil at a profit from under fragile habitat ? arranging illegal tax subsidies to the tune of $64 million, in a process the IRS prohibits as "self-dealing," so that wealthy donors and board members and trustees could build resort-like estates on some of the nation's most pristine and cherished lands ? grossly understating its president's compensation, concealing a $1.55 million home loan to him and misrepresenting the very low interest rate he took at taxpayer expense ? ? It gets worse, but you get the picture.

As I noted in this column at the time of the Enron meltdown, such complex corruption cannot proceed unless a host of people are in on it. The corruption has to be institutionalized throughout the system they're a part of, insulating them from ethics at large and distorting their own sense of acceptable conduct so that they forget what honesty means.

And the rest of us, well, we seem to have a hard time believing it until we have no other choice. The Post expos? leaves us with no other choice, so for now we'll have a much easier time believing a similar pattern of behavior on the international environmental front.

Here, a number of organizations with stated goals similar to The Nature Conservancy's - essentially, brokering "environmentally friendly" deals between business interests and conservationists at a profit - are advancing along the same path to institutionalized corruption The Nature Conservancy denies, but with this difference. Whereas The Nature Conservancy has dispossessed the public of its natural inheritance in cahoots with corporations and their chieftains, a consortium of international organizations is dispossessing indigenous peoples in cahoots with national governments and business interests.

In brief, these prominent, well-funded organizations seek to serve as palatable intermediaries, unobjectionable partners, between businesses that want to develop land, conservationists who say they want to protect it, and governments that hope to control it.

Where, you may ask, are the indigenous peoples in all this? But the point is to leave them out - to create protected areas, "pristine national parks" and great trans-boundary land corridors that overlap indigenous lands and override or cancel their claim to it. As in colonial times, this is often accomplished through sophisticated mapping exercises. The conservationist-produced maps in question define an environmentally sensitive region in such a way as to fragment or reduce indigenous territorial boundaries, compared with the mapping of indigenous peoples themselves.

The conservationist maps may even extend across national boundaries, but always they roll back indigenous boundaries.

The role of government(s) is then to step in and, on the authority of the conservationist maps and the environmental imperative, declare formerly indigenous territory to be national park land. Wouldn't you know it - once land is declared national park land, the government has empowered itself legally to remove indigenous peoples or to prohibit their traditional resource use.

Even so, certain "restricted areas" may be set aside for ? who else, business interests that can meet the government's asking price for such favor. Often these are logging operations or bio-prospecting initiatives.

The international conservationist heavyweight must then wash its hands of the whole business. And oh, how they have perfected the art of insisting they didn't pressure the government to do anything in particular, that they didn't actually enforce a decision to dispossess indigenous peoples - not them!

But here are some indigenous peoples speaking for themselves, in a resolution adopted last winter by the Kwinti people in Pikin Slee Village, in the South American nation of Suriname. The indigenous peoples here fear that a conservationist mapping initiative will add their ancestral Saramaka territory to a so-called Central Suriname Nature Reserve:

"? this activity was undertaken without obtaining our prior free and informed consent through our traditional and customary procedures;

"? this area is an integral part of the ancestral territory of the Saramaka people and is of central importance to our cultural integrity and survival;

"? we have already made a map of our territory and therefore question the validity of, and need for, another map;

"? we have rights to own and control our lands, territory and resources traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used pursuant to treaties concluded in 1762 and 1835 and by virtue of international human rights law accepted by and binding on the State of Suriname;

"? the Central Suriname Nature Reserve was established with little, if any, consultation with the Kwinti people and incorporated part of their ancestral lands without their consent and without compensation;

"? the Suriname Bio-prospecting Initiative ? has been operating in our territory without our full knowledge and consent for many years and ? is attempting to use the traditional knowledge of the Saramaka people without prior consultation and agreement with all of the traditional authorities of the Saramaka people."

These words, and beyond them the concerns they convey for indigenous peoples the world over, deserve urgent consideration and serious collaboration and partnership within conservation.

Rebecca Adamson is president of First Nations Development Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.