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Nature Conservancy Efforts Disregard Indigenous People

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Native and traditional peoples around the world are primary practitioners of earth-based survival lifestyles. Whether by cultural preference or by necessity in the face of industrial scarcity, the encouraged participation of Native peoples in creative ways of protecting environmental resources and of resolving their ecosystemic water and food security (self-sufficiency) problems is completely in order.

Controversy has been growing for a decade over policies by the three super-large international conservation organizations, which tend to shun social issues of indigenous and traditional peoples and which are sometimes positioned in antagonistic roles to Native and traditional villages. This long-festering problem finds the three major professional organizations working in nature conservation, which has raised concerns over diminishing the potentials of indigenous peoples in their quest to demarcate and manage bio-diversity "hot spots" around the world.

A recent article published in World Watch Magazine by Mac Chapin (November/December 2004 World Watch 17, "A Challenge to Conservationists") lances the boil of this controversy and we find ourselves highly interested in his assessment. Chapin is somewhat controversial himself as a combative anthropologist who has long worked on behalf of Indian causes, but he is certainly a painstaking researcher and he knows the field like few others.

Chapin reports that somewhere in the mid-1980s, the budding alliance between traditional Indian and environmental movements began to dissipate. Particularly these three big ones - The Nature Conservancy (TNC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International (CI) - began to shy away from the complexity of Indian social and political issues, many of which press for land demarcation and jurisdictions as part of the social justice solutions to long term problems of obvious origins.

Retooling their shield on behalf of scientific inquiry and techno-management of large and complicated ecosystems ("hot spots"), the three major conservation organizations projected a global mission and then set out to successfully dominate the fund-raising strategy in the field. In 2002, for example, the take of the three major organizations amounted to more than half of the estimated $1.5 billion available for conservation. Impatient with the claims and often the traditional knowledge of people who resided in those areas, incidents of evictions of indigenous peoples have taken place in regions embraced by conservation projects. More often, local peoples are limited or criminalized for hunting, gathering and other traditional and accustomed practices.

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The controversy gains focus and certainly calls attention to itself as a result of the Chapin article, which comes at a moment of high intensity for the issue. In characteristic fashion, Chapin revealed his intentions to publish a sizable challenge to the big three (activists label these "bingos" short for the "big NGOs") at a session of funders of indigenous peoples coinciding with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. He makes it true with his present article, which is a somewhat caustic call to dialogue, but whose call is worth heeding nevertheless.

The indigenous leaders at the 1977 Geneva International Indigenous Conference made the challenge and in the Amazon it was followed by the indigenous Amazonian coalition, COICA, which sponsored the tribal conference that issued, "The Iquitos Declaration", signed by many conservationist groups and Native peoples. International organizations at major conferences, such as the UNCED-1992 (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) followed with greater calls for research and collaboration with indigenous peoples in the concept of sustainable development. Many good projects did develop from these collaborations but a general pattern of paternalistic management, dominated always by the funding NGOs, tended to diminish the Indian role and the community based experience. The hard work of discerning the most sound traditional leadership in many areas was beyond the major organizations. Conversely, Native community issues through the 1990s turned increasingly militant in several major countries, including Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico. Rather than sustain the effort to work with local populations to resolve major conservation issues, the big three, by and large, have opted to demarcate, protect and manage away from community needs and inputs.

This is regrettable on its face, and we commit to doing everything possible to help educate the major conservation movements and organizations to the practical wisdom of working closely with local, particularly indigenous and traditional peoples, who have cultural and customary bonds with positive links to their ecosystems. We agree this is not always easily done, but there are many great examples where it has proved an excellent approach.

In setting out to protect and propagate natural areas that can sustain eco-systemic variety of plants and animals, working with local indigenous and traditional communities of people is quite possible and advantageous. Policies antagonistic to indigenous and traditional-use communities are shortsighted, sometimes dangerously so, and obviously counter-productive in the long run. Human misery and need, if simply rejected and suppressed, will find a way forward in desperate consumption fed by lawlessness and ignorance. A front line of defense promoted precisely among those populations with the most instinctive human relationship to forest and other ecological regions is very desired and has all the potential in the world to actually address the problems of severe degradation.

While front-line natural use populations often diminish natural abundance by overuse, nonetheless many times they have natural eco-friendly methods of food and medicinal plant and animal production, grounded in the indigenous cultures and in the blend of cultures of the various regions. Rather than dismissal and antagonism against such peoples, interactive pedagogy - fully endorsing the potentials of education and the re-harnessing of traditional environmentally protective knowledge - should be a central philosophy. Partnership through environmental education that assists natural world productivity is a crucial component to successful protection of the natural world. No doubt, some special areas with maximum propagation away from human intervention are best protected by imposed isolation, but this is best done with education and local consensus rather than only the imposition of criminal or military sanction.

An appreciation to Mac Chapin for opening the dialogue between two important human communities: Indigenous land movements and Western conservation movements. We urge that the dialogue now move in constructive ways, as all can benefit from the mutual analysis and common objectives. These are two sectors gravely important to lead on these most crucial of survival questions.