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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.

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.