Spotlight on Africa

Towards a conservation model working with indigenous peoples

Audio 09:34
Indigenous women engaged in foraging.
Indigenous women engaged in foraging. Rainforest Foundation UK

Conservationists are pleading for new policies that will engage with the indigenous peoples living in protected areas instead of excluding them. They say enlisting their support is vital for ensuring their healthy survival as well as protecting wildlife


Indigenous peoples' lands and territories cover 80 percent of the areas that are environmentally crucial for the world. These areas are the habitat they have known for generations, making indigenous peoples, arguably, vital to maintaining these ecosystems. However, history shows that indigenous peoples and local communities living in protected areas tend to be ignored in conservation policies and practices. Simon Counsell, director of Rainforest Foundation UK, explains that in the past, the rainforests of central Africa and other regions around the world have been treated as wildernesses free from human occupation and to be preserved in some kind of natural state for their wildlife: “What was ignored is that, in Central Africa for example, almost all of the landscape has long been occupied by humankind, Bantou farmers and indigenous hunting, gathering Pygmies”.

Excluding the communities from conservation areas often resulted in people being evicted, their livelihood such as hunting and gathering have been suppressed, in some cases people were starving, some communities were attacked by eco-guards. “And this has created a sense of conflict between local communities and conservation and we think.” Counsell adds, “ultimately, we need to respect the rights of those communities to inhabit and use the forest that they have lived in for generations rather than antagonising them and preventing them from really engaging in conservation.”

Support for indigenous peoples’ rights are at the center of debates within international organisations. At the last congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, held in Hawaii from 1-10 Sept, one important decision was to create a new category of membership for Indigenous peoples' organisations. A move that should enable them to shape policies that affect them directly.

Indigenous pygmy man in DRC
Indigenous pygmy man in DRC RF UK

In Namibia - home to the San, the Himba and the Nama indigenous communities – community-based wildlife management seems to be working. However, says Willem Odendaal, attorney at the Legal Assistance Centre, wildlife crime is posing a serious problem:

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in wildlife poaching, specifically as organised by Chinese wildlife crime syndicate. Endangered species such as the Black Rhino are poached for their horn, elephants are killed for their tusks. These syndicates are very well organised and it is really undermining many years of good conservation work in Namibia. We need help from the communities, we need better prosecution. The problem is our police services are not ready to deal with these syndicates because they've really become very sophisticated".

According to an international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity, 17 percent of land should be conservation areas by 2020. Today, they cover less than 15 percent of the world's land. In view of creating more protected areas to meet the 17 percent goal, vast amount of funds are disbursed for conservation.

But, according to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, only a small amount goes to the communities living there:

“There should be better monitoring system on how the money is being spent and also on how the parcs are being protected. But you need community participation because they are the first concerned in terms of protecting their own ecosystems. You also need support to reform the national laws if they do not recognise the rights of indigenous peoples. But these kinds of support are not easily accessible and available.”

Rethinking conservation and the peoples

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a local NGO, Réseau Resources Naturelles based in Kinshasa, works with the local Bantou communities and the indigenous Pygmy population in the western Equateur and Maï Ndombe provinces. Its objective is to educate them on their legal rights and obligations as well as to help them map the land they occupy using tablets.

Three years into the project, the advocacy manager, Blaise Mudodosi is happy with the results: "We've noticed that the communities who are aware of their rights are better equipped to claim them through letters they send to the companies operating in the areas, to the local authorities and to the conservation body managing the protected areas.” In Lukolela territory, the eco-guards are no longer stopping the local Bantou communities to access the protected areas and the can now carry on with hunting and gathering food.

For Simon Counsell, working with the indigenous peoples instead of against them, will be a much more sustainable way of protecting Africa’s wildlife in the future:

“The existing protected areas need to be completely redesigned, taking the presence and occupation of local communities into account. We need to recognise the customary land rights of those communities living in the parcs, allowing to continue their livelihoods, engaging them in the management of those areas. And also, more importantly, building on the traditional practices that many communities have in actually protecting the wildlife. Many of them have strong social tabous on hunting bonobos or chimpanzees. And they can also be very helpful in informing us about the activities of much more dangerous commercial poachers, ivory hunters, bushmeat hunters.”

Indigenous woman and child foraging in DRC rainforest
Indigenous woman and child foraging in DRC rainforest Rainforest Foundation UK

Gonzalo Oviedo is the head of social policy at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He says he can see a global trend emerging whereby indigenous peoples and local communities are in charge:

“In Madagascar, the coastal communities have created a network of community-based marine protected areas. They have realised the need for conservation and they have established a network of about 70 areas where communities create their own, relatively small, protected areas. And they now have this network in order to work with each other. This is a remarkable example of bottom-up initiative based on their own culture, identity and livelihood in a place where the actions by the government for conservation of the resources are practically non-existent.”

Can conservation initiatives drawing on human-nature harmony be the norm? Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is mildly optimistic: “Yes, the peoples more assertive in claiming their rights but many countries are still far from complying with international human rights and environmental laws."

In a world facing serious environmental challenges, a new conservation philosophy is far from being superfluous but rather a much needed alternative to help protect the planet's fragile biodiversity.

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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