The 5th conference of the World Parks Congress convened last Monday, with the goal of increasing the number and percentage of protected natural areas worldwide. The meeting was marked by controversy regarding the overlap of land protection and native peoples’ rights. Former South African President Nelson Mandela welcomed the delegates to the conference in Durban, South Africa. Mandela and other speakers lauded the Congress for its plans to address poverty and impoverished peoples’ search for food as a contributing factor in environmental degradation. Scientists believe that the over-harvesting of foods in protected areas threatens ecosytems and biodiversity. But the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, representing about 150 groups worldwide, urged conference attendees to break from traditional western perceptions of land use and permit native tribes to stay on their land.
Past conservation efforts have driven tribes from their land, a practice which the Indigenous People’s Caucus argues is unjust and does not respect native peoples’ ability to live sustainably off their land. The Associated France-Presse reports:
“The Indigenous Peoples Caucus issued a declaration at the start of the event requesting special attention to their ‘expulsion and exclusion’ from protected areas.
‘According to international laws, we have a right not to be forcibly removed from our land,’ [spokewoman Joji] Carino said.”
The groups demanded that the 2,500 conference delegates provide them with open access to and management of their ancestral lands. Some tribes in the caucus were removed from their ancestors’ lands, while others have no say in their management. Reuters reports that the conference’s is “Benefits Beyond Boundaries” and aims to encourage conservation in areas beyond park borders as well as attempt to alleviate rural poverty by employing rural workers in ecotourism and other conservation efforts — but Indigenous tribes, apparently, aren’t seen as the priority that rural workers are.
The Caucus was further enraged by conservationist Richard Leakey’s comments that conservation was more important than the rights of indigenous people, the London Guardian reports. Indigenous groups believe their fight for justice can coincide with land preservation, and were angered by Leakey’s suggestion to provide “compensation” instead of allowing the tribes to manage their lands:
“‘Leakey’s taking us back to the colonial era ,'” said Edward Porokwa, of Tanzania’s Masai.
The World Conservation Union’s Congress will end on September 17th. In addition to its aims to fight poverty, the Congress has an agenda of protecting wetlands, improving marine protection, and working with mining and drilling companies to support conservation efforts. According to a World Conservation Union Report, 19 million square miles, or 11 percent, of the world’s lands are now protected — up from just 2 million square miles in 1962. But at least 700 highly threatened species still lack protection, the report says.