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Indigenous peoples’ rights violated in the name of conservation

26 August 2016

Conservation of bio-diversity appears to come at a price. But who really bears this cost?

The current friction which exists between conservation policies and indigenous communities is evident in the experiences of the Sengwer and Ogiek peoples in Kenya. Cherangani Hills in western Kenya, is home to several indigenous peoples including the Sengwer community. However, Kenya’s conservation policies have resulted in alienation of indigenous peoples from their lands.

“We have been facing a lot of human rights violations, forceful evictions from our forest homes…and as a result we do not have a place where we can sit and say ‘This is our home’,” says Milka Chepkorir Kuto, herself a Sengwer, and a participant in the 2016 UN Human Rights Office Indigenous Fellowship Programme.

Many indigenous peoples around the world experience the same plight. They are violently displaced away from their traditional territories without their free, prior and informed consent, without satisfactory provisions for resettlement and without any adequate compensation. Consequently, they are denied their cultural rights and their means of livelihood. If they attempt to return to these lands, they are often arrested for poaching or even killed by ‘eco-guards’.

These are some of the observations made by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz in her recently released report which explores challenges that indigenous peoples face from conservation programs and policies. The report also identifies a number of other countries where policies on protected areas have adversely affected the rights of indigenous peoples. Tauli-Corpuz highlights legal developments, commitments and measures taken by conservation organizations and States to advance a human-rights based approach to conservation.

“The key justification used by several States and conservation organizations to displace indigenous peoples is that they overgraze and overuse natural resources and this is considered the main obstacle to conservation”, notes Tauli-Corpuz. “Such perception fails to recognize the complexity of ecological and social relationships of many indigenous peoples with their ecosystems and their right to own, manage and control these territories, lands and resources.”

“This also ignores the increasing number of studies which show that territories of indigenous peoples who have been given land rights have been significantly better conserved than the adjacent lands,” she explains.

“Indigenous peoples claim that they value nature more than others because this is the basis of their survival as distinct peoples and cultures, of their traditional food systems and knowledge systems,” says the Special Rapporteur. “Evidence also shows that many of the world’s existing better conserved forests, savannahs and waters are found in indigenous peoples’ territories,” she adds.

On the threats to protected areas, Tauli-Corpuz believes that these include, “extractive industries, logging (both legal and illegal), expansion of agribusiness plantations, and mega-energy and infrastructure projects which are undertaken without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples who are directly affected.”

The Special Rapporteur reiterates that “respect of indigenous peoples rights should be integral in all policy decisions and programmes related to protected areas made by States, conservation organizations and donors, especially when these protected areas overlap with indigenous peoples’ territories.”

Tauli-Corpuz will discuss this report at the 2016 International Union of Conservation of Nature - World Conservation Congress to be held in Hawaii from 1-10 September 2016.

26 August 2016