Conserve wildlands in southern Africa by protecting Indigenous rights (commentary)

Conserve wildlands in southern Africa by protecting Indigenous rights (commentary)

  • The COP15 agreement and its pledge to preserve 30% of the world’s biodiversity by 2030 (30×30) sounded like a resounding success for conservation, but not if it comes at the expense of Indigenous communities.
  • Conservation groups and Indigenous populations both protect biodiversity, but the ‘fortress conservation model’ of the past all too frequently has pitted these groups against each other.
  • “In southern Africa [we] have seen the fortress conservation model affect the lives of local stewards of the land, time and time again,” the author of a new op-ed writes.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

The COP15 agreement and its pledge to preserve 30% of the world’s biodiversity by 2030 (30×30) may have sounded like a resounding success for conservation around the world. However, according to the Rainforest Foundation, this could potentially impact up to 300 million people across the world.

Protecting our planet’s wildlife is a crucial defense against the biodiversity crisis. Depending on the context, restricting access to vulnerable ecosystems is crucial for preserving endangered species. However, if our means of doing so is by rehashing conservation methods that ignore Indigenous knowledge and needs, then COP15’s 30×30 push could produce far more harm than good.

Today, we need to fuse international, modern ecological understanding with local knowledge and the traditional conservation methods that come with it. That’s why it is crucial for local representatives to be given both a voice and representation at international conservation conferences, and at the private conservation funding meetings where conservation land demarcation is decided.

The //Anikhwe are an Indigenous San community in Botswana that’s closely connected to rivers like the Okavango. Image courtesy of the Sinchi Foundation.

Research shows that while the world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s total human population, they manage over 25% of the world’s land surface, and support 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Yet all too often, Indigenous people get forced out of their ancestral lands as a result of conservation. Since 1900, over 108,000 officially protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely as a result of the lobbying of a handful of international conservation organizations. About half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by Indigenous peoples.

Of course, both international conservation organizations and local Indigenous populations have a common goal; to protect biodiversity. However, the ‘fortress conservation model’ all too frequently pits these groups against each other.

First devised in America under President Roosevelt, this model of evicting Indigenous peoples from their native homeland became an international blueprint. My fear is that the COP’s 30×30 ambition will mean that this model will be encouraged across the world.

A report from Project Expedite Justice reveals how forced removal of peoples from their homelands has occurred in Tanzania as well as in Uganda, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo.

In southern Africa where I spend most of my time, we have seen the fortress conservation model affect the lives of local stewards of the land, time and time again. For example, the government of Botswana has been carrying out major evictions of the San people since the 1960’s, even though the San people have been Indigenous to this region for tens of thousands of years. Although the San people won the right to return to their homeland in 2006, the Botswanan officials have made this nearly impossible by cementing over boreholes and using other tactics of intimidation.

See related: Namibia’s San communities struggle to access their traditional lands

Conserve wildlands in southern Africa by protecting Indigenous rights (commentary)
A herd of elephants near the Linyanti River in northern Botswana. Image by Roger Borgelid for Mongabay.

Of course, driving people off their homes for the sake of foreign conservation programs and for wealthy trophy hunters certainly feels like a regression to the 20th century. In the U.K., a bill is currently going through the House of Lords to oppose the import of big game hunting trophies. Many who oppose the bill argue that trophy hunting brings income to the local population, even though reports show that less than 3% of the revenue went to community development.

We have to remember that many Indigenous communities, like the San, have managed to live in harmony with nature for generations by following seasonal grazing patterns that helps to prevent land degradation. Indeed, the idea that humans are somehow separate from nature is a Western idea that is not shared by those who have proven themselves most effective at protecting it.

Yet of course, not all conservation NGOs subscribe to this model. Take African Parks for example: integrating and investing in local knowledge and health in order to preserve natural lands is core to their ethos. As opposed to governments and foreign entities simply evicting local communities, African Parks employs local people and invests in education and healthcare. For example, in 2017, 66,000 local people received healthcare, 76,000 children received support for education, and more than 65,000 adults received conservation training. I believe that the African Parks model strikes an effective balance for humane, inclusive conservation.

The issue is not as simple as ‘conservation parks versus Indigenous communities.’ The question is around exactly how these two groups work together. Every conservation challenge is location- and context-specific. The question we have to ask is who is at the table, making decisions about the best methods to conserve our lands.

San people celebrate a victory in court against the Botswana government in December 2006. Photo courtesy of Survival International.

Indeed, when we look at various international conservation meetings, that often includes wildlife organizations sitting alongside the private and financial sectors, and it becomes clear that local representatives are almost always absent in the decision making process.

Even at COP15, we saw that Indigenous spokespeople, who represent 10,000 traditional nations across the globe, are only given approximately three minutes to contribute to negotiations.

In order to protect Africa’s biodiversity in a just, humane and effective way, we must blend modern ecological understanding with traditional conservation practices and beliefs. Those sitting in Western offices must not be able to draw lines on maps of places they have never been, even if it is done under the virtuous guise of ‘conservation.’

If we fail to give Indigenous people the voice they need and deserve on the international stage, then we will continue to fail our wildlands, and the people who protect them.


Daniel Kaul is the founder and CEO of educational travel company Natucate and is heavily involved in conservation in southern Africa.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Mongabay’s Indigenous issues editor Latoya Abulu about COP15, Indigenous rights, biodiversity finance, and corporate influence, listen here:

Related reading here at Mongabay:

Namibia’s first peoples struggle to access their traditional lands (commentary)

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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