It's time to end conservation injustice

Human injustices in the name of nature conservation have to become a relic of the past. It's time to get serious about human rights at the World Park Congress.

Harry Jonas's picture
Insight by 
Harry Jonas
17 November 2014
Lake Bogoria is home to one of the world's largest populations of Flamingos. It has been a protected reserve since 1973. The lake area was the traditional home of the Endorois people, who were forced to leave the area in the 1970s (Photo: Geoffroy Mauvais/IUCN)

Lake Bogoria is home to one of the world's largest populations of Flamingos. It has been a protected reserve since 1973. The lake area was the traditional home of the Endorois people, who were forced to leave the area in the 1970s (Photo: Geoffroy Mauvais/IUCN)

Tourists visit Lake Bogoria in Kenya's Rift Valley to see one of the world's largest populations of lesser flamingoes. Most are blissfully unaware that the area was once home to the Endorois, nomadic pastoralists who were evicted when it became a National Reserve in 1973.

The community took its case to the African Commission on Human People's Rights, which found the Kenyan government guilty of violating the Endorois' rights by evicting them from their lands. The landmark ruling set a precedent that indigenous peoples in Africa are legally entitled to collective ownership of their ancestral lands.

Yet, nothing happened for nearly five years following the ruling until September 2014, when the government announced it was establishing a task force dedicated to the implementation of the 2010 ruling. Its future impact is difficult to assess.

Meanwhile, villagers in Uvinje, a small, coastal village in eastern Tanzania, are seeking an injunction to halt their eviction from their ancestral lands due to the expansion of the boundaries of Saadani National Park. The park was created in the 1960s as a game reserve, and included land contributed by the villagers themselves because they were concerned with the indiscriminate killing of wildlife by outsiders.

The game reserve explicitly allowed for local access and use. But in 2004, the villagers were prohibited from using the park when it was gazetted as a national park. In 2005, Uvinje villagers discovered that additional coastal land had been incorporated into the official map of the park and, as a result, they were no longer entitled to live there.

These two examples highlight a major disconnect between high level UN or inter-governmental rulings and action on the ground in the locations where human rights abuses are occurring in the name of conservation.

Could a meeting to set the international policy framework for the management of the world's protected areas make any impact on ending such injustices?

The sixth World Parks Congress (WPC) is meeting in Sydney from 13-19 November. The last WPC in 2003 acknowledged that "many protected areas have been established without adequate attention to, and respect for, the rights of indigenous peoples, …especially their rights to lands, territories, and resources, and their right freely to consent to activities that affect them". It was agreed that all existing and future protected areas should be established and managed with their full consent and participation.

Yet more than a decade after that agreement, research undertaken by IIED and Natural Justice shows that many protected areas continue to be established and managed in ways that breach agreed international human rights standards for indigenous peoples and local communities.

One obstacle to better practice on the ground is clarity over who actually has responsibility for upholding human rights. It is often assumed that this is the sole responsibility of governments. However that responsibility also lies with the wildlife charities, philanthropic foundations and private companies implementing or funding conservation efforts.

The diversity of international legal instruments that confer rights on indigenous peoples and local communities, and the wide range of different rights that are covered, are another obstacle to be overcome. Even when it is clear who has rights, the hoops local people have to jump through to get those rights upheld are well beyond their reach.

There are concrete actions that we can take to change this:

  1. Distill the Human Rights Standards for Conservation into an agreed set of minimum standards – based on internationally agreed rights – that should be upheld in all conservation interventions
  2. Develop a set of tools to guide people implementing conservation projects. These might include, for example, simple checklists with what standards apply in particular contexts, information on the legal basis for the standards, and details of potential redress actions if the standards are not met
  3. Funders of conservation initiatives can use the standards and guidance information to monitor and evaluate the projects they support, and so that third parties can also use them to verify project-level activities
  4. Assess existing redress mechanisms with the aim of agreeing a globally-recognised grievance mechanism dedicated to resolving conservation-related disputes. It would aim to deal with complaints more efficiently and reduce costs for all parties, and
  5. The standards, guidance and grievance mechanism could be developed, monitored and upheld by an independent body. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) manages its principles and criteria and complaints system, including the dispute settlement facility. Why not establish a 'Roundtable on Ethical Conservation' or a 'Conservation Stewardship Council' to help resolve long-term conservation conflicts? 

What do you think? Do we wait another ten years for progress on human rights standards in conservation, or will 2014 be the year that we begin?

Harry Jonas is a lawyer and co-founder of Natural Justice.