Vicky Tauli-Corpuz: 'The better protected areas are those where indigenous peoples live!'

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, at the 14th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues - 27 April 2015, New York. Photo: via
Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, at the 14th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues - 27 April 2015, New York. Photo: via
Indigenous Peoples are often the victims of nature conservation, according to a new report by Vicky Tauli-Corpuz presented to the UN this week, as they are expelled from lands they have inhabited for millennia. One reason, she told Joe Eisen, is that indigenous territories are precisely the places where biodiversity is best preserved - thanks to the protective, nurturing presence of their traditional owners.
The world should see that protected areas managed by governments are being destroyed, while those managed by indigenous peoples are better: the forest is more and in better shape, and even the flora and the fauna are still there.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is the author of 'The Rights of Indigenous Peoples'.

The report, which highlights the impact of conservation and protected areas on indigenous peoples, was presented to the UN General Assembly this week. Excerpts from the presentation are included in block quotes, below.

Joe Eisen of Rainforest Foundation UK met Vicky at the recent World Conservation Congress in Hawai'i, and began by asking about her principal research findings, and the prospects for indigenous peoples impacted by 'top down' conservation.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz: Basically what I found is that there is still not enough effort being done to respect the rights of indigenous peoples when conservation areas are created, and when they are being in operation.

What I found is that there are still a lot of complaints, regarding how indigenous peoples are still being evicted from their communities, and are dispossessed of their lands and territories. When these things happen there is no redress.

They don't have any access to justice, and redress mechanisms are not there. Even if there are redress mechanisms, it's not easy for indigenous peoples to access them if they don't have the resources to be able even to go to the domestic courts.

So, in the end, they end up in really very dire situations, where they are living in the fringes of the protected areas, they are not even compensated too. Because of the displacement, there is no promise that they will ever go back to the territories they were evicted from.

"The establishment of national parks and conservation areas has resulted in serious and systemic violations of indigenous peoples' rights through expropriation of their traditional lands and territories, forced displacement and killings of their community members, non-recognition of their authorities, denial of access to livelihood activities and spiritual sites and subsequent loss of their culture.

"Indigenous peoples who have been evicted from their traditional lands suffer marginalisation and poverty, and are commonly excluded from redress mechanisms and reparation for the harm they have endured. I deeply regret that I continue to receive complaints about violations against the rights of indigenous peoples in the name of conservation." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

We have to raise this in a higher place, so that the ones responsible will change the ways that they are creating protected areas or conservation areas.

The world should see that protected areas managed by governments are being destroyed, while those managed by indigenous peoples are better: the forest is more and in better shape, and even the flora and the fauna are still there.

I think that's the main message, the main conclusion and observation that I have found while doing this report.

Who is responsible?

I think of course the ones that are really mainly responsible for implementing and deliniating protected areas are states, because that is what they do. But the ones that are also facilitating the establishment of this kind of protected area are conservation organisations, and donors.

I think all of them collectively will have to bear some of the blame, because each of them have roles to play in the establishment of these protected areas. Of course the degree might be different in different cases, but still it's the state that has the obligation to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

"The traditional lands of indigenous peoples are being declared protected for purposes of conservation at a rapidly increasing rate. Current estimates indicate that 50 per cent of protected areas worldwide have been established on lands traditionally occupied and used by indigenous peoples and in some regions this territorial overlap is higher, such as in Central America, where it reaches around 90%.

"In this regard, it is important to underline that studies have demonstrated that the territories of indigenous peoples who have been given land rights have been significantly better conserved and protected against deforestation than the adjacent lands." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

The donors and the conservation organisations know very well that there are existing standards that should be implemented by the states. But somehow I don't think they are actively engaged in encouraging and supporting the states to be able to comply with the human rights obligations.

What is your message to the funders of such initiatives, and how accountable are they for any wrong-doing at the ground level?

Well I think that the ones that are funding these kind of organisations and initiatives have to take responsibility in terms of doing the necessary due diligence in designing and shaping these protected areas, in terms of whether these initiatives are going to involve indigenous peoples.

Has their consent been obtained? Were they informed about it? I think that's a basic thing to do. I think that donors should think seriously about these things. They cannot abdicate the responsibility to do proper due diligence.

The agencies granting money or investing money in a particular endeavour wouldn't like that money to be used for something that will violate human rights, or that will further even destroy the kind of biodiversity that they are wanting to protect.

"The loss of the guardianship of indigenous peoples has often placed their lands under the control of Government authorities who have lacked the capacity and the political will to protect the land effectively.

"It is particularly disconcerting that in many countries where indigenous peoples have not been awarded land rights over their traditional territories there are increasing incursions of extractive industries, agribusiness expansion and mega-infrastructure development, even inside protected areas." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

In my report, I asked the donors to ensure that whenever they are giving money that these rights are also being taken care of. They cannot give money away and then when something goes wrong just disown it, or say they have no responsibility for that.

I think everybody has a responsibility for the wrong that's happened because of all these initiatives. And I think it's right for all these different players to acknowledge these kinds of things that are happening.

Of course they will say that these are things that happened in the past, not really much now, but I don't think so. And the report that you came up with from the Rainforest Foundation UK shows that it's still continuing up to the present.

I wouldn't be receiving the complaints, the allegations, if everything is happening in the right way.

What is your message to the general public? Do you think that they can trust the vision of conservation that is being promoted?

I think that the general public has to be made aware about the reality of the findings in the world today of the areas that are still protected in a better sense, in terms of biodiversity being still vibrant and being protected, in terms of biodiversity being used in a sustainable way. Those areas are overlapping with indigenous peoples' territories.

That kind of message has to be made more public, be made more known. In truth the better protected areas are areas where indigenous peoples live. It's because they still continue to practice their traditional systems of protection. Their livelihoods are very much aware of sustainable use of this biodiversity. So the world should know that.

"Traditional indigenous territories encompass around 22 per cent of the world's land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 per cent of the planet's biodiversity. There is increasing recognition that the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples contain the most intact ecosystems and provide the most effective and sustainable form of conservation." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

The world should see the maps where protected areas being managed by government are destroyed, while protected areas for the management by indigenous peoples are better, the forest is more, the forests are kept in better shape. Even the flora and the fauna in those forests are still there.

The public has to know that. Because if that is known, then the direct correlation between respect for human rights and particularly land rights, territorial rights, resource rights, the respect for those rights is correlated directly with the protection of the ecosystem.

And I think that is the message that's not being made widely known. I believe that if people really see the evidence, they will know that that is what's really happening.

Then there will be a stronger push for the governments to respect human rights, and to decrease the kind of discrimination that they have against indigenous peoples, or the mis-perceptions that they have about indigenous peoples, and support them in their bid to have their land rights respected as well as give them the chance and support to be able to continue doing what they are doing, which is keeping these ecosystems in a better shape.

What role do you see for participatory approaches like community mapping?

Those activities have really helped a lot in terms of making visible the contribution of indigenous peoples in ecosystem management. Because it's the maps that will show the overlap of indigenous territories with better sustained protected areas. It's the resource inventories that are being made that makes all this visible as well.

But more importantly, the participatory mapping processes, the participatory resource inventories, the community based monitoring systems, are the kinds of approaches that should be provided to indigenous peoples so that they will be able to produce the evidence that it's their knowledge system that they are using that allows for this kind of picture to emerge.

It's also important, of course, if they have all this data in their hands, then they can also influence the land use plans, even at the government level. We have examples where indigenous peoples map their territories, they did the resource inventories, and on the basis of that they made the plans of how to use the lands in more sustainable ways.

"In Honduras, I witnessed that the lack of full recognition, protection and enjoyment of indigenous peoples' rights to ancestral lands and natural resources is a fundamental problem as is impunity for the increasing violence against indigenous peoples.

"During my visit, I met with Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca activist who was killed four months later (on 3 March 2016) because of her protests against the Agua Zarca dam project, even though she had been awarded precautionary protection measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"I will continue to monitor the investigations into Ms. Caceres' murder and urge the State to hold the perpetrators accountable and break the vicious cycle of impunity." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

They have the plans in terms of integrated approaches like landscape approaches, and then they go to the municipal government and tell them, "These are the plans that we would like you to implement because these are the plans that, these are what we have been doing in the past and this is what has protected our forest, our water sources.

"And if you are not going to support this plan, and do the kinds of plans that you do, which came from top down, from the national government down to you, then there's no hope for us to sustain our territories."

I think there should be much more support for those kinds of things, because that's the way to ensure participation. That's the way to ensure respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Those are the ways that will emerge, that will come up with all this data, and information, that proves what they have been saying since time immemorial.

Any technology, any approach, that will surface these kinds of contributions, can be used by indigenous peoples collectively to get states to respect their rights better, and conservation organisations to change the ways that they are doing things.

What is the role of Rainforest Foundation UK and similar kinds of solidarity organisations in your view?

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz: I think RFUK and other similar organisations, I think that your role is really to help document these kinds of realities that are happening on the ground, bringing it widely for the public to know more about.

And helping in the advocacy work to both international organisations, to the UN, or to the governments so that they will change the ways that they are acting in relation to parks and conservation initiatives. I think that kind of role is very important.

It's something that a lot of indigenous peoples are still learning: how to communicate this more widely; how to write it in a way that's understood by the dominant populations. So I think that's one role that RFUK can play.

"Rights-based conservation measures continue to be hampered by the legacy of past violations and by the lack of legal recognition by States of indigenous peoples' rights. Conservation organisations and indigenous organizations could be powerful allies in their mutually shared goals to safeguard biodiversity and protect nature from external threats such as unsustainable resource exploitation.

"Protected areas continue to expand, yet threats against them from extractive industry, agribusiness, energy and infrastructure projects are also increasing, and thus the urgency to address effective, collaborative and long-term conservation is of paramount importance.

"The escalating incidence of killings of indigenous environmentalists further underlines the urgency that conservationists and indigenous peoples join forces to protect land and biodiversity from external threats." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

The other role is of course for you to work jointly with indigenous peoples in their bid to strengthen their campaigns to get their rights protected and fulfilled, in their bid to be really protected, you know, from being killed. A lot of indigenous activists protecting their lands have been killed in the process.

I think that RFUK and others, if you hear of these kinds of things or if you are monitoring that there might be a possibility that this will happen, you can help alert the world about it, so that it might be prevented.

In terms of advocacy, you are the ones who can help advocate, at least in terms of areas where indigenous peoples themselves cannot even go. I mean you are working with the Pygmies, and you know how difficult it is for them to even go to the capital.

If you can bring them along with you, so that when you do your advocacy work they are also with you, that will be very helpful and that will strengthen the possibilities for them to talk directly with those who are creating these problems for them.

What is your vision for indigenous peoples currently negatively affected by conservation? What does sustainable conservation mean to you?

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz: I hope they will be brought back to their territories, and I don't think that we should give up on them being in that kind of situation.

I think that's so inhuman. There are some human conditions where they are found, in places where they are forced to live because they have been displaced from their territories. It's really unacceptable.

My vision is that one day they will be able to be brought back to their own traditional territories that their rights to these lands will finally be recognised, that their identities as indigenous peoples will also be recognised.

"While there is increasing evidence that indigenous peoples' traditional lands and territories hold highly preserved ecosystems and biodiversity rates, the important role played by indigenous peoples as environmental guardians still fails to gain due recognition. According to the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, in 2014, only less than 5 per cent of protected areas worldwide are governed by indigenous peoples and local communities." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

Then they will be working in equal partnerships with states and conservation organisations, in securing those lands as well as protecting them. That's my dream, for those that have displaced. I hope that there's a possibility for those kinds of things to happen.

I hope that the conservation organisations who somehow had a role to play in this will also develop programmes that will eventually bring them back to their own traditional territories and let them assume the livelihoods that they have been doing.

Your report is great! What's your hope in terms of how it can provoke change in how the UN system works on conservation issues?

Well, the UN system is composed of all different players. The main owners of the UN, of course, are the states. So when we talk of the UN system we are talking about the states, and we talk about what states should be doing in terms of their compliance with international human rights standards and environmental standards as well. So that's one thing.

But UN agencies or programmes who have something to do with conservation have to do better as well. For instance, I mentioned something in the report about UNESCO, the World Heritage Commission, where in some instances, it resulted in the same thing, indigenous peoples also are being displaced. So I'm calling on the UNESCO for instance, to also abide by the UN principles, ensuring better participation, respecting the rights, etc.

"Under international human rights law, indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination, land rights and to participate in decisions affecting them, such as the establishment and management of protected areas. States should recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to own, develop, control and use their communal lands and to participate in the management and conservation of the associated natural resources." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

I hope the UN bodies, the agencies, the programmes, they will be able to show in practice that they are the leaders of respecting human rights, in promoting sustainable development, or sustainable conservation. Those are the kinds of actions that they need to take.

Then, of course, the other players within the UN. I mean the ones working at the national level whether this is UNDP, or the UN country teams. In terms of helping or building the capacities of governments to be able to abide by their obligations, they should not shy away from pushing governments - I mean in terms of preventing governments from evicting indigenous peoples from their territories because these are designated as protected areas.

If you are there at the country level and there is such a report that comes out, then it is your responsibility to at least reach out to those who can do something about it. And I think that's just right, because you are the UN, the UN has its own principles, its own values, that it's supposed to be implementing.

"Since 2003, IUCN has committed to promote that all protected areas be managed with participation of indigenous representatives in compliance with the rights of indigenous peoples and that mechanisms be established for the restitution of indigenous peoples' traditional lands and territories that were incorporated in protected areas without their free and informed consent.

"The majority of the large conservation organisations have adopted specific policies on indigenous peoples' rights, and several have developed specific guidelines on how to implement free, prior and informed consent in their projects. However, these policies have been slow in transferring from paper to practice." From Statement to the UN General Assembly.

Unfortunately in some cases it's like they don't know, they don't really do what is needed. Especially at the national level. I think there are many standards existing already, I mentioned that in my report. The problem is the implementation of these standards, and implementation is something that is always faced with a lot of challenges and obstacles.

I think that everybody that's engaged in this process should join hands and push themselves, make themselves more sensitive to human rights and human rights based approaches, so that lives of those people whose rights have been violated will improve, they will finally be able to have more dignity, and they will be able to pursue the kind of development or conservation that they themselves want to pursue.



Joe Eisen is Research and Policy Coordinator for the Rainforest Foundation UK.

The report: Vicky Tauli-Corpuz presented her 'Statement of Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the UN General Assembly' on 17th October 2016.

This article was originally published on Conservation Watch.

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