Conservation has a Human Rights Problem. Can the New UN Biodiversity Plan Solve it?
By Katie Surma
Creating conservation areas is a key part of the United Nations 30 by 30 plan. But poorly designed and managed "Fortress Conservation" parks have been rife with human rights abuses.
For decades, if not centuries, Maasai cattle farmers in Northern Tanzania have reared their animals alongside iconic wildlife species like cheetahs, lions and black rhinos.
But that may change this year for a Maasai community living in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a park adjacent to Serengeti National Park and about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
The Tanzanian government, citing the growth in population of the Maasai and their cattle as the main threat to wildlife in the park, announced in 2019 that about 80 percent of the nearly 100,000 residents of the area must leave or else be forced out. In reaching the decision, the government said it had consulted with international conservation organizations, including UNESCO (Ngorongoro is a World Heritage Site).
The eviction order, expected to take effect sometime this year, has stirred deep-seated grievances over conservation efforts in Tanzania. For the past 60 years, ever since the British established the Serengeti park in the 1950s, the Maasai have been repeatedly pushed off their ancestral land to make way for wildlife parks and big game preserves. That dispossession has come with additional affronts: Reports have documented allegations that the Maasai have been subject to attacks by police during disputes over the boundaries of where the Maasai are permitted to graze their cattle within the park. The alleged attacks have included the razing of homes, assault and the destruction of cattle, the Maasai’s main source of livelihood.
East Africa is only one among many places around the world where conflicts between conservationists and Indigenous peoples are playing out, part of a larger debate over the best way to protect nature.
Some conservationists argue that to protect natural resources and prevent the extinction of other species, as many areas as possible must be blocked off and protected, even when that negatively affects human activities or involves evicting humans who lived on the land. Other advocates say that approach is flawed and ultimately ineffective, and that human interests, especially the rights of Indigenous people, must be taken into account.
The debate has intensified in reaction to a sweeping 2019 U.N. report on the state of the world’s biodiversity, warning that human activity is driving the extinction of nonhuman species at unprecedented and alarming rates, with grave consequences for humanity’s food and water supplies. To address that crisis, diplomats from 190 countries that are parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity will meet in Kunming, China in April. The United States is the only country that is not a party to the treaty, but it will participate in talks as an observer state.
At the Kunming meeting, governments are expected to finalize a 10-year plan aimed at stopping biodiversity loss. The draft plan lays out 21 targets that governments must hit by 2030, the most controversial of which is a target to conserve at least 30 percent of the Earth’s land and water by 2030.
The so-called “30 by 30 plan” has drawn outsized attention because of the impact some conservation parks have had on Indigenous communities like the Maasai. Many of those parks are modeled after America’s “Yellowstone” national park. But Yellowstone, and many of its offspring, have long, dark histories of human rights abuses, displacement and social conflict.
Among the most high-profile reports documenting these abuses was a 2019 Buzzfeed investigation containing allegations that the conservation giant World Wildlife Fund financed and supported park guards who allegedly assaulted, raped, tortured and killed people at parks in Asia and Africa during anti-poaching missions. Such incidents have led human rights experts to speak out about how the conservation industry and policy makers are failing Indigenous and local communities.
“Respecting human rights is the only way to make conservation really work,” said John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. “The world can’t solve this crisis without protecting the people who have lived in these areas for centuries and who are on the front lines of conservation.”
Often promoted as America’s best idea, national parks like Yellowstone, founded in 1872 by then President Ulysses S. Grant, are at the heart of the 30 by 30 controversy.
The idea for the park was sold to the American public as a move to preserve pristine wilderness. In reality, Native Americans lived on the land and had done so for thousands of years before being pushed out by the U.S. government to create the park.
The idea of cordoning off pristine wilderness areas as parks, sometimes called “fortress conservation,” is premised on the belief that local inhabitants must be removed from woodlands and other areas in order to protect ecosystems. Once Indigenous and other local inhabitants are removed, sometimes by force, the parks’ boundaries are enforced, using guards who in some cases carry arms. And while Indigenous and local inhabitants are removed, tourists can pay to visit the parks, in most cases.
Yellowstone’s creation perpetuated the idea that humans exist separately from nature, as opposed to many Indigenous worldviews that see humans as inextricably linked to the natural world.
Beyond the displacement that such wilderness preserves have caused, reports from around the world — India, Peru, the Congo, Nepal, Kenya and elsewhere — have documented other serious human rights abuses connected to the parks.
In 2015, according to a 2020 Department of Interior memorandum, four women in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “were beaten with a baton, lashed on their backs and legs, and raped by the eco-guards — two of the women were pregnant, and were still raped, even though a woman ‘begged them to spare her,’” the memorandum said. The eco-guards were on an anti-poaching patrol at the time and the women had been fishing.
In another case, cited in the memorandum, “Three men were held by eco-guards for three days, during which the eco-guards beat them, tied their penises with fishing thread, and hung them at the branch of a tree.”
Lara Dominguez, an attorney with the Minority Rights Network, said there is little awareness in the global North that millions of people live on land that could be targeted for conservation, depending on how land is protected. And some of that land belongs to Indigenous peoples, who steward an estimated 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, making those communities vulnerable to land grabs in the name of conservation. Dominguez works with communities in East Africa and the Congo Basin who have been expelled from their land so wildlife parks could be established.
“These parks are an existential threat to these communities. Their entire way of life depends on their connection to their land,” she said. “Beyond the threat to life and livelihoods, there are psychological impacts, trauma — both individually and collectively — and it begs the question, who brought this environmental problem on? Not them, but they’re paying for it.”