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The push to protect Africa’s land displaces its greatest guardians: Indigenous people

September 8, 2022

Patrick Kipalu — Contributor

Calls are mounting for governments to formally protect more land. But colonial-style conservation is unjust and doesn't work.

Patrick Kipalu is a natural resources management and human rights expert from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He leads the Africa Program at the Rights and Resources Initiative.

For years, global conservation organizations, donors, and development institutions have told governments in Africa to set aside more of their national territories for conservation. Such calls were at the center of the recent Africa Protected Areas Congress, held in July in Rwanda, and are multiplying ahead of the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt in November. 

According to a UN report, roughly 17 percent of the world’s land mass is currently protected by governments and conservation entities. Given its immense size, there is an expectation that Africa contribute mightily to meeting a global goal of placing 30 to 50 percent of the planet under the protection of designated authorities. 

Among land masses, Africa is at the greatest risk of nature loss, despite being the world’s smallest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (at 3.8 percent). China contributes nearly a quarter of global emissions, followed by the United States at 19 percent and the EU at 13 percent, yet the EU has set aside 25 percent for land conservation, China 15 percent, and the United States, 12 percent. In contrast, many African governments have already set aside 35 to 40 percent of their territories for conservation, yet they’re under rising pressure to leverage even more of their natural assets.

While protected ecosystems play a critical role in climate mitigation and adaptation, historically protection has involved the eviction of Indigenous and local inhabitants. And, since important biodiversity conservation areas often overlap with territories claimed by Indigenous and local communities, expanding protection has significant implications for their survival. A 2018 study published in Nature found that 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas on Earth overlap with Indigenous-controlled land. Rather than blindly supporting these efforts, the international community must ask what protection by governments or conservation agencies means for the people living in those areas, and whether it is even effective.

NGOs like Global Witness and Oakland Institute have tracked a growing list of human rights abuses, displacements, militarized violence, and loss of community land and livelihoods in the pursuit of conservation goals. For example, the Tanzanian government is evicting the Maasai from Ngorongoro Conservation Area to create room for conservation and trophy hunting. The government of Uganda has been doing the same to the Benet of Mount Elgon. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, an estimated 136 million people have been displaced in the process of formally protecting Earth’s land.