Conservationists and Indigenous communities share the aim of preserving biodiversity, even if their incentives differ. That creates a grim irony when tribal peoples are estranged from the environment they have safeguarded, for the sake of safeguarding the environment.
New research on how Indigenous communities in Papua province, Indonesia conserve the forest resources they rely on concludes, “The potential tragedy of the unseen sentinels is that so much may be lost simply because we failed to open our eyes to look.” Working closely with three communities to examine their conservation practices, a team of scientists associated with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) discovered each has a system for monitoring resources and responding to threats. Challenging assumptions that Indigenous communities damage forest resources, the research feeds into a growing body of evidence that “natural resource management by local communities can be more effective and cost-efficient for large-scale conservation than government-sanctioned protected areas.”
To contextualise this study, let us first consider the conservation contradiction that exists.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This contradiction has been unfolding around the world, much to the detriment of traditional custodians like the Wanniyala-Aetto of Sri Lanka, the Karen of Thailand, the Baka of Cameroon and the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana. Tribal peoples are being booted from their customary forests and ancestral lands not only to make way for agricultural, mining and logging concessions (land grabs that are widespread and have been well documented) but also in the name of “wilderness,” to keep forests pristine and away from the pilfering hands of human exploitation. On the surface, the creation and expansion of inviolate zones, in the form of national parks and sanctuaries, are a win for environmental aims; however, communities that call these forests home and rely on their resources for survival become “conservation refugees.”
Disenfranchised, they are cast as conservation opponents, accused of damaging natural resources; they are marginalized to resettlement areas on the fringes of reserves, forced to eke out an existence on government handouts, by begging or “stealing” from their former forest home to survive.
This is a serious problem, as a 2014 Survival International report, Parks Need Peoples explains. “Overnight, resources that have sustained the tribe since time immemorial are out of bounds. If they hunt in the park they are accused of ‘poaching’. If they are caught gathering, they can be fined or imprisoned.” For example, since the Wanniyala-Aetto peoples in Sri Lanka were disenfranchised for the Maduru Oya National Park in 1983, they have reportedly been killed, beaten and arrested for subsistence hunting on their ancestral land. In Cameroon, eco-guards, partially funded by WWF and the German Government, are accused of human rights abuses and torture against the Indigenous Baka.
Survival International Director, Stephen Corry said, in a Guardian piece, that the expulsion of Indigenous communities from their customary territories “is based on unscientific assumptions that tribal peoples are incapable of managing their lands, that they overhunt, overgraze and overuse the resources on their lands.”
“It’s no coincidence that 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found on the lands of tribal peoples and that the vast majority of the 200 most biodiverse places on Earth are tribal peoples’ territories,” Survival International reports, “By developing ways to live sustainably on the land they cherish, tribal peoples have often contributed – sometimes over millennia – towards the high diversity of species around them.”
At the Asia Regional Conservation Forum in Thailand last month, a Karen leader appealed to the Thai Government to be more considerate of Indigenous peoples whose customary land had been turned into official conservation zones. “We are not the destroyers of the forest. We have nurtured our natural environment through our ‘use and conserve’ practice, which is part of our simple lifestyle and culture. The forest we manage, including our practice of shifting cultivation that provides us food security, are better conserved and enriched with biodiversity.”
American professor and philosopher, J Baird Callicott criticizes the idea of “wilderness” as environments that are free from human habitation as an ethnocentric concept with foundations in Western discourse. He notes the name “wilderness” constructs landscapes in a way not shared by all social groups; indeed, there is no translation for the word in many languages. Soon after the world’s first national park – Yellowstone — was created in the United States in the 19th century, the local Native American tribes were expelled from their traditional lands to conserve the wilderness.
The paradox here is that Indigenous peoples, as CIFOR studies have shown, are actually stewards of the forests – their very survival depends on fostering sustainable relationships with surrounding ecosystems.
Conservation Friends Not Foes
CIFOR’s new study, Unseen Sentinels: local monitoring and control in conservation’s blind spots, is significant because it reveals how Indigenous peoples are protecting vast natural areas. Co-author, Senior Associate at CIFOR and scientist based at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Douglas Sheil said effective local protection is undermined, not because these local systems are invisible, but “because no one recognizes what they see.”
“For conservationists pushing for the expansion of protected areas, the study highlights the potential dangers of alienating people from their environment, and represents a neglected opportunity to support them doing what they already do,” Sheil said.
Territories of the three Papuan communities studied – Kay, Metaweja and Yoke — overlap with the Mamberamo-Foja Wildlife Reserve, a conservation zone spanning two million hectares and brimming with biodiversity. While being aware of the park’s protected status for the past decade, the communities maintain their traditional land claims, customs and tribal systems. They hunt crocodiles, catch fish and collect forests resources in their territories. Rather than revealing a pattern of over-exploitation, the study found “respected individuals or groups have a recognized responsibility for protecting key resource-rich areas.”
Illustrating this, in Kay, hereditary stewards called “Ijabait” live at strategic points along the Tariku River. In Yoke a family controls access to the most valuable fishing area, Lake Tabaresia. And in Metaweja the responsibility of safeguarding the region was shared around, with people regularly camping out at critical locations. These actors, the paper states, prove a powerful deterrent for anyone wishing to encroach on customary areas to exploit natural resources.
Along with deterring outsiders, independent monitoring is used to ensure healthy ecosystems are maintained. In Kay, crocodiles are a critical resource, hunted for their skin and meat; assessing the number and size of the animals, villagers stop or reduce harvesting when stocks appear low. In Metaweja, survey and discussion is used to decide if a resource needs time to recover and replenish. When a wild pig is caught, for example, details of the location, ease of the catch, and the animal’s condition are considered to determine areas that should be set a side until the following rainy season. The report notes that monitoring was an innate part of people’s “lives, livelihoods, and cultures.”
Study co-author Sheil points out that with poorly funded official protection mechanisms, recognizing local monitoring practices in and around parks and reserves is vital to understanding how Indigenous communities are “filling the gaps.”
“One serious implication [of expelling tribal people] is that effective indigenous conservation systems may be replaced by formally protected areas that are inadequately managed by overstretched government authorities,” Sheil said.
Highlighting how thinly conservation authorities are spread, in 2009, about 140 staff was in charge of overseeing more than 4.6 million hectares of sanctuaries and parks across Papua province. That’s about 33,000 hectares, or roughly the size of the Maldives, per person. Underfunded, overstretched park management leaves forests vulnerable to unchecked poaching, logging and unlawful plantation expansion. Additionally, when protected areas are created, alienated communities stripped of their stewardship roles may lose their incentives for sustainable forest product use, intensifying threats to biodiversity and ramping up conservation costs. The CIFOR report states, “Such outcomes appear tragic and ironic when adversaries had previously shared similar goals: to safeguard the environment and its resources from uncontrolled use.”
Indonesia’s “Conservation Refugees”
There are both old and emerging cases of “conservation refugees” in Indonesia.
In Southeast Sulawesi, the Moronene people were made to leave their ancestral land after the Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park was created in 1989. Reportedly, for at least six generations they had cultivated seasonal crops on small rotational plots, while also relying on edible forest products. Their struggle, and cycle of eviction and return, continued for decades until an NGO stepped in to represent them, arguing the park’s ecosystem contains plants, animals, and people too. Finally, the rights of the Moronene were recognized.
Another case is now unfolding in West Papua province, which sits beside Papua province together forming the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea. A Mongabay article notes how the Demaisi people have a system of sanctuaries and family agricultural rotation that has sustained them, and maintained the forest’s abundance, for as long as anyone can remember. Families rotate through a handful of small garden plots, using a patch for one to three years depending on soil health, and then leaving it to recover for up to six years. They are forbidden from hunting and gathering in the core protected area called the “bahamti” but are allowed to hunt, with proper permissions, in the heavily forested area between their gardens and the bahamti.
However, a newly developed spatial plan for the regency that includes a proposal for an 83,000-hectare nature reserve in the Arfak Mountains looms over the Demaisi peoples’ traditional way of life. In the Mongabay piece, George Dedaida from the NGO Papuan Conservation comments, “The government needs to consider the existence of Indigenous peoples, because their lives depend on nature. For them the forests are the Mother who provides everything.”
Survival International’s Asia Campaigner, Sophie Grig told The Diplomat that sadly, the situation facing the Demaisi in the Arfak Mountains is all too familiar.
“Tribal peoples, who have sustainably managed, nurtured and protected their forests for generations, suddenly find themselves barred from their lands because outsiders decide that they should be ‘protected.’ The irony is, studies have shown that the best way to protect forest cover and biodiversity is to recognize indigenous land rights. Tragically too many conservation initiatives, like this one, seek to expel the very people who have protected the forest for for so long. It’s time for a new sort of conservation, one that puts indigenous land rights at its heart.”
Indonesia did not fare well in a recent report comparing Indigenous forest rights in several countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The study, by the World Resource Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative, states that forest covers more than half of Indonesia’s land area and of its extensive forest estate community rights were officially recognized in just one percent (compared to 97 percent recognition in Papua New Guinea and 49 percent in Nepal). According to AMAN, an alliance of Indigenous Peoples from across Indonesia, up to 40 million hectares of what the government claims as national forest is actually managed by local and Indigenous communities.
Fortunately, this legacy of ignoring customary tenure is starting to change, catalyzed by a landmark ruling in 2013. Indonesia’s Constitutional Court declared that customary forests should not be classified as “State Forest Areas.” Efforts are underway to gazette the country’s forest zone, clarify land boundaries and recognize community-managed forests.
Legal recognition of Indigenous land rights could lead to increased protection against deforestation in Indonesia. Figures from last year show community managed forests had an average deforestation rate 11 times lower than land outside their borders. Andy White from the Rights and Resources Initiative said that when the rights of communities are respected, they are far more effective than governments or the private sector in protecting forests.
CIFOR’s study calls for greater attention to autonomous monitoring. It suggests case-by-case examination to understand the extent and efficiency of community activities and consideration of how these systems may be supported.
“Whether autonomous monitoring is widespread and effective, or rare and ineffective, we need to recognize not only when local people are willing to champion environmental causes, but also when they are already doing so.”
Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.