Engaging with indigenous rights

In the 1970s, IUCN senior ecologist Ray Dasmann spotlighted what he called ‘ecosystem people’ – those who depend on functioning ecosystems for survival. Indigenous peoples have been high on IUCN's agenda ever since.

Indigenous senior citizen of the mountains in Southeast Asia Photo: Shutterstock / Edwin Verin

‘Indigenous and traditional peoples have often been unfairly affected by conservation policies and practices.’

This quote comes from IUCN’s Policy Statement on Social Equity in Conservation and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, adopted at a Council Meeting in Gland, Switzerland (2010). It acknowledges the problems of the past and expresses the strong ambition to overcome these in the future.

The problems referred to in the policy statement tie in with a particular conception of protected areas that is often referred to as the ‘Yellowstone model’. In this model, ‘uninhabited wilderness’ constitutes the ultimate end goal of conservation, which implies that, ideally, human exploitation and occupation are eliminated in protected areas. This policy ideal – which was highly influential in conservation circles during most of the 20th century – has resulted in several evictions of indigenous populations from regions where they had been living for centuries.

To be true, the Yellowstone model was never the only conception of protected areas. When, in 1948, the newly founded International Union for the Protecion of Nature (IUPN), as IUCN used to be known, set up a Commission of Nomenclature to categorise protected areas, its list also included so-called ‘anthropological reserves’. This category built on a pre-war conservation tradition that hoped to extend the protection of endangered animals to that of so-called threatened human ‘races’ – as, for instance, the Twa populations of Belgian Congo.

In the post-war years, however, this tradition lost ground relatively quickly. Not only did such racial categorisation fall into disrepute but increasingly conservationists also started to worry about the population growth of indigenous groups rather than their possible decline. In this context, many saw the Yellowstone model as the most feasible policy instrument for preserving rapidly vanishing nature.

Only from the 1970s onward was this approach gradually challenged. IUCN senior ecologist Ray Dasmann played a crucial role in this. In his work, Dasmann called for attention to what he described as ‘ecosystem people’, or people who live ‘within one ecosystem or, at most, a few closely related ecosystems, and depend […] entirely on the continued functioning of those ecosystems for their survival’. By the mid-70s, the settlement of such people in protected areas was no longer anathema in IUCN’s Parks Commission. At the General Assembly in Zaire (in 1975) a resolution was passed asking governmental consideration for Indigenous people’s tenure rights if their lands were included in conservation areas. And when, in 1978, IUCN revised its classification of national parks, the category of ‘anthropological reserves’ returned – be it without the old racial imagery.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the topic of Indigenous people moved to the top of the agenda at IUCN meetings. This evolution was strengthened by the fact that traditional populations became increasingly visible as potential partners through globally organised activist groups. At IUCN’s General Assembly in 1981, not only the rights of indigenous populations were brought into remembrance, but also the ecological importance of their ‘very large reservoir of traditional knowledge’.

In subsequent World Parks Congresses (Bali, 1982; Caracas, 1992; Durban, 2003) there were recurring statements on the need for consultation with Indigenous peoples and the importance of joint management of protected areas. This was accompanied by an official burial of the old ideal of uninhabited wilderness. In Caracas, the Chairman of IUCN’s Parks Commission made a point in stressing that ‘even the most remote and wild areas left on the planet bear the marks of human influence’.

The relation between indigenous populations and nature conservation remained a heavily debated one both within and beyond IUCN. Some were sceptical about what they saw as over-romanticised images of ‘ecological noble savages’. Others believed the whole notion of ‘Indigenous people’ to be problematic and possibly exclusionary (with some people considered ‘more indigenous than others’). Still other conservationists signalled that it proved hard to translate policy ideals of inclusion to fruitful collaborations on the ground. At the World Parks Congress in Sydney (2014) it was stressed that ‘even though much has been achieved since the World Parks Congress in Durban, Indigenous peoples and local communities have not yet become full partners in protected area management’.

It is clear that, within few decades, IUCN’s vision on Indigenous people has seen some important changes. Issues such as human rights, affirmative action and community-based conservation have all moved to the centre of the discussion. Applying these ideals in global conservation proves a continuous challenge, but all participants to the debate agree on its importance. Nelson Mandela voiced this very idea at the World Parks Congress in Durban when he stressed that there was ‘no future for parks, unless they address the needs of communities as equal partners in their development’.


Raf De Bont

Maastricht University, History Department



Nature’s diplomats: Ecological experts and the conservation policy of international organizations (1920-2000)

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