News: Transforming conservation - a rights-based approach

20 March, 2019

In recent weeks, there has been significant press coverage of human rights abuses connected with the work of international conservation charities, including WWF. This summary outlines recommendations emerging from nearly 30 years work in preventing human rights abuses in protected-area conservation programmes - download the full report here.

Recently published allegations of human rights abuses connected with the work of international conservation charities have shocked donors and the public alike. These allegations are consistent with evidence of human rights violations against indigenous peoples and local communities that Forest Peoples Programme and partners have encountered and documented over the course of nearly 30 years of work. While there have been moments when progress in this area seems to have been made (e.g. the 2003 Durban Accord, and the adoption of social policies by conservation agencies) changes to practice on the ground have been limited or quickly reversed, despite repeated calls by human rights organisations over decades. Without such change, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, warns that conservation will continue to “ignore the growing body of evidence that forests thrive when Indigenous Peoples remain on their customary lands and have legally recognised rights to manage and protect them.” [i]

We believe that the form which conservation work takes requires a radical, root and branch transformation to put an end to the repeated, serious and systematic violations of indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights.

These issues are widely known, they cannot be ignored. They do not require further investigation: they require concerted action.

We reject any form of conservation which accepts human rights violations as a cost of achieving conservation outcomes and which sees indigenous peoples as a threat to biodiversity and the environment. Decades of work has shown that the creation of protected areas has too often seen the dispossession of indigenous peoples and local communities from their ancestral territories, a phenomenon that continues today[ii]. The zoning of such areas, a persistent practice that dates back to colonial times, has caused catastrophic cultural, physical and material harms to affected communities. Those charged with protecting these areas (‘eco-guards’) have repeatedly been complicit in abuses. Conservation actors have continued to support exclusionary conservation[iii] programmes, despite being provided with evidence of serious rights abuses for decades.

Conservation and human rights are not intrinsically opposed. There is mounting evidence that conservation based on respect for the rights of traditional owners of the lands is more effective than exclusionary protected areas. For example, in the Amazon deforestation is between 2 and 6 times lower in areas where indigenous people have secure land rights.

We need to see a transformation in conservation models for these recurring reports of abuse to cease. It must be a transformation that goes beyond damage limitation to one that is positively rights affirming and consistent with international human rights law, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and environmental agreements such the Aichi Biodiversity targets and the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are exciting glimmers of what this can look like reflected in initiatives of indigenous peoples and local communities, e.g. as documented by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, by ICCAs and by FPP[iv]. Conservation agencies and the donors that fund this work must play a central role in ensuring that conservation can and does transform into a sustainable and just process of true protection of the world’s resources and empowerment of those best placed to achieve such outcomes.

FPP and partners propose the following recommendations to enable this transformation. These recommendations are based on the belief that, not only is the recognition of rights essential to human well-being, but that we can only successfully address the critical issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation that confront us all if we secure the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and in doing so, support them to secure their lands, forests and ecosystems[v]. Download the complete list of recommendations in the full report, here.

Conservation organisations – and donors who fund this work – should:

1. Ensure protection of human rights is integral to conservation management, strategy and programmes (internal human rights monitoring or partnering with human rights organisations), and actively advocate for respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities with the governments and national agencies with whom they work.
2. Avoid and disinvest from conservation programmes that pose a risk of human rights abuses, including by ceasing to partner with governments that systematically fail to respect and protect human rights, and make sure conservation programmes have clear due diligence processes in place to ensure they do not finance, participate in, support or promote such projects.
3. Actively support the full protection of indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ customary land and resource rights. Where conservation or related programmes wish to include or affect indigenous peoples’ or local communities’ lands, seek and obtain the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities to ensure their programme of work has the full support of all indigenous and local communities, and not rely on government actors to carry these out.
4. Recognise indigenous peoples and communities as the key actors in securing biodiversity, and seek to support them in doing so, including by providing direct funding to better support indigenous peoples’ own initiatives for conservation. Champion a community-led conservation model.
5. Ensure there are effective avenues for redress for past and future actions that do not meet the above criteria, and systematically (and independently) review past and current involvement in any human rights violations within conservation programmes.

Notes for editors:
Forest Peoples Programme has worked on human rights abuses in exclusionary protected areas (‘fortress conservation’) for three decades. In the 1996 report ‘Salvaging Nature’, FPP & UNRISD argued that conservation increasingly seeks to limit human activities in biodiversity-rich areas. Marcus Colchester, the author of the report, and Senior Policy Lead at FPP, said “Mainstream conservationists have sought to impose their culturally-bound vision of natural resource management on indigenous peoples without taking into account their rights under international law or their different priorities and perceptions.”

“Forced relocation, impoverishment, cultural destruction and the undermining of traditional systems of natural resource management have been common results of this type of conservation,” he added.

“Conflicts between indigenous peoples and conservation agencies have resulted, making protected areas unmanageable and inoperative.”

The Durban Accord, in 2003, called for “a fresh and innovative approach to protected areas and their role in broader conservation and development agendas,” and spelled out that “this approach demands the maintenance and enhancement of our core conservation goals, equitably integrating them with the interests of all affected people. In this way the synergy between conservation, the maintenance of life support systems and sustainable development is forged.

More details
A more detailed version of these recommendations is available to download here (Annex I).
Evidence gathering is provided in the associated reference list (Annex II).
Media related enquires: Tom Dixon | | +44 1608 690760

[i] See, for instance,; see also Rights, not ‘fortress conservation’ key to save planet, says UN Expert (2018)

[ii] See for instance Myanmar 2018.

[iii] We use the term ‘exclusionary conservation’ to refer to an approach which seeks to secure critical ecosystems away from humans and replaces local and indigenous knowledge systems with exclusive scientific approaches prioritising external experts. Community participation is pushed to ‘buffer zones’ and away from core areas of protection. This is not the only form of conservation used today – and clear examples of alternative rights-based conservation do exist – but experiences from our partners show it is all too often the dominant approach applied by national governments and conservation agencies.


[v] For literature from FPP on the devastating impact the non-recognition of rights has had on communities and on the conservation of their lands, see the extensive list of references below. Some of the examples referred to include: (1) the impact of WWF policies and eco-guard abuse on the Baka of Cameroon; (2) the way WWF’s ‘Heart of Borneo’ conservation initiative led to intensive logging of Long Isun Dayak lands destroying Long Isun Dayak ability to care for, benefit from and conserve their lands, despite conservation being integral to Dayak culture; (3) the August 2017 murder by an eco-guard of a Batwa boy while he was collecting medicinal plants on ancestral lands the Batwa have been excluded from for 44 years since the creation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC; (4) Sengwer women’s experience of eviction at the hands of World Bank and EU-funded forest conservation projects; (5) the positive impact of Ogiek communities bylaws and land tenure in securing conservation outcomes at Mt Elgon; as well as (6) an outline of the legal models for rights-based conservation; (7) recent developments in human rights jurisprudence and their implications for conservation; and (8) the recognition in the ‘Global Dialogue on Human Rights and Biodiversity Conservation’ that the real conflict is not between communities needs and conservation outcomes, but between the well-being of communities and ecologies, on the one hand, and those extractive forces who are interested in dividing and exploiting both.

[vi] See, for instance, IUCN ESMS ( and the Whakatane Mechanism (

Post date: 
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 01:00