James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

World Indigenous Conference: Melding Conservation and Land Rights

Sara Shahriari


Conservation seems like a 100-percent great idea. Who wouldn't want to protect diverse natural areas from logging, over-hunting or environmental contamination? But conservation sometimes comes with a catastrophic cost: The eviction of Indigenous Peoples from land that is integral to their physical and cultural survival.

At the first World Indigenous Network (WIN) conference held in Australia from May 26 to 31, Indigenous leaders from around the world met to discuss stewardship of land and water, conservation and land rights.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya delivered the keynote speech, and pointed out that while the international community has entered a new era of awareness and of legal tools to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples, making those rights a reality is an ongoing struggle.

Anaya cited the example of the the Hai//om San indigenous people, who were forced out of Namibia's Etosha National Park in the 1950s. The Hai//om San were also banned from hunting and gathering in the park, destroying their livelihood and relegating many to poverty on the edge of the reserve, where resettlement programs are underway to establish The Hai//om San on farmland. Anaya contrasts that situation with the lives of the the Ju/'hoansi, also San people, of Namibia's Nyae Nyae Conservancy, who manage tourism and hunting rights on their own lands.

Several other groups in Africa are living under threat of removal from spaces designated for conservation today. According to a Survival International June 5 report the Botswana government is trying to remove Bushmen (also San) indigenous people from their land to create a wildlife corridor. "The Bushmen were told that they were blocking the free movement of animals, and if they refused to leave, government trucks would arrive to remove them and destroy their houses," according to Survival.

Indigenous Peoples' exclusion from the lands they historically cared for and lived from, whether in the name of development or parks, is certainly not limited to Africa-in fact it is a global issue. Anaya pointed to the Black Hills, which were taken from the Lakota Sioux by the U.S. Government in 1876 in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. "The Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, the monument, stand as ongoing representation of the unjust separation of Indigenous Peoples from land that once sustained them, and that remains sacred to them." But Anaya says there are also positive initiatives underway, such as the Oglala Sioux working with The National Park Service to develop what would be the nation's first Tribal National Park.

"The paths for moving forward to build just and environmentally sustainable arrangements in consonance with the rights of Indigenous Peoples are potentially many, and they can only be discerned by using our powers of imagination," Anaya said. "By imagining both what the future should hold as well as what might go wrong if bad decisions are made. By imagining with the foresight that draws from the wisdom of our ancestors."