Conservation has a Human Rights Problem. Can the New UN Biodiversity Plan Solve it? 

Creating conservation areas is a key part of the United Nations 30 by 30 plan. But poorly designed and managed “Fortress Conservation” parks have been rife with human rights abuses.

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Maasai homes in in Tanzania. Credit: Roger de la Harpe/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Maasai homes in in Tanzania. Credit: Roger de la Harpe/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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For decades, if not centuries, Maasai cattle farmers in Northern Tanzania have reared their animals alongside iconic wildlife species like cheetahs, lions and black rhinos.

But that may change this year for a Maasai community living in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a park adjacent to Serengeti National Park and about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

The Tanzanian government, citing the growth in population of the Maasai and their cattle as the main threat to wildlife in the park, announced in 2019 that about 80 percent of the nearly 100,000 residents of the area must leave or else be forced out. In reaching the decision, the government said it had consulted with international conservation organizations, including UNESCO (Ngorongoro is a World Heritage Site). 

The eviction order, expected to take effect sometime this year, has stirred deep-seated grievances over conservation efforts in Tanzania. For the past 60 years, ever since the British established the Serengeti park in the 1950s, the Maasai have been repeatedly pushed off their ancestral land to make way for wildlife parks and big game preserves. That dispossession has come with additional affronts: Reports have documented allegations that the Maasai have been subject to attacks by police during disputes over the boundaries of where the Maasai are permitted to graze their cattle within the park. The alleged attacks have included the razing of homes, assault and the destruction of cattle, the Maasai’s main source of livelihood. 


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East Africa is only one among many places around the world where conflicts between conservationists and Indigenous peoples are playing out, part of a larger debate over the best way to protect nature. 

Some conservationists argue that to protect natural resources and prevent the extinction of other species, as many areas as possible must be blocked off and protected, even when that negatively affects human activities or involves evicting humans who lived on the land. Other advocates say that approach is flawed and ultimately ineffective, and that human interests, especially the rights of Indigenous people, must be taken into account. 

The debate has intensified in reaction to a sweeping 2019 U.N. report on the state of the world’s biodiversity, warning that human activity is driving the extinction of nonhuman species at unprecedented and alarming rates, with grave consequences for humanity’s food and water supplies. To address that crisis, diplomats from 190 countries that are parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity will meet in Kunming, China in April. The United States is the only country that is not a party to the treaty, but it will participate in talks as an observer state. 

At the Kunming meeting, governments are expected to finalize a 10-year plan aimed at stopping biodiversity loss. The draft plan lays out 21 targets that governments must hit by 2030, the most controversial of which is a target to conserve at least 30 percent of the Earth’s land and water by 2030. 

The so-called “30 by 30 plan” has drawn outsized attention because of the impact some conservation parks have had on Indigenous communities like the Maasai. Many of those parks are modeled after America’s “Yellowstone” national park. But Yellowstone, and many of its offspring, have long, dark histories of human rights abuses, displacement and social conflict.

Among the most high-profile reports documenting these abuses was a 2019 Buzzfeed investigation containing allegations that the conservation giant World Wildlife Fund financed and supported park guards who allegedly assaulted, raped, tortured and killed people at parks in Asia and Africa during anti-poaching missions. Such incidents have led human rights experts to speak out about how the conservation industry and policy makers are failing Indigenous and local communities. 

“Respecting human rights is the only way to make conservation really work,” said John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. “The world can’t solve this crisis without protecting the people who have lived in these areas for centuries and who are on the front lines of conservation.” 

Fortress Conservation

Often promoted as America’s best idea, national parks like Yellowstone, founded in 1872 by then President Ulysses S. Grant, are at the heart of the 30 by 30 controversy. 

The idea for the park was sold to the American public as a move to preserve pristine wilderness. In reality, Native Americans lived on the land and had done so for thousands of years before being pushed out by the U.S. government to create the park. 

The idea of cordoning off pristine wilderness areas as parks, sometimes called “fortress conservation,” is premised on the belief that local inhabitants must be removed from woodlands and other areas in order to protect ecosystems. Once Indigenous and other local inhabitants are removed, sometimes by force, the parks’ boundaries are enforced, using guards who in some cases carry arms. And while Indigenous and local inhabitants are removed, tourists can pay to visit the parks, in most cases.

Yellowstone’s creation perpetuated the idea that humans exist separately from nature, as opposed to many Indigenous worldviews that see humans as inextricably linked to the natural world.

Beyond the displacement that such wilderness preserves have caused, reports from around the world—India, Peru, the Congo, Nepal, Kenya and elsewhere—have documented other serious human rights abuses connected to the parks.

In 2015, according to a 2020 Department of Interior memorandum, four women in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “were beaten with a baton, lashed on their backs and legs, and raped by the eco-guards—two of the women were pregnant, and were still raped, even though a woman ‘begged them to spare her,’” the memorandum said. The eco-guards were on an anti-poaching patrol at the time and the women had been fishing. 

In another case, cited in the memorandum, “Three men were held by eco-guards for three days, during which the eco-guards beat them, tied their penises with fishing thread, and hung them at the branch of a tree.”

Lara Dominguez, an attorney with the Minority Rights Network, said there is little awareness in the global North that millions of people live on land that could be targeted for conservation, depending on how land is protected. And some of that land belongs to Indigenous peoples, who steward an estimated 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, making those communities vulnerable to land grabs in the name of conservation. Dominguez works with communities in East Africa and the Congo Basin who have been expelled from their land so wildlife parks could be established. 

“These parks are an existential threat to these communities. Their entire way of life depends on their connection to their land,” she said. “Beyond the threat to life and livelihoods, there are psychological impacts, trauma—both individually and collectively—and it begs the question, who brought this environmental problem on? Not them, but they’re paying for it.” 

The Sixth Extinction

The controversy over fortress conservation practices has grown as the world struggles to confront biodiversity loss, a problem deeply intertwined with climate change and equally as dangerous to life on earth.

Human activities like industrial farming, pollution and deforestation, as well as climate change and the invasion of alien species, are driving the problem, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, an independent intergovernmental body that provides scientific assessments of Earth’s biodiversity. 

Aside from the moral issues related to the human-caused extinction of millions of nonhuman beings, biodiversity loss threatens global health, humanity’s food and water supply and the ecological safety net that supports the world’s economy: The World Economic Forum estimates that $44 trillion, half the world’s total GDP, is “moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services.” 

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is based in Kentucky, said the world must continue to conserve land to prevent habitat loss, a main driver of extinction. Curry, who repudiates fortress conservation models, said it would be a mistake to give up on the idea of conservation parks because of the atrocious things that have been done in the past.

“There’s been an overdue turning point in government and organizational attitudes,” she said. “Respecting Indigenous communities and incorporating their knowledge is the key for successful projects.”    

Still, there are limits to what conservation alone can achieve. Scientists say reversing biodiversity loss is challenging because pretty much everything humans in the industrialized world do, in the way that they do it today, kills off other species. This means that to have a shot at stopping mass species extinction, human activities must change.

In a report issued in January analyzing the draft biodiversity plan for 2020 to 2030, 50 scientists from around the world found that, while conservation areas were an important factor in protecting biodiversity, establishing a bunch of natural areas alone was not nearly enough. And to be effective, protected areas had to be well-managed, which hasn’t always been the case. 

“You can’t just put a glass dome over an area and say it’s protected, and you can’t just plant a bunch of trees in places where they don’t belong and call it restoration,” Paul Leadley, one of the report’s authors, said.

‘It’s Easy for Governments to Draw Lines On a Map’

Despite the high stakes, world governments have failed to meet any of the targets laid out in the earlier, 2010-2020 biodiversity plan, which included a target of conserving 17 percent of the world’s land by 2020. In fact, governments barely made any progress towards meeting most of the 2010 to 2020 goals. 

“It was a good set of targets, the failure was in the execution,” said Leadley, a professor at Paris-Saclay University who studies biodiversity. “Governments didn’t follow through.” 

Knox questioned the wisdom of ramping up conservation targets over the next decade: “Why do we think a 30 percent target will be more successful than the 17 percent target was? It’s easy for governments to draw lines on a map and say that they are increasing their protected areas. It’s much harder to achieve actual conservation.”

One 2016 study by Rainforest Foundation UK, a nonprofit conservation and human rights organization, analyzed over 30 fortress conservation-style protected areas in the Congo Basin and found that poaching persisted in the protected areas and populations of gorillas, elephants and chimpanzees had declined. More than 60 percent of the protected areas included mining concessions; nearly 40 percent had oil concessions, and one reserve had three logging concessions. The authors of the report said that removing local communities from their land made it easier for poachers and extractive industries to operate. 

Meanwhile, other studies have shown that Indigenous-led conservation can be more cost-effective than alternatives that exclude local communities, and they can produce better outcomes for biodiversity. Citing this research, advocates say conservation efforts should focus on recognizing Indigenous peoples’ land rights and working in partnership with those communities towards biodiversity goals.

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Despite the limits of conservation and other “nature-based solutions” as a fix to biodiversity loss, policy makers and industry are paying disproportionate attention to them according to Simon Counsell, former executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK. Counsell said some businesses see conservation as a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” allowing them to avoid costly changes to their operations. 

“There is a real coincidence of interests on conservation,” he said. “It helps governments avoid making hard political decisions. Conservation organizations get billions of dollars from funders…and industry loves it.”

Following the Money

In the run-up to the meeting of world governments in Kunming in April, human rights groups have called for a number of changes to the 30 by 30 plan, including changes to how conservation is funded. 

In 2019, global funding for biodiversity conservation was estimated to be between about $125 and $140 billion, with most of that money coming from countries and funders in North America and Europe and flowing through a few large conservation organizations, including WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International. These organizations then partnered with governments, mostly in the global South, to establish and manage conservation parks.

But international conservation funding has also supported parks that are complicit in human rights abuses, according to reports from the UN Environmental Program, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and the German Development Bank. That includes money coming from the U.S. government, which provides biodiversity funding through agencies like the State Department, Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. In 2020, through USAID alone the United States spent $314.25 million on international biodiversity programs. 

In the past, some of these funds have gone to organizations that partnered with alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses in or near conservation parks, according to U.S. governmental reports. Among other problems, the reports identified oversight failures, like the State Department’s reliance on partner organizations to police themselves for misconduct. 

A spokeswoman for USAID said that because of past human rights abuses, the agency now requires recipients of U.S. funding for conservation projects to consult with local communities, evaluate the risks to the communities posed by the projects, if any, including possible impacts on their land rights, monitor for ranger abuses and implement “grievance and redress mechanisms.” 

Since January 2021, the agency has been made aware of new allegations concerning human rights abuses connected to U.S.-funded conservation programs and is  conducting an internal investigation into the complaints. 

With conservation funding from public and private sources expected to increase by billions of dollars in the coming years, having rules and guidelines in place for how that money can be spent, and monitoring recipients’ use of the funds, is essential, advocates say. They are asking for restrictions that ensure funding only goes to organizations that respect the rights of Indigenous people, monitor park guards to prevent abuses and provide mechanisms for local communities to report problems.  

Multinational businesses are already held to similar standards under national and international law. That conservation organizations have evaded the same expectations is a glaring failure by policymakers, according to Knox. 

“We’re talking about people who are literally being kicked off their ancestral land and murdered and raped. That’s about as core of a violation of human rights as there is,” he said. 

‘The Continuation of a Painful Process’

There are signs that the ethos of the conservation community is starting to shift. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, a membership organization based in Switzerland and known for its Red List of threatened species, has rolled out a “Green List” of protected areas based on measurable standards, including the meaningful engagement of local communities and effective conservation outcomes. The idea is to cajole governments at all levels to adhere to human rights and environmental standards.

“The interest of local communities is where things need to start,” said James Hardcastle, the head of IUCN’s protected and conserved areas program. “The message we’ve been pushing and gunning for is that it is not what counts, but who it counts. Local communities must be a part of this.” 

As of January 2022, there are 59 protected areas in 50 countries on the list, exclusive of many iconic American national parks. Parks like Yosemite with dark histories will need to show they are positively addressing any past rights abuses to achieve Green List status, Hardcastle said. 

Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania is not on the Green List, but the IUCN has weighed in on the area’s management and rated the park’s conservation outlook as “good with some concerns.” The IUCN lists the park’s most “significant current threat” as an increasing population of human residents. 

The Tanzanian government’s plans to remove Maasai residents from the park are moving forward, however, according to Maasai leadership. A governmental fund has been established to assist anyone who agrees to leave the area voluntarily and the government has set a timeline to guide the eviction process, beginning this year. 

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, the entity in charge of administering Ngorongoro, did not respond to a request for comment. 

For its part, the majority of the Maasai farming community has organized to fight both voluntary and forced evictions, in part by pushing back against restrictions that the Maasai say are aimed at forcing them to leave, such as preventing access to prime watering and grazing lands. The community is also considering its legal options.

“These developments are very painful because we’ve never been enemies to wildlife or to the forest. They form an integral part of our culture,” said a Maasai leader who asked to remain anonymous. “First we were evicted from Serengeti Park on false promises. Now they say we pose a threat to this area. We’re not saying our population doesn’t pose a challenge, but we should be partners in how to find solutions.”

He added: 

“This isn’t a new story for us, but the continuation of a painful process,” he said. “There are so many interests fighting over Ngorongoro, but we, the original people are being suffocated.”

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