AMHERST, Mass. – A just-published book edited by University of Massachusetts Amherst human geographer Stan Stevens presents the latest original research and surveys transformative new approaches now being considered to enhance the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide to have a stronger voice in shaping conservation and park management policies that affect their traditional lands.
The book, “Indigenous Peoples, National Parks and Protected Areas,” released this month by the University of Arizona Press, documents past practices, presents case studies from North and South America, Asia and Australia, and outlines new directions for an expanded future role for indigenous communities in the management of national parks and other conservation lands and cultural heritage sites.
As Stevens explains, “In the past, national parks were created and land set aside for wildlife and other conservation needs without the consent of indigenous peoples and without regard to the fact that it often destroyed their traditional ways and means of livelihood. Indigenous peoples came to see parks as a threat to their culture, and the dispossession of their lands and loss of sacred sites as a new colonialism.”
He adds, “In recent years, there has been a dawning international awareness that conservation efforts need to be acceptable to indigenous peoples. They have made some very powerful statements about being dispossessed in the name of conservation, they are more aware of rights issues than ever before, and there is much greater appreciation of the contributions they make to conservation through their knowledge, institutions and practices.”
The new 380-page paperback volume presents 12 chapters, four of them plus the introduction by Stevens and eight by other authors who discuss issues around establishing and managing parks and protected areas in Alaska, Canada, Australia, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, South Africa, Guatemala and Nepal.
It was as a graduate student in the 1980s in Nepal studying land use and management by the indigenous Sherpa people in the Mount Everest area when Stevens’ eyes were opened to the politics of land use, governance and conservation management. Sherpa elders showed him how socially and culturally complicated was their relationship with Sagarmatha National Park, created in 1976, and its Nepali government-appointed managers.
“They alerted me to the marginalization of indigenous peoples and to the frontier dynamics going on,” he recalls. “I began reading about the situation globally. My advisor at the University of California, Berkeley, Bernard Nietschmann, was one of the first researchers in the world to suggest that we need a new kind of protected area, one that not only preserves spectacular scenery and wildlife, but also protects cultural and biological diversity and is managed by the indigenous people for whom it is home. This all led me to re-think my career,” Stevens says.
He points out that recent research suggests the assumption that people are incompatible with nature and need to be removed from the landscape is wrong. Scientists are now recognizing that the stewardship of indigenous peoples has contributed substantially to biodiversity. It’s been estimated that more than 80 percent of high priority sites for global biodiversity conservation are found on the customary lands and territories of indigenous people, he adds.
“We used to take it for granted that the government should relocate the people, who seemed to be a threat, but now we realize this not only violated their rights, it also shortchanged conservation because their presence and activities had supported and fostered biodiversity,” Stevens notes. “Now we see that we should be working together with indigenous peoples, respecting their place-based knowledge and cultures and learning from their sustainable practices.”
In recent years, conservationists are taking a more global view and grounding practice more in science, with greater sensitivity to indigenous peoples’ rights and more appreciation for indigenous knowledge and practices. For example, Australia has recognized more than 50 “Indigenous Protected Areas,” a new kind of park that Aboriginal people own and manage.They have already had some success in eradicating invasive species and restoring ecological systems to health.
In the book’s final chapter, Stevens asserts that, “The new protected area paradigm embraces indigenous peoples’ conservation achievements and capacity and considers them vital to creating, sustaining and restoring global biocultural diversity. It envisions global conservation as being strengthened, legitimated and made more sustainable by validating indigenous peoples’ control over their territories and supporting their self-governance, cultures, livelihoods and rights.”
A formal book launch event is planned at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, in November, where Stevens has helped to organize a session on the governance of protected areas established in indigenous peoples’ territories.