Ancestral Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples Are Essential to Conservation

April 26, 2022|Katy Scholfield, Director of Strategic Grantmaking, Great Apes & Gibbons Program

This blog aims to help build awareness and attend to the intersection of social and environmental justice to bring about increasing recognition and respect for the intrinsic value of all beings, human and nonhuman. It explores the Arcus Foundation Great Apes & Gibbons Program goal of reconciling the well-being and resilience of local, Indigenous, and forest-dependent communities with wildlife conservation objectives. The impetus for this blog originated after learning of recent human rights abuses against the Batwa people in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose ancestral lands are also home to populations of great apes, but it is also part of Arcus efforts to share the Program team’s learning and focus on the interconnections between human rights and ape conservation.

Throughout history, humans have depended on nature to meet their needs, from food and medicine to spiritual connection and mental wellbeing. Humans, like many other species, shape landscapes and nature, and adapt them to serve their needs. At the same time, diverse cultures, worldviews, lifeways, and languages have been shaped by nature. Humans around the world have collected a wealth of information about plants, animals, ecosystems, ecological processes, and the relationships and interdependencies between them. This knowledge and these worldviews enable us to gain wisdom about how to survive and adapt to dynamic ecosystems and planetary processes.  

The colonial model of conservation, often known today as ‘fortress conservation’, ignored these interconnections between humans and the ecosystems they lived in. A paradigm was constructed that placed people as the threat to species and ecosystems and set up protected areas for wildlife preservation that separated people from their lands. In many areas this was the beginning of a process of forcibly evicting human populations from their ancestral lands and connected lifeways, which has continued to this day (even if those driving it have changed). This has led to the marginalization and impoverishment of many Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, including in ape range states.

These injustices are now largely acknowledged by the conservation sector, thanks to important studies by social scientists and campaigns by human rights NGOs, together with conservationists. Efforts are being made—with varying degrees of effectiveness—to address them. In recent decades, the international conservation sector has increasingly focused on supporting sustainable livelihoods and engaging Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, trying to ensure that local people benefit from conservation, and therefore are supportive of it.

However, the concept of permanent and legally acknowledged traditional or ancestral lands, and in many cases individual or community land tenure, is still rare in many parts of the world. The ability for communities who have been evicted from their ancestral lands to return is often challenged by legally established, integrally protected areas. Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities continue to be viewed by many as a threat to protecting nature due to the fact that they depend on, and utilize, the land and its resources. Yet in a capitalist, extractive economy, many of the forces leading to land degradation and destruction are at the international, industrial scale.  

The evidence is mounting, however: areas governed and managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities with a close connection to their territory and long-term interest in its survival have greater biodiversity; greater cultural diversity; greater forest ecological intactness; and, often, higher numbers of species. Likewise, where these peoples’ rights have been undermined, it has undermined conservation goals.

In response, significant funding commitments are growing to support locally led conservation (raising many questions about how the funds will reach the ground; whether capacity exists to disburse and spend such large grants; and whether funding will be able to support the extensive work—for example, mapping territories, resolving land conflicts, strengthening inclusive governance structures, building advocacy and legal capacity, national policy work—needed to support land tenure and land rights security in complex regions with multiple overlapping agendas and conflicts). Furthermore, many international and local conservation organisations are pushing issues such as Indigenous rights and Free, Prior and Informed Consent up their agendas.

At the same time, we’ve seen a worrying narrative gaining traction with some working in sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in Central Africa (home to three of the four nonhuman great ape species). This is a remnant of colonialism where Indigenous Peoples were often separated from nature when their territories were stolen and many were forcibly removed from their homes, in some cases to make way for protected areas. This narrative suggests that Indigenous Peoples have lost their connection to the forest and nature in a way that has not happened to the same extent in other parts of the world. As a consequence, it is argued that returning ancestral land rights to these people is too complex and will inevitably lead to destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity.

Batwa forest communities evicted from DRC ancestral lands
This narrative comes to life with the case of the Batwa, Indigenous hunter-gatherers who traditionally inhabited the forests of what are now known as Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Around 6,000 Batwa were evicted from their forests in the 1970s when the Zoological and Forest Reserve of Mount Kahuzi (established under Belgian colonial rule) was expanded and its status upgraded to a National Park: Parc National de Kahuzi-Biega (PNKB). When they were evicted, many did not receive the land they had been promised as compensation, and many (and their children and grandchildren) have been landless since. Deeply embedded cultural misunderstandings and political and economic agendas have exacerbated discrimination and marginalization of the Batwa.

International NGO engagement with the Batwa has typically focused on sensitisation and social integration, which are essentially interventions to help forest peoples become de-forested and find an alternative way of life outside the forest. Such an approach risks exacerbating the elimination of an already deeply marginalized People and their culture, instead of seeing an opportunity to strengthen conservation by accompanying the Batwa to revitalize their connection with the forest.

In DRC in 2018, after negotiations over land and conservation approaches between the Batwa, government, and international NGOs broke down[1], some of the Batwa returned to their ancestral homes within PNKB. Since 2018, large areas of PNKB have been deforested, and the Batwa have been accused of working with mining interests and militias in the park. This has fueled the narrative that the Batwa should not have their ancestral land rights returned as they will simply destroy the forest and exacerbate insecurity.

Since July 2021, Arcus has been receiving reports of horrific human rights abuses against the Batwa in PNKB allegedly carried out by planned joint patrols between PNKB staff and the Congolese army in the name of conservation to address mining in the park (culminating in a recent report by Minority Rights Group). These resulted in people who were not involved in mining being harmed or killed. Arcus supports calls for an independent investigation into these allegations.

The Batwa are a diverse people and—as with many communities—individuals have different, sometimes conflicting, agendas, many of which are coopted by other communities, politicians, NGOs, corporate interests, and militia. This complexity is exacerbated by the fact this is a densely populated area, with limited available land and a lack of understanding of what ancestral land means for Indigenous Peoples.

However, complexity should not negate action. We have seen groups such as the Gaia Foundation, Forest Peoples Programme, Chepkitale Indigenous People Development Project, and LifeMosaic accompanying Indigenous Peoples to revitalize their lifeways, culture, and connection to nature—and using this to revive their roles as guardians of their territories and reestablish their lives in harmony with those ecosystems[2]. There have been numerous successes doing this in complex political and social situations, alongside very dominant capitalist economies[3].

Land rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities must be a foundation
It takes long-term, thoughtful work to build understanding, trust, and collaboration, and solutions are not simple. However, securing ancestral land rights for Indigenous Peoples must be a foundation. Local partners have indicated that despite multiple conflicting agendas, the Batwa all agree they want secure access and rights to their ancestral land. Effective and long-term work to empower, build confidence, support revitalization of forest connection, and develop self-determined approaches to protecting biodiversity are essential. This will take collaboration and trust from all stakeholders.

For a number of years, Arcus Foundation has supported the Ushiriki Consortium, a collective of conservation NGOs and ape sanctuaries coordinating around a Conservation Action Plan for great apes in eastern DRC (including but not limited to PNKB). Initially supporting mainly international organisations, it has now evolved to support many Congolese organisations including Indigenous Peoples’ groups. Since learning of the human rights abuses in PNKB last July, the Consortium is focusing on finding ways to better include Indigenous rights, create more space for discussion around complex issues, uplift the work of strong Congolese organisations, and support conflict resolution. Arcus is also considering how it can support more rights-based conservation work in eastern DRC.

[1] Fergus O’Leary Simpson & Sara Geenen (2021): Batwa return to their Eden? Intricacies of violence and resistance in eastern DR Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2021.1970539
[2] For example, see https://whakatane-mechanism.org/news/201311chepkitale-ogiek-community-document-their-customary-bylaws-first-time-order-ensure
[3] For example, see https://www.gaiafoundation.org/the-african-earth-jurisprudence-collective-navigating-towards-a-resilient-future