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Fortress conservation doesn’t just hurt indigenous communities it hurts our planet. The newest Rights Resources Initiative (RRI ) study  Cornered By Protected Areas documents  how fortress conservation is “hurting people and forests alike.”  Researchers from around the world, including the Rainforest Foundation’s Christine Halvorson document and analyze how public policy and environmental organizations are instituting fortress conservation.  This kind of environmental protection doesn’t just violate human rights and land rights , it disregards best-practices and the most effective and research based solutions for protecting our forests.  

National parks can save forests… Or contribute to their disappearance

A new national park is created in highly biodiverse rainforest.  It sounds like a victory, right?

Too many times these parks are created out of the homes of indigenous people. All of a sudden, these communities that face new rules about what they can and cannot do in their ancestral forests. Sometimes they are even kicked out of their forest home–this is known as fortress conservation, and it’s happening all around the world.

Indigenous Communities’ Track Record – Second to None 

It is done to preserve these highly biodiverse areas.  Yet, ironically it is the indigenous communities that have safeguarded this biodiversity year after year.  It is no coincidence that 80% of our planet’s remaining biodiversity is on indigenous lands.  This is important because we are destroying life on our planet at an alarming rate.  To date humans have caused the loss of  83% of all wild mammals and half of all plant life.  

Fortress Conservation Ignores Evidence and Science

In fortress conservation mindset pristine forests are imagined as free of indigenous people.

Fortress conservation imagines forests as naturally free of humans instead of recognizing that we are part of nature and that indigenous communities’ efforts to protect their homes are the reason much of our forests remain.

People who push fortress conservation believe that creating protected areas where ecosystems function without human interference is the best way to protect the forest.  This kind of conservation blames indigenous communities for using natural resources in these environmentally significant areas, instead of seeing the benefits that indigenous communities provide–refusing to recognize that it is these very communities that have ensured the biodiversity and healthy forests the conservationists are trying to protect.

The fortress model excludes indigenous communities who are already sustainably living in the forests conservationists are trying protect; instead fortress conservation relies on park rangers and other government agents to patrol the boundaries and one of their jobs becomes to keep indigenous peoples off of the lands that have sustained them for generations. 

At the same time fortress conservation often promotes use of the forest if it is related to tourism, safari hunting, and scientific research–viewing this activities as benign or beneficial to the protected forests. 

A Human Rights, Climate, and Biodiversity Crisis

Not surprisingly as indigenous communities find themselves excluded from their ancestral lands, they come into conflict with agents promoting fortress conservation.  The RRI study highlights the price indigenous communities are paying as fortress conservation is instituted around the world. 

When bulldozers or park rangers force Indigenous Peoples from their homes, it is not only a human rights crisis—it is also a detriment to all humanity. Indigenous Peoples have long stewarded and protected the world’s forests, a crucial bulwark against climate change.–Victoria Tauli-Corpuz

Yet fortress conservation isn’t the only option, even when designating protected areas and national parks. When indigenous communities are included in conservation planning and decision making and when their land rights are respected, protected areas become powerful ways to protect rainforests. The Rainforest Foundation’s work with the two communities of Nuevo Saposoa and Patria Nueva in Peru demonstrated just how effective indigenous communities are in safeguarding the rainforest in conjunction with government agencies and protected areas (in this case rainforest bordering Sierra del Divisor National Park) Indigenous communities have already demonstrated that they are more than allies in the fight to protect our remaining forests they are the leaders.

Worldwide, community lands hold at least a quarter of above ground tropical forest carbon—equal to four times global greenhouse gas emissions for 2014—and likely much more. –Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples 


In Panama Protected Areas Become an Excuse Reject Land Rights

In Panama, indigenous communities have been fighting for their land rights for centuries. In some cases specific requests for official recognition of land titles have been pending for more than half a century. During this time one thing has remained constant, the lands that indigenous communities inhabit are better protected than other lands.  Indeed almost all of Panama’s remaining forest in on Indigenous land.  Panama’s Darien rainforest has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its biodiversity — the biodiveristy the communities have been safeguarding; yet, ironically its designation as a UNESCO site is used by some conservationists and government  as a re

At the moment, the Ministry of Environment has held up titling for over two years, with more than two-thirds of current indigenous land claims pending due to overlaps. The situation has become a major bottleneck in the recognition of indigenous land rights in Panama.

Designated as national parks or protected areas these areas are ostensibly in safe hands, yet frequently the areas are subject to land invasions and illegal logging at rates that are higher than indigenous forests. 

This problem is not confined to the Darien; throughout Panama national parks and other protected areas are used to delay recognizing land titles or to deny indigenous communities land titles as well as their Free Informed and Prior Consent (FPIC) of any use of these lands and communities’ demand for the legal recognition of their land rights are met with stalling tactics

The Ministry of Environment has blocked titling in areas apparently covered by the park extension. In meetings, the Ministry has alleged that titling in the park or in the proposed extensions would compromise the park’s status as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Clarification on this from UNESCO has been requested but has not yet been forthcoming.-Christine Halvorson

Beyond Panama and Peru

Learn more about fortress conservation and its effect on indigenous and rainforests around the world. Check out RRI’s map and explore how it is being used around the world to strip communities of their rights and putting our biodiversity and climate at risk.