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Protecting Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, Conserving Biodiversity

By Lilian Painter

On August 9 the world will commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year the focus is on health and wellbeing. That topic engages me particularly as a conservationist working in the Amazon. The Bolivia program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) has shown that the interests of indigenous peoples and conservation are not only compatible but also dependent on each other.

It is not hard to understand why involving indigenous people in conservation is important. Many indigenous peoples are traditionally forest-dwelling cultures and in fact 25 percent of the world’s forests are inhabited by indigenous peoples.

Cacao harvest in the Lecos Larecaja indigeous land. Photo ©WCS Boliva Program.
Cacao harvest in the Lecos Larecaja indigeous land. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicsz/WCS.

Due to colonization and other processes of socio-economic development, many indigenous communities occupy remote areas that, due to a lighter human footprint, maintain environmental function and healthier natural resources bases. Demand for those resources by various outside interest groups now threatens local people’s livelihoods and continues a long-standing destructive pattern of encroachment.

Indigenous lands have historically been protected by their isolation and frequently overlap or border protected areas. Strengthening protected area and indigenous land management could lead to the conservation of close to 50 percent of the remaining Amazon forest and its biodiversity. However, conservation programs can also promote the livelihoods of indigenous people by clarifying and consolidating their land rights.

Many conservation programs support sustainable management of natural resources by indigenous communities. In the case of northwestern Bolivia, cacao, forestry, incense, handicrafts, livestock management, wild honey harvesting, timber management, and other productive activities have helped to provide an average annual household income.

Harvesting the incense tree, Clusia pachamae in the Lecos Apolo indigenous land. Photo ©WCS Boliva Program.
Harvesting the incense tree, Clusia pachamae, in the Lecos Apolo indigenous land. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicsz/WCS.

Conservation programs have helped increase family incomes and also enabled greater control of ancestral forests by indigenous peoples. For example, twenty years ago in this region no indigenous forestry-management organizations existed and indigenous peoples were engaged in forestry as contract laborers under unfair terms.

Conservation has favored devolution of natural resource management to the indigenous organizations. As a result, there are now over 20 indigenous, community-level forestry associations in the region today.

Supporting access by indigenous people to their ancestral lands and resources is also important for subsistence activities, such as agricultural production and hunting and fishing for household consumption or reciprocal exchange.

Tacana fishermen with a guilded catfish. Photo ©WCS Boliva Program.
Tacana fishermen with a guilded catfish. Photo by Pamela Carvajal/WCS.

Indigenous households combine subsistence and market activities in a balanced way. Interestingly, when subsistence production is monetized its relative value is frequently surprisingly close to that assigned by the market. For example, in the case of northwestern Bolivia each indigenous family would need to spend close to US$1,400 a year to replace the protein provided by fishing and hunting.

To put this in perspective, the monetization of the value of subsistence activities reduces the number of indigenous households in Northern La Paz classified as extremely poor to just under 18 percent instead of 60 percent if one takes into account only the average monthly monetary income.

Clearly, subsistence hunting, fishing and agriculture provide a crucial contribution to the diet of indigenous households. Sustainable management of subsistence hunting requires indigenous people to have access to large hunting areas that are preferably linked to protected areas through wildlife corridors.

T’simane indigenous hunters from San Luis Chico, Pilon Lajas. Photo ©WCS Boliva Program.
T’simane indigenous hunters from San Luis Chico, Pilon Lajas. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicsz/WCS.

Indigenous territories are also crucial to maintain the vast cultural knowledge of medicinal plants and crops that are essential to current indigenous livelihoods and also provide resilience in the face of climate change by diversifying agricultural production and maintaining seed varieties that provide options for adaptation to different climatic conditions.

The process of securing land rights and consolidating the management of these lands in the hands of indigenous people also positions them to negotiate with different government and non-government organizations from a position of greater strength. This negotiation capacity is necessary to demand improved access to health, education, and basic services.

Conservation programs have supported indigenous communities in their efforts to control illegal timber extraction, wildlife hunting, and forest clearance by outside settlers. As a result, deforestation rates within the indigenous lands are often as low as those in neighboring protected areas.

White lipped peccaries require corridors between Madidi protected areas and the surrounding indigenous lands to mantain healthy populations that can be sustainably hunted. Photo ©WCS Boliva Program.
White lipped peccaries require corridors between Madidi protected areas and the surrounding indigenous lands to maintain healthy populations that can be sustainably hunted. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicsz/WCS.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is critical to guide conservation efforts in areas neighboring or overlapping indigenous lands. This policy must also guide the Post-2015 Development Agenda and efforts to improve the health of indigenous people.

As we mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples we should take inspiration from the many global efforts taking place to expand and protect the rights of indigenous communities. Those actions are absolutely essential both to recognize local autonomy and to conserve increasingly threatened natural resources.

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Lilian Painter is Country Director for the Bolivia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society.