How Conservation Became Colonialism

Indigenous people, not environmentalists, are the key to protecting the world’s most precious ecosystems.

By Alexander Zaitchik
Photos by Mitch Anderson and Jerónimo Zúñiga/Amazon Frontlines

July 16, 2018

In February, a group of Cofán men dressed in dark tunics and bandoliers studded with forest seeds gathered around a fire pit in northeastern Ecuador. In the thin light of dawn, they prepared to set out on a patrol of the Cayambe Coca National Park, a protected area that covers more than 1,500 square miles of rainforests, wetlands, glacial lagoons, and snowcapped cordillera, the tallest peak of which belongs to the massive Cayambe volcano. The men were all members of la guardia, a unit established by the Cofán in 2017 to push back against trespassers’ growing encroachment onto their ancestral lands.

“The state claimed this land in 1970 and told us how to live in our own territory,” said Alex Lucitante, a 25-year-old guard, “but it does nothing to protect it or enforce park rules.” He accused wildcat miners of using pollutants, including mercury, that deplete and contaminate local fish stocks. When the Cofán sought to protect their food chain by building an inland fishpond a few years back, Lucitante said, Ecuador’s Environment Ministry attempted to shut it down before they could complete it, citing park rules. The Cofán community of Sinangue informed officials that it did not recognize the ministry’s authority on matters relating to its traditions or survival. The fishpond remains.

The episode illustrates a tension that threatens to undermine conservation efforts in Cayambe Coca and thousands of other protected areas around the world. Like many other indigenous communities whose ancestral homes sit inside state-sanctioned conservation zones, the Cofán are victims of a sort of green colonialism. Cayambe Coca and parks like it may have been founded with the best of intentions: to safeguard endangered biospheres. But the way these protected areas have been established and maintained has damaged the lives of the indigenous peoples who live within their borders, forcing them into what is effectively a landlord-tenant relationship with the state that deprives them of control over their land. Because the local governments often lack the will or resources to prevent industry encroachment, many such arrangements also end up undermining their creators’ explicit goal: conservation. This double failure is part of the complicated legacy of the modern conservation movement.

Cofán guards travel up the Aguarico River to monitor their land for illegal mining activity. (Amazon Frontlines)

Conflicts involving native communities, governments, and industry are common throughout the world’s more than 100,000 protected areas, a designation that covers parks, reserves, and heritage sites. Today, protected areas take up more than 15 percent of the Earth’s land surface — an area twice the size of Canada. Many of the largest protected areas, and the most significant from a climate change and biological conservation perspective, are located in the rainforests of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These vital biomes produce and recycle much of the planet’s fresh water, absorb gigatons of excess carbon, exhale a fifth of the oxygen we breathe, and contain 80 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity.


These pictures were shot by members of Amazon Frontlines, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works closely with the Sinangue community and provides fixers for journalists in the region, the author Alexander Zaitchik among them. The organization was founded in 2011 to support indigenous movements for land, life, and cultural survival in the Upper Amazon.

The forests frequently overlap with the ancestral territories of indigenous peoples like the Cofán. These groups should be central players in conservation policy, for obvious reasons: They know the local ecosystems best and have the greatest, and most direct, stakes in preserving them. And yet, in many countries, misguided government policies relegate them to the sidelines, sometimes by force.

In the language of social science, protected areas are known as development interventions. For decades, conservationists advocating the creation of such areas insisted on drawing a clear line separating nature — understood as raw, unpopulated wilderness — and culture, meaning any human activity that impacted the local environment. As a result, both governments and conservation groups viewed the forests’ traditional inhabitants as obstacles to be removed, if they were considered at all. Advocates for expanding protected areas saw indigenous displacement, and the disruption of traditional practices, as the sad but necessary consequence of environmental protection. The model based on this trade-off has resulted in social conflict and brutal violations of human rights while degrading the very land it purported to protect.

Mario Criollo, left, the president of the Cofán community of Sinangue, and land patrol coordinator Omar Quenama lead an expedition in February. They survey the border of the Cofán ancestral territory and the Cayambe Coca National Park bimonthly to monitor incursions by miners.

Cofán guardia units patrol the park several times per month. Carrying ceremonial spears carved from chonta wood, they follow ancient trails, set up digital camera traps, and search for signs of illegal activity, including poachers hunting for armadillo, monkey, and peccary, as well as fishermen using dynamite, which contaminates the rivers. The unit’s lead guide studies the path carefully with each step, mindful of knee-level trip lines tied to poachers’ shotguns. (Ten years ago, one Cofán guard triggered a line and took a blast to the knee, Lucitante said.)

In addition to monitoring the area, the patrols aim to deter lawbreakers. The Cofán hope to scare off poachers and the gold miners prospecting on the opposite bank of the Aguarico River, the Amazon tributary that marks the border of Cayambe Coca. As the guards navigate their traditional canoe upriver, the miners and the Cofán eye each other warily across the shallow rapids.

At first glance, the region appears to be a conservation success story. The official, protected side of the Aguarico is a vast and seemingly intact stretch of lush forest. The other, unprotected side of the river, meanwhile, is lined with the tarp encampments and hydraulic excavators of wildcatters working a mining concession.

But the reality of Cayambe Coca is much darker. The government is issuing large-scale gold mining concessions around the edges of the park — contaminating the local watershed — and, the Cofán say, following a policy of inaction toward a rise in unlicensed small-scale mining operations inside the park and the overlapping land deeded to the Cofán.

The Sinangue land patrol has spotted gold miners illegally using heavy machinery inside the riverbed on the Aguarico. (Amazon Frontlines)

It is not just the land that’s at risk. The culture that has existed for centuries on the Aguarico — which the Cofán use for bathing, drinking, and fishing — depends on the health of the local rivers and forests. Mario Criollo, the president of the Cofán community, tried to explain this to Environment Ministry officials when he met with them in September 2017 to report the contamination resulting from trespassing miners. The officials responded by advising the Cofán to negotiate a payment system and act as brokers for the illegal and polluting activity. “They said they don’t want conflict and saw a chance for everybody to get some money,” Lucitante recalled. “The law didn’t matter.”

(Ecuador’s Environment Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the Cofán allegations.)

“The government looks favorably on ‘productive’ activities like mining but not on our traditional cultural practices, which they don’t understand,” Lucitante said. “If the government cared about protecting the land, it would be the other way around, and we would be in charge of conservation.”

On paper, the global conservation movement and its government partners claim to agree. In practice, however, conservation policy often conflicts with the indigenous traditions of stewardship that have kept the rainforests intact and in balance for thousands of years. The tension has its roots in the founding worldview of modern conservationism, which was conceived not during today’s battle to save the rainforests and protect the climate but during the genocidal Indian wars waged in the deserts of the American West.

Gold miners on the banks of the Aguarico in February. Neurotoxic mercury is illegal in Ecuador but commonly used in unauthorized mining sites to separate gold from ore. The gold rush therefore worries the fish-dependent communities down river from this site.

Forest policy has been contentious for centuries. In Charlemagne’s Europe, the Latin word foresta referred to any land reserved for royal hunts, a monopoly that came to inspire bloody revolts and the legend of Robin Hood. Hundreds of years later, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt gave the idea of sequestering tracts of wilderness for the benefit of man and nature a uniquely American stamp. Both Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks — created in 1872 and 1890, respectively, and both forcibly emptied of their native inhabitants — created a conservation template that survived well into the next century.

“Underpinning the dominant conservation approach in the 20th century was the idea that ‘wilderness’ must be kept uninhabited,” said Marcus Colchester, a senior policy advisor at the Forest Peoples Programme, a nongovernmental organization based in England. “It took decades to understand that indigenous rights and conservation goals aren’t in conflict or mutually exclusive.”

The organized environmentalist movement of the 1970s drove a surge in the number of protected areas. By the beginning of the 21st century, the number of parks and reserves around the world surpassed 100,000. But the indigenous people who had long occupied these places weren’t considered as part of the equation. Governments touted the creation of parks preserved from human exploitation, occasionally granting exceptions for state-run, revenue-generating ventures in those same protected spaces. It was not until the 1990s that a critical mass of mainstream conservationists began to consider the idea that an environmental model that ignored indigenous inhabitants was bound to fail.

Indigenous groups and their advocates forced this realization over the course of decades of
protest against conservation policies that dispossessed local inhabitants of their ancestral land. In 1992, delegates at the World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas adopted a statement acknowledging that protected areas were not empty but, instead, often home to indigenous people and that denying their rights could actually undermine conservation efforts.

The real turning point, however, came in 2003 at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa. Delegates from 154 countries formalized a commitment to what they called “rights-based” conservation, a new paradigm that recognized the centrality of ancestral lands to indigenous groups and included them “in the management of protected areas on a fair and equitable basis in full respect of their human and social rights.” Then, in 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which enshrined the right of native peoples to own and control “the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” In due course, many of the major conservation groups declared their commitment to the legal role and rights of forest peoples.

A Cofán guard holds a piece of a makeshift sluice box used to extract gold near the shore of the Aguarico.

Protests alone did not bring about this sea change. There was also a deepening understanding that, when displaced or denied their traditional livelihood, indigenous populations can transform from conservation’s natural partners into its enemies. Forced to abandon the sustainable practices that are the basis of subsistence forest life, some indigenous people have, out of desperation, joined those who view the forest as nothing more than a collection of commodities easily exploited for short-term commercial gain. This phenomenon can be observed throughout the western Amazon wherever traditional ways have become untenable through pollution, deforestation, or displacement and restrictions related to protected area status. Faced with a need to make money, the young migrate to nearby cities, where they often join a permanent indigenous underclass, or take jobs with the companies that are sometimes the drivers of their dispossession.

A growing body of research from resource economists and conservation groups has shown that granting indigenous peoples title to their lands — the legal recognition of land ownership — is the low-hanging fruit of successful rainforest conservation and climate mitigation. The findings confirm what native groups have been saying for decades.

“Indigenous peoples are the world’s secret weapon in the fight against climate change and deforestation,” said Peter Veit, the director of WRI’s Land and Resource Rights initiative.

“[Indigenous peoples] have cultural and spiritual relationships with the forest and its ecosystems that the government doesn’t have,” said Felisa Anaya, a sociologist at Brazil’s State University of Montes Claros who studies development and social conflict in the Amazon. “They know if they degrade the land, they will lose the basis of their subsistence economies. They hunt, they fish, and use the land. But they do so in a way that is communal and sustainable.”

Unlike distant bureaucrats, indigenous communities live on the front lines and are eager and able to monitor the forests they know better than outsiders. “We can protect the forest better than the government rangers who rotate in every two weeks,” said Alex’s father, Isidro Lucitante, a Cofán leader and shaman in the village of Avie near the Ecuador-Colombia border. “They’re city guys on vacation. We never see them in the field.”

In 2012, the science journal Forest Ecology and Management published a study comparing 40 protected areas and 33 forests managed by indigenous communities. Every community-managed forest was better protected, with lower and less variable annual deforestation rates than state-run protected areas. In 2016, a study issued jointly by the Rights and Resources Initiative, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the World Resources Institute (WRI) affirmed that titled indigenous lands in three Amazon countries had two to three times lower deforestation rates over a period of more than a decade than lands the state hadn’t formally recognized as indigenous forests. “Indigenous peoples are the world’s secret weapon in the fight against climate change and deforestation,” said Peter Veit, the director of WRI’s Land and Resource Rights initiative.

Some governments have begun to put the new paradigm into practice. In Guatemala, an indigenous titling and monitoring program has steeply reduced degradation in the Petén rainforest, the largest in Central America. Senegal has placed a sensitive coastal habitat back under the control of local Jola fishermen, and their stewardship has prevented unsustainable fishing and allowed the return of species once thought to be on the verge of extinction. Indian officials have returned the Meghalaya groves in the country’s northeast to the control of indigenous inhabitants, for whom the groves are sacred. And in Australia, long host to numerous land-use conflicts, the government has returned nearly half of state-managed reserve land to indigenous communities and their traditional methods of conservation.

Cofán guards pull a boat across the Aguarico in February. Trespassers onto indigenous land have long crossed the river using wire cables and inflated tubes to mine, hunt, and fish.

Maurizio Farhan Ferrari, a senior policy advisor on environmental governance at the Forest Peoples Programme, acknowledged that progress in guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples in protected areas has been halting, at best. “There are scattered good projects, but the challenge is scaling them up,” he said. Colchester, Ferrari’s colleague at the NGO, added that environmentalist groups bear some of the blame for the slow pace of change. Despite their rhetoric, “a lot of conservation organizations feel their jobs are at risk if they adopt the new paradigm,” he maintained. “Others don’t have confidence that indigenous people can look after these areas.” Colchester pointed to the World Wildlife Fund’s ongoing support for the government of Cameroon, where so-called state eco-guards are accused of persecuting Baka and Bagyeli (also known as “Pygmy”) people for hunting and gathering in their customary forests, which have been rezoned as national parks. Reached for comment, the WWF, for its part, said it takes “all allegations of violence and abuse very seriously and work[s] with formal and informal actors to raise any substantiated instances with relevant authorities.”

Many governments’ development policies and priorities directly conflict with the rights and interests of indigenous communities living in nominally protected areas. In 2016, a U.N. report concluded that the conservation of protected areas was being undermined worldwide by state-backed industry and infrastructure projects in those same areas while indigenous locals were displaced. Ecuador is experiencing this phenomenon in real time as the government begins large-scale oil drilling in Yasuni National Park, which is home to a number of indigenous peoples.

As extractive industries touch ever more remote corners of the planet, including the deepest reaches of its rainforests, indigenous communities are accelerating a coordinated fight to win legal ownership of their ancestral lands. They and their allies are aggressively seeking formal title to those lands, making their arguments before national ministries and international organizations, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. More than 550 conservation and indigenous rights advocacy organizations have joined a global campaign, Land Rights Now, to double the area of recognized indigenous land by 2020.

“Since the beginning of our life as a people, this territory has been our supermarket, our pharmacy, our hardware store,” said Alex Lucitante, the Cofán monitor. “Our ancestors were born and buried here. Our connection to this place is deeper than the state's. We should be managing it and protecting it.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of  Foreign Policy magazine.

Alexander Zaitchik is the author of  The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America. He lives in New Orleans and the western Amazon.

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