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Fortress conservation violates human rights: UN special rapporteur


The broad definition of ‘fortress conservation’ comes from the context of restricted conservation measures of an identified to-be-protected location or the strategy wherein in the name of conservation original settlers are seen as ‘obstacles’ in the conservation process

By Salam Rajesh

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R. Boyd and Stephanie Keene’s recent report has a strong message intended for governments across the globe: “Fortress conservation violates human rights and fails to protect nature”.

The report titled as ‘Human rights-based approaches to conserving biodiversity: equitable, effective and imperative’ (Policy Brief No.1, August 2021), categorically states that, “Many governments continue to embrace restrictive or exclusionary conservation approaches aiming to purge high-biodiversity areas of human inhabitants, with strict conservation measures”.

Fortress conservation, the report says, is dominated by conservation efforts that were led by governments and conservation organizations prior to the late 20th century, and is motivated by the mistaken belief that successful conservation outcomes require “pristine wilderness” free from human inhabitants.

The broad definition of ‘fortress conservation’ comes from the context of restricted conservation measures of an identified to-be-protected location or the strategy wherein in the name of conservation original settlers such as aboriginals and natives who have lived for ages within forests and wetlands are seen as ‘obstacles’ in the conservation process and, therefore, are to be relocated or ‘kicked’ out from their traditional territory.

Fortress conservation, in other words, is out of context in today’s world when the priority is on everymen’s proactive participation in the conservation and protection of wildlife landscape and pristine nature reserves, particularly where ethnic tribes, indigenous peoples and local communities have lived and thrived for ages.

The United Nations and its various subsidiary bodies such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, World Economic Forum, World Conservation Union, Convention on Migratory Species, and so forth have explicitly emphasized on the proactive participation of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in conservation strategies.

The World Conservation Congress held at Marseille in France during September and the Glasgow Climate Summit held in Scotland earlier this year had stressed upon the need to incorporate the local wisdom and knowledge of IPLCs in conservation strategies of significant biodiversity sites and hotspots. In other words, IPLCs should be integral to any policy planning and execution on conservation measures.

The controversy has raged on for decades on this issue, wherein even to this day, many national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas, including some created in recent years, have displaced indigenous peoples and other forest and wetland dwellers from their traditional lifestyles and living space.

An illustrative example is not far to seek as in Manipur’s case where fishing community who have lived and thrived upon the resources of the Loktak Lake for ages are now threatened with displacement owing to the State’s concept of ‘conservation’ of the freshwater lake that is bereft on the concerns of the indigenous population who share the territorial expanse of the lake along with all other species that thrive upon the lake’s resources.

The UN special rapportuer David Boyd is quite specific on the issue when he says, “Efforts to safeguard biological diversity without safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, peasants, rural women, and rural youth, perpetuate human rights abuses without achieving desired conservation outcomes”.

The contextual setting of the report is hard hitting when it says without mincing its words that, “Fortress conservation measures are formidable threats to Indigenous Peoples and other rural rights holders’ human rights, including their nature governance practices and traditional livelihoods, food security, educational opportunities, health, and access to traditional medicines, safe drinking water and culturally and spiritually significant sites”.

The Manipur Government through its relevant agencies recently came up with the proposal of ‘Loktak Wetland Complex’ wherein several wetlands situated in the Manipur River Basin are to be clubbed together for conservation measures.

The proposal, typical of the top-down model of policy planning, have met with resistance from the local populace residing in the Loktak, Pumlen, Khoidum Lamjao, and other wetland areas in this so-said complex on the ground that the proposal is likely to displace the local communities.

David Boyd’s 2020 report to the UN General Assembly, titled as Human Rights Depend on a Healthy Biosphere, focuses on three significant thematic areas. Firstly, the report proposes that, “Rights-based approaches are obligatory in all actions to conserve, restore, and share the benefits of biodiversity, including conservation financing”.

Secondly, it re-emphasizes that, “Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants, local communities, peasants, rural women, and rural youth are acknowledged as key rights holders and partners in protecting and restoring nature, whose human, land and tenure rights, knowledge, and conservation contributions must be recognized, respected, and supported”.

Thirdly, the report stressed that, “Everyone’s right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is acknowledged, and is accompanied by measurable targets towards the recognition and implementation of this right”.

These thought processes as defined and emphasized by the UN special rapporteur looks at finding solutions to the long-standing conflicts of interest amongst State agencies and local communities on implementing conservation strategies on the ground, wherein more often than not, tensions prevail over such proposals.

What is very much relevant to Manipur’s context as was put up by Boyd to the UN General Assembly is self-explanatory: “Exclusionary conservation commonly involves eviction and displacement of Indigenous Peoples and other rural rights holders from their lands, typically without due process or respect for the right of free, prior, and informed consent”.

The report further says that, “Protected area legislation often overlooks Indigenous Peoples’ and other rural rights holders’ land titles and tenure rights, prohibits activities that are foundational for their livelihoods and cultural rights (such as hunting, gathering forest products, fishing, livestock grazing, small-scale farming, and spiritual activities in sacred natural areas), fails to ensure them equitable benefits from economic activities, fails to provide them equitable opportunities to participate in decision-making and management, and denies fair compensation for evicted persons”.

Boyd’s reflections amply magnify the situation at hand with the Loktak fishers who are in similar conditions of State’s repressive attitude concerning the proposal for the long term conservation of the freshwater Loktak Lake.

The contention of the Loktak fishers is the simple reasoning that they are very much part of the natural ecosystem of the lake, and have lived in this setting for decades, existing along with the elements and solely dependent on the lake’s resources for their living and sustenance. Any process of policy planning concerning the lake, therefore, requires to fit them in the picture as partners in conservation and not as ‘alien’ to the conservation strategy.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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