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Respecting Rights of Indigenous Peoples important in addressing global biodiversity crisis: John H. Knox


The world community must give priority to the age-old traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities who have contributed significantly to the protection and long term conservation of biodiversity rich pockets in natural landscapes

By Salam Rajesh

The most effective way to address the global biodiversity crisis is by respecting the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) who are already working to protect natural ecosystems from destruction, says John H. Knok.

A former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Knox was addressing the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife during proceedings for the introduction of Bill on ‘Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act of 2002’ on 29 March earlier this year.

The proposed Bill defines the term “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights” as having the meaning given in section 502B(d)(1) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which states that it “includes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person”.

The Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, Wake Forest University School of Law, presenting his address as “The Testimony of John H. Knok” at the Congress, stated that the world community is currently negotiating a new Global Biodiversity Framework with the aim of setting targets for international conservation for 2030 and beyond, and one of the specific goals expected to be included is for each country to designate 30% of its territory as protected for conservation by the year 2030.

To achieve the target set, the world community must give priority to the age-old traditional practices of IPLCs who through their wisdom and generations of knowledge on the ground has contributed significantly to the protection and long term conservation of biodiversity rich pockets in natural landscapes, and their fundamental rights must be respected in every aspect, stresses Knox.

Placing his arguments before the House Committee, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights stated that once the Bill is enacted, it would help to ensure that recipients of U.S. funding must respect and protect the human rights of IPLCs who live in and around national parks and protected areas in some of the most biodiverse areas in the world.

The new law would send an extremely powerful signal that human rights abuses in the name of conservation will not be tolerated by the U.S. Government, and that recipients of U.S. funds must protect against such abuses or lose their funding, Knox stressed in his presentation.

Knox’s arguments placed before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife comes in the backdrop of the international outcry on alleged human rights violation committed by park rangers in Africa within a protected area under funding through the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) resulting in the killing of locals by the rangers in the name of ‘conservation’.

Defining the links between human rights violations such as murder, rape, and torture, and the underlying human rights violations that occur when governments exclude Indigenous Peoples and other place-based local communities from their ancestral homes in the name of conservation, Knox stressed that international human rights standards, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, make clear that such exclusion violates the rights to self-determination and property of the IPLCs.

It is worth noting that exclusionary conservation, sometimes described as “fortress” conservation, typically fails to meet conservation goals where many studies have confirmed that conservation is more effective when it occurs in partnership with – and ideally with the leadership of – the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who actually live in and depend on the natural ecosystems, says Knox.

Knox’s observations on the nature of human rights violation concerning conservation measures in protected areas come close to case studies in Manipur where Government’s push for ‘conservation’ of land and water bodies were fundamentally done without going through the pace of FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) and with due consultations of the IPLCs as primary stakeholders.

The resulting conflicts of interest between State and the local people more often than not come to a situation of stalemate where neither can progress forward, each rooted to their stand and neither willing to compromise on their interests. Ultimately, the loser is the State itself when the goals for conservation of important biodiverse areas are not met.

It was in the name of conservation of the freshwater Loktak Lake – a Ramsar site of international importance – that the State of Manipur launched a drive to evict the traditional fishers from within the lake since the year 2011, taking the excuse of The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006. That year, hundreds of the fishers’ shelter huts – Khangpok shang – were burnt and destroyed by the State.

The contention is, as Knox points out in his presentation to the U.S. Congress, is the violation of rights of the traditional fishers who have lived in the Loktak environs since ages, generation after generation. The Loktak fishers on a broader scale is part of the ecosystem of the lake wherein they live upon the lake for their livelihoods and they know the lake system inside out, proving they are one of the best options for effective conservation of the lake in long term measure.

On a similar note, Knok’s assertion brings to the fore the case study of the Baka people in Cameroon were allegations of human rights abuses of members of the local communities by park rangers (called “ecoguards” in central Africa) in and around three national parks supported by WWF were widely reported.

WWF commissioned three reports, in 2015, 2016 and 2017, which found widespread allegations of beatings, torture, sexual assault, burning of huts, and seizure or destruction of possessions. The reports connected these abuses to the creation of the national parks in the early 2000s, which had resulted in the displacement of the Baka people from their traditional homes and criminalized access to the forests on which they relied for their material, cultural, and spiritual well-being.

Many Baka indicated that they faced an untenable choice: either they continued trying to return to the parks to hunt, thereby risking arrest and beatings from the ecoguards, or they stopped going into the forest and lose their culture and means of livelihood altogether.

That precisely is the situation with the Loktak fishers, either continue to resist the State ‘intervention’ in their lives or carry on with their everyday struggle to eke their living off the resources of the lake inspite of the pressures from the State. The memory of the November 2011 arson is too fresh in their minds to take a breather now and in the present times.

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

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