Conservation narratives about protected areas and local people are not telling the whole story

A new study highlights flaws in stories that conservation organizations often tell about how protected areas can improve the wellbeing of local people. It shows that some of the most entrenched narratives lack evidence and need more nuance. But it found stronger evidence for narratives that centre the rights and roles of indigenous people and local communities.

The findings are timely as the global community is striving to agree a new plan for conserving the planet’s biodiversity and securing the benefits it provides us. That deal, set to be agreed at the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022, could include a target of increasing protected areas to 30% of the world’s land area, from about 17% today.

The target has the backing of more than 100 countries and some major conservation organizations. But groups focusing on human rights, such as Survival International, Amnesty and the Rainforest Foundation UK say it is a “disaster” waiting to happen.

“Should it go ahead, it will constitute the biggest land grab in history, and rob millions of people of their livelihoods,” said Fiore Longo of Survival International in a press release on 1 December. “If governments are really meaningful about protecting biodiversity, the answer is simple: recognize the land rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The new study on conservation narratives, in the journal UCL Open: Environment, lends weight to that argument. The researchers investigated evidence for each of five common narratives about protected areas and human wellbeing in countries that the World Bank defines as low- or lower middle-income.

These narratives are prevalent. One or more of them appears on 138 of the 169 websites of conservation organizations that the study team reviewed. More than 70 percent of these organizations used the “conservation is pro-poor” narrative.

“We see these narratives or stories playing out and being very powerful in directing conservation interventions,” says lead author Emily Woodhouse, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. “These stories and narratives have value. They help organisations be efficient to roll out particular types of program or project. But the problem is if they override complexity. Using them in an unthinking way can be quite dangerous.”

Woodhouse told me that the first three narratives are particularly problematic, especially if they are used, “in a simplistic way that doesn’t account, for example, for broader ideas of wellbeing and only looks at material poverty”.

For example, compensation for the lack of access to natural resources, or for damage caused by wildlife to crops, is rarely sufficient. And it often fails to compensate for cultural losses alongside economic or material ones.

Similarly, while protected areas or ecotourism projects conservation can benefit poor people living nearby, they can also significantly harm them if they exclude them from accessing and using local natural resources.

“There is evidence that material poverty can decline with those kinds of projects,” says Woodhouse. “But there are also much wider issues around justice and broader wellbeing, and the fact that the poorest often lose out in these kinds of projects. What’s at stake is social justice.”

The other two narratives were better supported by the evidence the study team assessed. But the best-supported narrative — that secure tenure rights for local communities supports conservation — was also the least prevalent on the websites of conservation organizations, appearing on less than a quarter of them. Woodhouse says this is likely because the conservation sector is still catching up with the development sector about the importance of tenure.

“The emphasis on land tenure is relatively new,” says Woodhouse. “It has come alongside recognition that indigenous and local communities manage something like a quarter of all land across the world.”

These communities protect about 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on that land. And there is growing evidence that they tend to manage land and resources better than state actors do. In 2021 for example, a review of evidence published in the journal Ecology and Society showed that conservation initiatives that centre indigenous people and other local communities tend to be more effective and fairer.

Lead author Neil Dawson of the University of East Anglia, and colleagues, looked at 169 studies and concluded that empowering and supporting the “the environmental stewardship of indigenous peoples and local communities represents the primary pathway to effective long-term conservation of biodiversity, particularly when upheld in wider law and policy”.

The study by Woodhouse and colleagues comes as countries are negotiating a new Global Biodiversity Framework — a 10-year strategy for addressing the biodiversity crisis. With time short, there is an urgent need to ensure that conservation solutions bring both social and ecological gains. But there is a risk that entrenched narratives will get in the way of the best outcomes.

Woodhouse says the draft Global Biodiversity Framework text “ticks all the boxes” by mentioning justice, equity, participation, and indigenous people and local communities, but says there are issues with nuance.

“There’s an emphasis on local communities as ‘stakeholders’, rather than being agents of change,” she says. “The emphasis should be shifted. And that goes for women as well, and marginalised groups.”

How the Global Biodiversity Framework is implemented within countries “is going to be really important, for justice and also the success of conservation,” she says. “It is about the most marginalised people losing out from these processes and the importance of putting local people and indigenous communities at the centre, for their voices to be heard and for governance structures to embed local systems and local knowledge into them.”


Woodhouse, E. et al. 2021. Rethinking entrenched narratives about protected areas and human wellbeing in the Global South. UCL Open: Environment 4: DOI: 10.14324/111.444/ucloe.000050

Dawson, N. M. et al. 2021. The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation. Ecology and Society, 26: 19

Photo credit: The Jenu Kuruba hold signs at their protest outside Nagarhole National Park in India, where they are being evicted in the name of conservation. © Survival International

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Dying to save the world

Jeannette Kawas was an accountant whose concept of value was broader than any balance sheet. No number could capture for her the natural wealth she saw in the forests, rivers, beaches and mangrove swamps of Punta Sal, near her hometown of Tela in northern Honduras.

In the 1980s, cattle ranchers, resort developers and loggers all wanted a slice of this landscape. As their hunger grew, Kawas formed an environmental organization, PROLANSATE, to protect the land, and in 1994, it convinced the government to allow it to create and manage a new national park there.

Within three months PROLANSATE renamed Punta Sal National Park to honor its founder, because on February 6, 1995 Jeannette Kawas was shot dead in her home. Years later a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Kawas’s work in defense of the environment had motivated the murder.

Global Struggle

Kawas was a victim of a largely unreported war that still rages around the world two decades later. Its casualties are women and men who through peaceful acts work to defend their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. In the past decade, close to 1,000 such activists in 35 countries were murdered, according to a report published in April 2014 by Global Witness.

“This report is a good one to alert people to the sad reality at hand,” says Alfredo Quarto, executive director of Mangrove Action Project, which has documented murders of activists and community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers. “In a five-year period in the 1990s, over 100 local community members and activists were killed protesting shrimp farm encroachment and mangrove loss in Bangladesh. Similar reports of murdered community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers come from Thailand, India, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil.”

To tally the body count, Global Witness researchers scoured hundreds of credible, published and publicly available sources. They included only cases that stated the name of the victim, the nature of the death and the date, and for which the murder had a clear connection to the environment or land rights. Alice Harrison, a consultant with Global Witness, says the numbers underestimate the problem because levels of reporting are low, especially in Africa.

The globally reported murder rate has risen in recent years: In 2012, the last year for which there are reliable figures, it approached three per week. Harrison says it is unlikely that monitoring has increased enough to account for this increase in reported deaths, and that the real explanation is an ever faster race to profit from ever scarcer land and resources.

The report says that what’s behind that race to profit is consumer demand for electronic goods, tropical timber, beef, oil and — thanks to the ubiquity of palm oil in modern products — even mundane things such as toothpaste and peanut butter. Contributing to the problem are cash, corruption and a culture of impunity.

Accidental Heroes

“Violence often results from powerful elites cashing in on resources for short-term export earnings from large scale production,” says Oliver Courtney, a senior campaigner at Global Witness. “This issue has its roots on our shop floors and living rooms. The growing pressure on resources that leads to conflict and killing is a product of overconsumption, largely in the rich world, driving demand for cheap commodities.”

“Many of those murdered were ‘accidental’ human rights defenders,” says John Knox, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University and independent expert on human rights and the environment of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “They got involved because it was their own land, their own forests, their own water they were defending.”

“What’s really unfortunate is that the contest is so one-sided,” says Knox. “On one hand are extremely powerful economic interests. On the other are people who are often marginalized in society, people who have not got allies and who are not very sophisticated in knowing what’s going. Often they first find out they are subject to a government decision when the bulldozers arrive, or the trees start falling or they get evicted from their land.”

When such people try to protest they may be met with threats, violence, unlawful detention and even death. In only about 1 percent of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished.

“There’s a screaming lack of political will,” says Harrison. “Some killings are at the behest of political actors or private sector companies linked to politicians. Some are not reported and followed up. There’s a fear of reprisals.” In the case of Jeannette Kawas, several reports from government agencies, including one from the attorney general’s office, include allegations that named members of the state security forces were involved in her murder. But nobody has been tried or convicted.

In 2013, a study estimated that Jeannette Kawas National Park provides ecological goods and services worth $46 million per year. That’s close to a billion dollars of uncounted benefit since the park’s creation in 1994. If Kawas had been armed with these numbers 20 years ago, perhaps she would be alive today.

Stemming the Flow

With the death toll rising, organisations like Global Witness want to stimulate action both in countries where the killings take place and in countries in which consumers, journalists and governments can exert some influence.

“It’s a combination of working with organisations at the grassroots that encounter these crimes, raising awareness and funnelling it upwards,” says Harrison. “We want governments to monitor this and bring perpetrators to justice. We are working at the international level to do this and hold governments to account.”

Experience shows that people are generally safer if they are known internationally, so Global Witness plans to work with partner organizations around the world to develop an early warning system that can raise the profile of environmental defenders and their struggles. “We don’t want to look only at deaths, when it is too late,” says Harrison.

In a similar vein, an international network of researchers from universities and nongovernmental organizations has developed the Environmental Justice Atlas, an online map and database of stories of more than a thousand ongoing environmental conflicts that users can search by commodity, country or company.

Global Witness wants to see a fall in consumer demand for products linked to violence — such as timber, soya and palm oil. “Governments need to legislate for this and enable consumers to make informed decisions,” says Courtney. “Norway now obliges companies to disclose their environmental impacts, and its food companies now publish their use of palm oil. As a result, Norway’s food sector reduced palm-oil consumption by two-thirds in a single year.”

Rights vs. Wrongs

According to the Treaty Alliance, a global coalition of more than 500 civil society groups, what’s needed is a legally binding international treaty to address human rights violations by corporations. The alliance is urging the U.N. Human Rights Council to set this in motion. Governments, meanwhile, already have obligations under human rights law to protect citizens who speak out about development choices or environmental protection, as the case of Jeannette Kawas shows.

In a landmark ruling in 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that Honduras violated several rights to the detriment of Kawas and her family. It ordered Honduras to make amends in several ways.

In a public ceremony in June 2010, the Minister for Interior and Justice of Honduras apologized and took responsibility for Kawas’s death. Yet Honduras failed to meet the court’s deadline for erecting a monument to Kawas, starting criminal proceedings against her killer or carrying out a national campaign to raise awareness of the work of environmentalists in defense of human rights.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Global Witness report shows, another 74 environment defenders were murdered in Honduras alone. With vast profits at stake and powerful interests pitted against poor and marginalized communities across the world, the body count is likely to rise.

“I don’t think it is a losing battle these people are fighting,” says Knox. “It has real victories, but they need help.” It is in the power of governments, companies and consumers to provide that help and give tomorrow’s grassroots environmental defenders hope that they can be heroes without being martyrs, too.

This post was first published by I have reproduced it here under Ensia’s creative commons licence.

Photo credits: Jeanette Kawas (Wikimedia Commons); National Park (Ricky Ng-Adam / Wikimedia Commons)