Can Indigenous Peoples be part of true conservation?

Can Indigenous Peoples be part of the solution to wildlife conservation challenges in the 21st Century?

Every August we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples which aims to highlight the diversity and unique nature of 5000 or more cultures around the world. The UN estimates that there are over 370 million indigenous people on earth, living across 90 countries and all speaking their own increasingly threatened languages. The day marks the fact that the international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

Carbon Tanzania works with two very distinct indigenous cultures, the hunter-gatherer Hadza and the pastoralist Masai people of Northern Tanzania, helping them to protect their ancestral lands and, by extension, their traditional ways of life. In this blog I want to examine the links between the support for indigenous land rights and the preservation of traditional cultures, and the successful long-term conservation of natural habitats and the often rare and threatened wildlife that exist within them.

Traditional cultures under threat

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have almost always been violated. It is not uncommon to view the rights and needs of indigenous people as contrary and in opposition to economic development. In this common narrative we hear about Amazonian tribal people being displaced so that large plantations of soy can be developed, to feed livestock and the developed world’s food demands. Another classic example is the expropriation of tracts of tropical forest, where indigenous people practice simple and traditional lives, for timber extraction, or the forced eviction of local people to allow for the development of a mine for gold, tin, or another sought after mineral commodity. The resource curse of many developing nations usually plays out with a revenue hungry developing nation government allowing natural resource exploitation at the expense of indigenous populations whose ancestral lands and traditional resources just happen to be in the same place as the commodity being exploited.

The balance between the need for resources and the rights of indigenous people invariably falls in favour of the former. Our friends at have reported extensively about the struggles faced by indigenous people to protect their land rights and resources. A recent article, drawing on the findings of a World Resources Institute report reveals that sadly in many parts of the world indigenous people are losing the battle to safeguard their traditional land rights.

What is “true conservation”?

There is no easy solution to the conflict between global demands for commodities and indigenous peoples’ interests – the choice is often dominated by a political or economic priority which is out of the control of indigenous communities. Many argue that the exploitation of biological natural resources such as wildlife and its habitats should be viewed in the same way, and this is often expressed in the view that people and wildlife conservation are incompatible.  For many years there has existed a strong division of opinion in the conservation world between those who believe that keeping people and wildlife apart is the only way to protect the environment (an approach known as “fortress conservation”) and those who understand that in many parts of the world indigenous people are part of the same landscapes that we seek to protect for wildlife and the environment.

In Tanzania we have a globally scrutinized and currently legally contested example of this dichotomy in an area adjacent to the Serengeti. The Loliondo Game Controlled Area borders the east of Serengeti National Park and has been used by the semi-nomadic Masai people for two to three centuries, but has been at the centre of disputes between the herders, the national government and private investors for decades. The Government’s position is that the presence of people on the land is in conflict with the goals of wildlife conservation, and the investors operating in the area, one a photographic safari company and the other a trophy hunting company, are seen as supporting this position. A report by the Oakland Institute analyses the history of the conflicts in this area, and regardless of the rights and wrongs involved, the author presciently notes that “.. one of the purposes of the report …  is to [pose the] question, what is true conservation?”.

The results are in!

And further, can Indigenous peoples be part of “true conservation”? At Carbon Tanzania we are designing and implementing projects that not only recognise the role of local people in conservation, but integrally depend on their involvement.

So we are thrilled to see that a new study in Nature Sustainability makes a significant contribution to the growing body of research showing that recognizing the land rights of and partnering with indigenous peoples can greatly benefit conservation efforts. This paper reveals that while indigenous people control about one quarter of the world’s land surface, two-thirds of this area is still essentially “natural”. So recognising indigenous land-rights is not only an ethical imperative, but the authors of the study say that “their results provide evidence that it is also essential to meeting local and global conservation goals and that more collaborative partnerships between indigenous peoples and governments would yield substantial benefits for efforts to conserve high-priority landscapes, ecosystems, and biodiversity.” It turns out that having local and indigenous people involved in conservation efforts actually increases their chances of succeeding.

A similar message permeates the recent article in SSIR by another good friend of ours, Fred Nelson, who argues that collaboration is the key to successful conservation, using examples from work in East and Southern Africa, and specifically in the landscapes in which Carbon Tanzania operates. This vision for creating new models for collaboration in conservation work is compelling and should convince anyone concerned about wildlife and the environment to embrace the important role of indigenous peoples in “true conservation”.

Author: Jo Anderson, Carbon Tanzania Director.


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