Conservation Refugees is a gutsy feature from the November/December issue of Orion Magazine, describing how the biodiversity-preservation efforts of the world’s biggest conservation groups are getting indigenous peoples thrown off their ancestral lands.

It’s no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention.

And these efforts don’t even seem to be enhancing conservation. “More and more conservationists seem to be wondering how, after setting aside a ‘protected’ land mass the size of Africa, global biodiversity continues to decline,” writes author Mark Dowie. “Might there be something terribly wrong with this plan — particularly after the Convention on Biological Diversity has documented the astounding fact that in Africa, where so many parks and reserves have been created and where indigenous evictions run highest, 90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas?”

According to Dowie, indigenous groups call them the BINGOs — big international NGOs — that leave the native and rural peoples out of the process when they work with governments to get lands set aside as preserves and parks, setting the rights of nature against the rights of people. Conservationists counter that biodiversity-preservation efforts are being hijacked by indigenous-rights movements.

One thing I was told by sources while researching The Snow Must Go On, about Inuit leaders seeking to link human rights to U.S. action on global warming, was that the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional way of life enjoy special recognition under international law. So while incorporating rural and indigenous concerns into conservation efforts might seem like a slippery slope that eventually leads to legitimizing the rights of developers to build McMansions on meadows, I suspect that ways to make these crucial distinctions are already encoded into international treaties and conventions.

(Year-end issues seem to be the venue for discussing this matter; WorldWatch Magazine ran a similar feature in its November/December 2004 issue.)