Last week, leaders from more than fifty African countries convened for the first Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) to discuss solutions to escalating climate and biodiversity crises. Held in Kigali, Rwanda, APAC representatives discussed sustainable development, cultural heritage, wildlife conservation, and ecosystem protection; according to APAC, Africa has close to ten thousand protected areas, most of which lack adequate and consistent funding. To deal with the funding problem, APAC has launched an independent, Africa-led initiative to ensure sustained, independent funding for protected areas and conservation projects called A Pan-African Conservation Trust (A-PACT).

“It will be a defining moment because what we are launching is meant to secure the future of conservation by providing a lasting solution to the funding crisis that has bedeviled protected and conserved areas across Africa for decades,” said H.E. Hailemariam Desalegn, Former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and A-PACT Steering Committee Chair, in a press release

Indigenous leaders, however, say they were left out of A-PACT decision-making processes and are concerned the initiative will not lead to meaningful change. “To me it was more of a talk than creating a clear roadmap on how Indigenous peoples will participate in conservation without violating their rights,” said Daniel Kobei, Executive Director of the Ogiek Peoples Development Program. “The rights of Indigenous peoples were not really brought in.”

For many Indigenous people, protected areas are not a solution to climate and biodiversity crises, but a threat to their lives, rights, and land. “Protected area, to us, means loss of life. It means children being orphaned. It means some people will be widowed,” said Teresa Chemosop, Ogiek of Mount Elgon, Kenya. “It means a lot of human injustices from the government to its own people.”

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Many of the protected areas that A-PACT might fund are currently the site of ongoing human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples. From the Maasai people in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, to the Endorois people in Kenya’s Lake Bogoria National Reserve, to the Batwa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park, conservation projects continue to kill Indigenous people and evict them from their lands in the name of protecting the environment. APAC was convened in part to try to reverse this violent pattern. “Protected and conserved areas in Africa have a complicated legacy, with conservation success too often coming at the expense of local communities,” said Dr. Bruno Oberle, International Union for Conservation of Nature Director General, at the start of APAC. “One key focus of the first-ever IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress is to give a voice to these marginalised communities.”

APAC also adopted a non-binding call to action to protect nature while respecting Indigenous rights. The Kigali Call to Action for People and Nature, which, along with A-PACT, was one of the main outcomes of APAC with several specific references to Indigenous peoples, including acknowledging past conservation harms, a call to better deal with grievances, and to support Indigenous communities and initiatives. Despite the lofty aims, Kobei and Chemosop are not convinced. “Personally I am not really satisfied,” said Teresa Chemosop, Ogiek of Mount Elgon, Kenya. “I don’t think most of the people’s voices were captured.” 

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Instead of finding ways to fund protected areas, Chemosop says that Africa’s leaders should focus on returning the land to Indigenous peoples. During APAC, she said, discussion focused on ‘community-led’ management and co-management of land. Those ideas, she says, ignore the benefits of Indigenous stewardship and historical wrongs committed. “We cannot co-manage what is under the custody of people who have been destroying it,” Chemosop said. “We want to have full custody of our land before we start speaking of co-management.”

Representatives with APAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Kobei is calling for the full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples in all conservation plans. “From my own experience, over 20 years working with Indigenous peoples, it won’t be very easy, but maybe with time, maybe something might happen,” he said. “Let’s hope what they are saying in Kigali might have meaning.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a source’s name.