To conserve the planet’s biodiversity, countries around the world have pushed to create protected areas. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples says without concrete and immediate action, Indigenous rights will continue to be violated in the name of conservation.

“While the expansion of conservation is laudable, not enough assurance has been given to indigenous people that their rights will be preserved in the process,” said José Francisco Calí Tzay, who is Maya Kaqchikel and current Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

In a report presented Wednesday to the United Nations General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee, Calí Tzay, highlighted multiple human rights violations committed to create and enforce protected areas, ranging from the expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their lands to extra-judicial killings and mass murder. Defined as a “geographically defined area which is designated or regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives,” protected areas make up roughly 15 percent of the world’s surface. By 2030, that number is expected to double as part of 30×30, a global initiative to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. Without major changes to global conservation models, Calí Tzay said reaching that goal will mean more violence directed at Indigenous communities.

According to the report, protected areas are often created without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples in violation of international mandates and principles. Once established, Indigenous communities often have limited access to their ancestral lands or face forced evictions and violence from eco-guards. The Special Rapporteur’s report points out that the expulsion of Indigenous peoples violates human rights and limits the efficacy of protected areas since Indigenous land management practices have repeatedly been found to be some of the best protections for the environment. 

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“Indigenous peoples across the globe have overall not seen a concrete improvement in the realization of their rights in the context of conservation initiatives,” wrote Calí Tzay. “Despite international commitments to protect indigenous people rights, in practice, the rights continue to be violated.”

Calí Tzay said the creation of protected areas, also known as “fortress conservation”, is particularly concerning in Africa. In Tanzania, Indigenous Maasai have been facing violent evictions from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. After the report’s presentation, a representative from the United Republic of Tanzania raised “strong objection” to allegations about the evictions. “The voluntary relocation of residents of Ngorongoro Conservation area is not an eviction exercise by the government as seems to be suggested by the report of the Special Rapporteur,” he said. “The relocation is in full compliance with all human rights standards.” The representative also pointed out that in Tanzania, there is no legal distinction for Indigenous peoples. Calí Tzay said that he has been waiting for a response to his request for an official visit to investigate the matter. 

The report also raises concerns about the UNESCO World Heritage Site process, including at least nine examples where Indigenous human rights have been threatened. The World Heritage designation brings additional funding and tourism to those areas, but according to the report, the Special Rapporteur has received complaints from Indigenous peoples in Thailand, Kenya, Nepal, Botswana, Namibia, Sweden, and other countries about World Heritage sites. The report calls on UNESCO to introduce human rights assessments, reconsider World Heritage status if requirements are not met, and establish a grievance mechanism. 

“Respect for human rights and the inclusion of indigenous peoples are major concerns for the World Heritage Centre,” said the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in response to the report. “However, with 1154 World Heritage sites in the world, we are aware that there are still specific situations to be resolved and that progress remains to be made…That’s why we welcome the Rapporteur’s report with a strong interest, because it offers interesting avenues which may help to continue the trend already underway.”

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In 2016, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who is Kankana-ey Igorot and then-Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, presented a report on the same issue. Tauli-Corpuz’ report highlighted killings of Indigenous environmentalists, forced evictions, destruction of crops, and other human rights violations in the name of conservation. “Protected areas have the potential of safeguarding biodiversity for the benefit of all humanity; however, these have also been associated with human rights violations against indigenous peoples in many parts of the world,” Tauli-Corpuz wrote. The report included a list of recommendations like more direct funding to Indigenous groups, stricter requirements for UNESCO World Heritage sites, and state compliance with the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. Most recommendations have not been fulfilled. 

In his presentation, Calí Tzay said states, donors, and international agencies, like UNESCO, should reform their policies and apply a rights-based approach to the creation or expansion of protected areas. The report says that states should legally recognize Indigenous peoples and land, protect them from extractive industry, and ensure access to lands in accordance with cultural traditions. The report also calls for more funding for Indigenous-led conservancies, protection for Indigenous women, hiring Indigenous peoples to manage protected areas, and other human rights-based recommendations. Ahead of upcoming global meetings like the COP27 climate summit in November and the COP15 biodiversity meeting in December, Calí Tzay called the issue “urgent and timely.” 

The report identified examples of good conservation practices where Indigenous peoples can make decisions for their land. In the United States, Bears Ears National Monument, which took years to establish in the face of presidential resistance , is now co-managed by five tribes. In Australia, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, where the Indigenous Gunditjmara harvest eel, is Indigenous-owned and managed. Calí Tzay says that these examples should be models for the rest of the world as countries work toward climate and biodiversity goals. 

“I believe that the Indigenous people have a lot to share with the world, especially on protection of the environment,” he said. “Simply enlarging the global protected area surface without ensuring the rights of indigenous peoples dependent on those areas is not the solution.” 

This story has been updated to include comment from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.