To preserve a natural landscape, kick people out. That was the guiding philosophy of American conservationists in the late 1800s, when they established the first National Parks. This conservation model is enshrined in the U.S.’s 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” To see its effects, one has only to visit the unpeopled landscapes of now-renowned parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite.
This “guns and fences” paradigm of conservation, in the words of researcher Andrew Davis of the San Salvador-based organization Prisma, relies on drastically restricting what people living in an area can do—or even displacing those people altogether. And it has spread around the world: In recent decades, environmentalists alarmed by tropical deforestation have leaned heavily on the “Yellowstone model” to convince governments to restrict human activities in remaining forests in an attempt to preserve them.
But in many cases, this philosophy may be misguided, argue a growing chorus of experts.
In countries around the world, forests have remained intact precisely because indigenous communities had long managed them effectively. These communities often farm and harvest timber on a small scale, but keep commercial enterprises and illegal actors out. In creating supposedly protected areas, governments and NGOs often replaced these indigenous governance structures with weak or non-existent enforcement regimes, which allow potentially destructive farmers and loggers to move in.
“It’s something you see all the time,” says Davis. “You land in an airport and you see giant banners for a protected area, the offices have beautiful trucks and beautiful computers, and you go to the territory and there’s no presence.”
Davis laid out the situation last month in Mexico City, at a gathering of leaders from throughout Mexico and Central America to discuss the release of a recent report that Davis coauthored. The report details a series of case studies in which communities with strong land rights have protected forests, and governments and conservation organizations have failed to do so. The authors call for a new approach to preserving Mesoamerica’s forests—one based on strengthening the rights of people living in them.
Though the community representatives each had a unique story, they shared a common theme: Forests that had belonged to their people for generations had been turned into government-run protected areas—and the consequences for both forests and the people living in them were devastating.
In Honduras, for instance, indigenous Miskitu communities found themselves unable to prevent cattle ranchers and farmers from clearing forests they had long protected. After the government created the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the 1980s and 90s, it replaced traditional forest protection councils with new, less effective institutions that allowed outsiders to move in.
“States create protected areas without taking into consideration the existence of indigenous people,” said Norvin Goff, president of the Miskitu organization MASTA. “They implement policies that are meant for ‘conservation’ in order to take our natural resources.”
In Guatemala, Q’eqchi Mayan communities found Semuc Champey, a sacred site, placed under government management after its popularity among tourists exploded. After a conflict between the communities and the Guatemalan agency boiled over earlier this year, community elders say they have been barred from even entering the site, which comprises a series of iridescent turquoise pools of water. Several have been arrested.
“They never consulted with us. It’s because of this that we see a violation of our rights as indigenous communities,” said Crisanto Tec, a Q’eqchi tribal elder from the roughly 600-family community of Chicanuz. “We have been the only ones who have protected the area.”
Meanwhile, communities within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico face restrictions on harvesting even small amounts of timber from forests they have long inhabited. Yet illegal loggers and, more recently, avocado growers have encroached on fir and pine forests that shelter North America’s most beloved native insect. “On the one hand you have a system that prohibits people from using their resources,” said Gustavo Sánchez, the director of the Mexico City-based nonprofit Red Mocaf. “On the other hand, you have governments that don’t have the money to invest in protecting those areas.”
With a global extinction crisis underway and 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity in indigenous territories, the authors argue that these case studies point to a powerful conclusion. “This is the region where you have the most rights recognized: 65 percent of Mesoamerica’s forests have been recognized to indigenous people and communities,” says Davis. “There’s strong evidence from across the region that demonstrates that there is an immediately available solution to address the crisis of biodiversity loss.”
In some cases, indigenous and community groups have been able to push back. Forest communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala’s Petén region were instrumental in convincing the government to allow sustainable logging starting in 1994, for example. Guna indigenous communities in eastern Panama have successfully managed a forest and marine area for decades. And in Honduras, Miskitu communities recently gained titles to ancestral lands, though it’s too early to tell what impact this will have on the forest.
International organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Convention on Biological Diversity have also endorsed indigenous and community forest management in recent years. These are positive steps, says Davis. But he adds that they have yet to translate into concrete gains for most communities.
Except for a handful of isolated cases, “there has been progress made in frameworks, but what you don’t see is progress on the ground,” he says. “The discussion around indigenous people is as passive actors in the struggle to conserve biodiversity, and not as the protagonists that they are.”
The Prisma report was not peer-reviewed, and it’s not clear how the case studies were chosen or how representative a sample they are, notes Janis Alcorn, a senior director at the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C. Still, she says, these studies make clear that “despite the advances that have been made, there’s still a way to go.”
Papers from the academic literature have also provided evidence that indigenous people can protect forests at least as effectively as governments. Studies in Brazil and Panama found that protected areas and indigenous management outperformed other land management systems at avoiding deforestation, as did a 2014 analysis of more than 100 peer-reviewed studies.
Some advocates, however, argue that communities need more than simple land rights. Governance structure, financial support and access to capital and markets can all help determine whether a community can protect its forests against outside threats, says Benjamin Hodgdon of the New York-based Rainforest Alliance, who has found that the Guatemalan logging concessions have experienced far lower deforestation rates then surrounding areas.
“If you hand forests to communities that have an incentive to keep the forest standing, and have the rights to harvest and sell timber and other forest products, and have a culture of forest-based livelihoods, it can be a more effective approach to keeping the forest standing than traditional, strict protection,” Hodgdon says. “But let’s not pretend that just handing over the land is going to do the trick.”
Community leaders stressed that they have been fighting for rights for a long time, and do not expect to win overnight. “Hopefully in 30 or 40 years we will not be here. But until then, we will continue to work hard for future generations,” said Levi Sucre Romero, leader of RIBCA, an organization of indigenous groups in Costa Rica, and president of the Managua, Nicaragua-based Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.
That said, Romero added, one thing has unequivocally changed for the better. “Many times our rights were violated and no one said anything,” he said. “That’s no longer the case.”