Conservation Refugees

Members of Arimae's agricultural association looking at a map of the community's reservationTwo weeks ago, the New York Times published an article featuring an Oxfam report on the forced and violent eviction of more than 20,000 Ugandans from their homes. In an effort to access the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism, in 2005 the Ugandan government granted the New Forests Company (NFC) a 50-year license to grow eucalyptus and pine for carbon credits. As seen by big financial supporters of the NFC such as the World Bank, European Investment Bank and HSBC (as well as many conservationists) this would help protect land, grow trees, capture carbon, provide needed jobs and generate almost $2 million in revenues. Everyone wins, right?

One problem: people. People had been living on the land granted by the Ugandan government and did not want to leave. Not only did the report document the forced expulsion and destruction of crops and livestock, but the Times article also reported on the death of an 8 year-old boy when his family’s house was set on fire. The NFC and the local government deny any wrongdoing. Under the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism, the private sector is given strong financial incentives to grant firms like the NFC to grow trees. The carbon sequestered can be sold as carbon credits to polluter nations or companies abroad.

The government claims that people were living on the land illegally, though many have demonstrated documentation of legal land ownership. Oxfam calls it land grabs. Others call it unfortunate obstacles toward a greater good. The fact is that thousands of families are now homeless, separated from their livelihoods and communities, and probably not advocates for conservation.

This is not an isolated or even very new occurrence. A late 2005 Orion magazine article and book by Mark Dowie entitled Conservation Refugees explain how the global movement to protect wilderness severely impacts indigenous peoples. From the Batwa in Uganda to the Karen in Thailand to the tribes of the Amazon rainforest, indigenous peoples are becoming aware of the human costs associated with big conservation. For many of us, protecting the wild without the intrusion of humans is considered a thoroughly noble pursuit. Though millions of native people have been forced off their land by big industry, we usually fail to recognize that conservation of large swaths of territory displaces even more. According to the article, the World Parks Commission’s goal in 1990 to conserve 10% of the Earth’s land has been exceeded by 2%, meaning almost 12 million square miles - an area roughly the size of Africa - is protected. The number of protected areas worldwide has grown from 1,000 to 110,000 around the world. The UN and IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimate that five million to tens of millions have become conservation refugees, and some indigenous leaders have called conservation their biggest threat.

Protecting lands and growing trees, preserving wildlife and combating global climate change -  this is important work. But if we’re to make conservation truly sustainable, then we must understand the critical role forest-dependent people play in conservation. Positively, there is a growing consensus that conservation programs must integrate local peoples into the planning to ensure that all parties benefit. From our perspective, this is both the ethical thing to do, and good business sense. Through our Equitable Forestry framework we are careful to include indigenous community leaders and other landowners in the planning of each of our plantations. This ensures that they can continue their traditional way of life while benefiting from the regeneration of local forests.

The lessons of conservation refugees remind us of the importance of open dialogue between all parties involved with conservation. Local communities and landowners, us, our investors, conservation and development organizations - we must work collaboratively to achieve our respective goals.