The Politics of Parks: Indigenous Peoples Assert Their Rights against Mining, Markets and Tourism

By Colchester, Marcus | Multinational Monitor, November 2003 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Parks: Indigenous Peoples Assert Their Rights against Mining, Markets and Tourism


Colchester, Marcus, Multinational Monitor


DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA -- The Fifth World Parks Congress, held here in September, started as a surreal affair.

A major draw for the 3,000 conservationists who jetted in from 150 countries to attend the Congress was the two hectare Exhibition Center, which resembled nothing so much as an international trade fair.

Avenues of smart stands exhibiting glossy publications, shiny posters and photos of smiling natives and charismatic large animals, suggested that conserving nature has now become big business.

Walking between avenues of swaying palm trees tastefully propped up in cloth-swathed pots and lit by green bar-lights, crunching over desert gravel under the hot glare of yellow spots, grunted at by recordings of wild game and ensnared by captivating videos of wilderness, it was obvious that the price tag for the Congress--which is sponsored by the World Conservation Union (known by the acronym, IUCN)--ranged into the tens of millions of dollars.

Beneath the gloss, design, spin and marketing, the contrasting messages of the different participant groups revealed that an intense debate was underway about how best to achieve conservation, how best to reconcile it with the competing pressures for funds and resources from the private sector, communities, scientists, governments and indigenous peoples.

Stands exhibiting wares from Shell and the World Bank rubbed shoulders with the stalls of Greenpeace and Conservation International. The booth from South Africa National Parks, sponsored by the diamond mining multinational De Beers, displayed the slogan "biodiversity is forever," and the accompanying exhibits provided literature about how to book luxury wildlife tours. Two blocks up, the South African Lands Department was advertising its radical program of land restitution: giving lands back to impoverished local communities to care for and conserve. In the center of the exhibition, a "Community Park" complete with exhibits of craft work and a community forestry tent provided a venue for grassroots organizations, indigenous peoples, representatives of nomads and smaller advocacy groups to meet and plan, present their posters, booklets and fliers and share their experiences.

The sources of conflict and division at the Congress were these:

* Globally, protected areas are growing, but much more is required, according to environmentalists. Owing to a surge in conservation initiatives since the last World Parks Congress in Caracas 1992, the world's 100,000 officially recognized protected areas now cover some 12 percent of the land surface of the planet and 0.5 percent of the oceans (over 19 million square kilometers in all). Yet, Conservation International's research into the "gaps in the system" shows that a large number of threatened species and habitats are still not protected.

* There is inadequate funding to manage protected areas. There is a $25 billion annual global shortfall in funding to operate existing protected areas, according to the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

* A range of commercial interests are seeking to exploit protected areas. Ranging from oil and mining companies to eco-tourism outfits, all claim to operate sustainably. But environmentalists and indigenous people frequently and bitterly contest such claims. Defining sustainability and the very meaning of "protected areas" is an underlying source of conflict.

* Much of the world's protected areas are actually home to indigenous people. They argue that their record of conservation is unsurpassed and proven over the long-term; and they insist that protected areas not exclude them, nor management schemes deny them the right to maintain their homes and traditional livelihoods.

MINING AND PROTECTED AREAS

One of the major concerns of conservationists is how to deal with the pressure from the oil, gas and mining industries which continue to seek access to protected areas in order to get at new ore bodies, coal and petroleum deposits and gas fields. …

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