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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Protecting Habitats, Neglecting People?

Air Date: Week of

Part One: Can conservation groups protect natural habitats without abusing the people who live in them? This issue is the focus of a number of articles, most recently “A Challenge to Conservationists” by anthropologist Mac Chapin. Chapin says the big conservation groups--World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy, focus on large conservation schemes that attract lots of corporate and government money but lead them to neglect indigenous peoples’ needs. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Mac Chapin. LOE then turns to Armstrong Wiggins of the Indian Law Resource Center to get his perspective.
Part Two: Our conversation about the charges that three big conservation groups neglect indigenous peoples’ needs continues. Armstrong Wiggins of the Indian Law Resource Center is joined by Guillermo Castilleja of the World Wildlife Fund, Peter Seligmann of Conservation International, and Sanjayan of The Nature Conservancy.



CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Not long ago in the Congo Basin in Central Africa, the government designated forests as national park and reserves with the support of a large international conservation group. In the process, the indigenous Pygmies were displaced, or evicted, from their traditional homelands.

The expulsion of indigenous communities in the name of conservation is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, here in the United States, Native Americans were forced off lands that would become national parks and forests. And today, some activists and private funders are voicing concerns that large conservation groups put scientific objectives and cozy relationships with governments ahead of the rights and needs of indigenous folk.

Mac Chapin is one of them. He’s an anthropologist and director of the Center for Native Lands, and author of .a controversial article in the current issue of World Watch magazine. In particular, Mac Chapin points an accusing finger at wealthy conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

Mac Chapin joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

CHAPIN: Thank you very much, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mac, what are the conservation groups doing wrong, in your opinion?

CHAPIN: You’ve had a lot of the money concentrated in the hands of the big conservation groups. And there’s been something of a Walmart-ization of conservation through this, where they’ve been swallowing up a lot of the local nonprofit organizations working in conservation, especially in foreign countries, and pretty much taking over the agenda for themselves.

There was a lot of talk in the 1990s, early 1990s, about forming partnerships with indigenous peoples to work together to save ecosystems. That talk has largely disappeared, and the new partners of the conservation groups are corporations, funders, the World Bank. They’ve partnered with the people that have the money and the power and they’ve neglected the people on the ground.

CURWOOD: Can we have some examples here, some specifics here?

CHAPIN: Certainly. I know Latin America the best, and you find that in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador – the Amazon region of those countries – you find things like the Enron pipeline, which runs through the Chiquitania Forest in Bolivia. And you have…let me see, it’s The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International are making deals with Enron to try and, let’s say, mitigate some of the damage that goes on, and to create a conservation fund which the conservation groups would manage.

Now on the surface this might sound okay, but the indigenous people live throughout the Chiquitania Forest and they haven’t been involved in any of these negotiations. So it’s really been ignoring the indigenous peoples for what’s going on in these regions, and the conservationists running their own agendas.

There’s another example called the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative which was started by Conservation International a few years ago. And this is to set up partnerships with Chevron, Texaco and Shell, some of the big energy companies. Indigenous people are simply not involved in any of this, and it really scares them.

CURWOOD: What happens, in your view, when indigenous people aren’t involved in these negotiations in these deals to protect their lands?

CHAPIN: How would you feel if somebody came into your area and started making all kinds of deals with energy companies and, say, timber companies and so forth, and you weren’t involved at all, yet your fate depends on what these deals are?

CURWOOD: I probably wouldn’t feel very good. But what if I, in fact, was busy clear-cutting as fast as I could to my lands? Perhaps not acting in the best interest of long-term conservation?

CHAPIN: I think the damage done by indigenous peoples – let’s say with slash-and-burn agriculture, other practices – is extremely minimal compared to what happens with the companies that come in. The amount of contamination that’s come from these oil companies is massive. And here you have lawsuits going on between indigenous peoples and these large companies, and the conservation groups are supporting the large companies.

CURWOOD: In your view, what do you think needs to be done to protect worldwide biological diversity?

CHAPIN: It seems to me that a couple of things have to happen before we get any progress in this area. One is that the donors – and I’d put the burden on the donors – the donors have to stop giving money to the large conservation groups so they can work with indigenous peoples. Because that leads to control.

What they have to do is start figuring out how to give money to the indigenous groups themselves – directly or through intermediaries that are responsible – but, somehow, bypass the large conservation groups and try and strengthen the indigenous organizations so that they have the capacity to come forward and negotiate directly with the conservation groups.

The second thing that I think needs to be done is we have to, somehow, do some in-depth, impartial studies of what the conservation groups are doing in the field. We don’t have any right now. We’ve got some accusations of abuse on one side, and then some sort of sugary project descriptions coming from the conservation groups about what they’re doing. But we don’t really know, for example, if this emphasis on large-scale conservation is working. We don’t know what works out there in the field and what doesn’t work, and why, under what circumstances. We just don’t have much information on this.

And if we can, somehow, sort of cool off the emotions and go in there and try and figure out what’s going on and how we can better fix the system, rather than simply justifying what’s already going on, then we can move forward.

CURWOOD: Mac Chapin is the director of the Center for Native Lands. His article, “A Challenge to Conservationists,” appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of World Watch magazine. You can also find it on the Living on Earth website, that’s w-w-w dot living on earth dot o-r-g. Mac, thank you for taking this time with me today.

CHAPIN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Anthropologist Mac Chapin is among a number of folk raising questions about the treatment of indigenous peoples who reside in areas of interest to conservationists. Rebecca Adamson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, has written articles for philanthropy groups about this topic, and so has journalist and author Mark Dowie. Well, how are some of the big conservation groups, and indigenous representatives, responding? Joining me now to discuss some of these issues is Peter Seligmann, who’s CEO of Conservation International. Hello, Peter.


CURWOOD: And Guillermo Castilleja, who’s Vice President for the World Wildlife Fund’s Latin American and Caribbean Programs. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: Also, Sanjayan is with us. He’s the lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

SANJAYAN: Hello Steve.

CURWOOD: And Armstrong Wiggins is the Director of the Central and South American program at the Indian Law Resource Center. He’s a Miskito Indian who is originally from Nicaragua. Hello.


CURWOOD: And, gentlemen, before we begin our discussion, I just want to look back in history a little bit at the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt was president in 1901. He did a lot for conservation. He added, what, 150 million acres to our national forests and encouraged the forest service to adopt selective cutting practices. But he wasn’t terribly happy about native peoples on these lands. In fact, he tended to despise them as savages. Let me just read to you a quote from his book, “Winning the West.”

In “Winning the West,” Roosevelt writes “the rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of the red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”

So, while Teddy Roosevelt created, what, five new national parks and the national wildlife refuge system, he also helped instill in the conservation movement an ideology of white preference that some would say is yet to be fully shed.

And let me turn to you first, Armstrong Wiggins. Tell me, it’s been said that when an organization has lots of money, it shifts the balance of power in their relationship with indigenous groups and these organizations tend to be northern and white and indigenous groups tend to be people of color. From your perspective, how true is that?

WIGGINS: Um, lately there’s a lot of money coming in from World Bank and USAID and others to create parks, to protect environment, and, as you know, indigenous people are the ones that live in those areas that are still pristine from environmental point of view. But we have a different perspective as indigenous community. Indigenous people was found here by the white man when they came from Europe. And we still demand and defend the rights of our land and territories, and those rights, I think, are not being addressed clearly by these big environmental organizations even though if they have partnerships with some indigenous community. If you read their reports, they talk about many things that they do with the indigenous community except defending their rights to land and territory and their self-determination.

CURWOOD: Give me an example of what you’re talking about here, please.

WIGGINS: Example in Nicaragua, we developed a partnership with WWF in the ‘90s and try to support the community of Awas Tingni. The case was that the Nicaraguan government give a concession to Korean logging company to clear-cut the Awas Tingni community land and we were trying to stop the concession.

CURWOOD: Armstrong, what was the World Wildlife Fund trying to accomplish in Nicaragua?

WIGGINS: Well, the same goal that we are trying: to develop a very responsible forestry program in Nicaragua, protected area, Miskito Coast protected area working with the Nicaraguan government. But, of course, the government changes, and the Minister of Natural Resources, Jaime Incer, when he left, somebody else came in and they wanted to do something else, against environment, against indigenous community, and we decided to take the case to the court system against Nicaragua.

The institution was not willing to do that because they have double standards sometimes. They don’t really want to go all the way to support the rights of indigenous people. That doesn’t necessarily mean individual in the institution, but sometimes the institution have that feeling about not challenging this government because they afraid they kick them out of the country. They don’t do that in the United States, they go all the way. But in Latin America, because USAID money, they get through that partnership with the government, they’re afraid to lose that money and they don’t want to go all the way to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Highway 23” MUSIC BY RY COODER (Warner Brothers – 1995)]

CURWOOD: We’re speaking with Armstrong Wiggins, director of the Central and South America Program at the Indian Law Resource Center, which is based in Washington, D.C. Coming up: representatives of the big three conservation groups have their say. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

We just heard from Armstrong Wiggins of the Indian Law Resource Center about a contract the Nicaraguan government made with a Korean company to clear-cut indigenous peoples’ land. Mr. Wiggins says the World Wildlife Fund had partnered with the Awas Tingni to protect their forests.

But when the Resource Center went to court to sue the government in support of the Awas Tingni community, he says WWF stood back and watched, perhaps out of fear of being kicked out of Nicaragua.

Guillermo Castilleja, you’re the vice president of The World Wildlife Fund’s Latin America and Carribean program. How accurate is Armstrong Wiggins’ assessment of what happened between your organization and the Awas Tingni in Nicaragua?

CASTILLEJA: I think where I agree with him strongly is that conservation and, in this particular case that we’re referring to in Nicaragua, indigenous rights, go hand in hand. And this is something that has been very clear from WWF from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, the case that Armstrong is referring to in the community of Awas Tingni, it’s a project that WWF started, as we wanted to engage with this local indigenous community in better managing their forest resources.

When we realized that forest management could not happen without legal recognition of the ancestral lands of this community, we sought support from the Indian Law Resource Center and from others who came and helped in this process. At the end of the day, the process didn’t go right, as Armstrong is saying, and the government refused to recognize the rights of this community. The case was brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. I, personally, testified in support of the community’s claim, and the case was ultimately won. So, I think –

CURWOOD: – wait a second here. Armstrong, he’s saying everything went right in Nicaragua. It seems like two different universes here.

WIGGINS: Yeah, I think you need to understand that in an institution – Guillermo Castillejo is an incredible guy in that sense. He was very supportive, and he and I and other colleagues started this process. But then he was moved to another region, and the others that came and become in charge of Central America was too afraid to confront the Nicaraguan government. They were not prepared to go all the way, and this is what I’m talking about.

CURWOOD: Okay, let me ask Mr. Castilleja about this. He says that World Wildlife Fund wasn’t willing, to quote, “go all the way,” that you left them standing there. How fair is that?

CASTILLEJA: Well, as I said, we continued supporting the process in many different ways, including the legal case that was brought to the Inter-American Court. And I, as I said, participated in the process by testifying on behalf of the community.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you, to what extent do you include indigenous groups on the board of your organization, the World Wildlife Fund? Or, I should say, representatives of such groups?

CASTILLEJA: Well, WWF is a global network. We have a network of organizations basically covering 25 countries, and then we have presences in 25 other countries. And in each case we have boards that have representation of local society. We have Indians running WWF India. We have people from the Philippines running WWF Philippines. And so we think that WWF does represent, in large part, the diversity, cultural diversity, of the places where we work.

CURWOOD: So you include indigenous people on your overall board?

CASTILLEJA: We would have to go case by case, but yes.

CURWOOD: All right.

WIGGINS: Can I say something here?

CURWOOD: This is Armstrong Wiggins.

WIGGINS: Yes. This issue needs to be investigated really carefully and we need more information on this. Because we’re getting report from all over the Americas and the world that is … I mean, you’re talking about WWF, where they are the most conscious group from the big guys. But there are other big guys that are not so conscious as WWF that are also affecting indigenous community, in Guyana and Suriname and other places.

CURWOOD: Who are you talking about here?

WIGGINS: I’m talking about Conservation International; I’m talking about Nature Conservancy and other groups.

CURWOOD: All right, let me –

WIGGINS: – the fact is, the fact is, they don’t talk about indigenous rights. They only talk about collaboration. The fact is that they have a lot of money they get from USAID and World Bank and others, but they never reach to the communities. And the communities are not feeling they’re part of their owners of this project, and so when they pull out of these countries, environments suffer.

CURWOOD: All right, I want you to specifically say what the bone is that you might have to pick with Conservation International, because we have the CEO of Conservation International with us now and I’d like him to be able to respond to the specifics. So, specifically, you felt that Conservation International did or did not do exactly what, in Guyana, you’re talking about?

WIGGINS: Well, they need to work with the Indian organization in Guyana and come up with the clear plans, and that they feel like they are also part of the team. And they also can get the benefit from being their land that they want to protect can be a protected area run by indigenous community, and also get the economic benefit that CI can bring in for indigenous people so that they can uplift their economic status and be engaged.

CURWOOD: All right, Peter Seligmann, you hear the complaint. How accurate is Mr. Wiggins’ assessment?

SELIGMANN: The concern that Armstrong has raised about the need for communities and indigenous peoples to be involved in ownership of conservation efforts is very real, and I agree with him. I disagree with him very strongly in terms of his characterization of what CI does and has done in Guyana. There’s a tripartite agreement that was signed by the village chief, village council of the Wai Wais community in Southern Guyana, a representative of the government of Guyana, and a representative of CI, at which title to more than one million acres of Wai Wais lands was granted in February of 2004 to the Wai Wais.

A member of the San of Southern Africa. (Photo: ©Survival)

We are, at CI, working with the Wai Wais to jointly develop the land and resource use practices that will satisfy the Wai Wais’ needs while also conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. In this particular case, and in all the other cases where Conservation International’s worked, we’ve entered into agreements at the invitation of the communities.

We also – and this is also very important to understand – firmly believe, and have felt this since the origin of the organization, that it is fundamental that indigenous peoples have ownership, title and control over their own landscape. Indigenous communities are as heterogeneous as any other community in the world. There are people that want to conserve and people that want to develop. Our engagement is to assist in a participatory process in which they make the decision for the long-term health and use of their resources. If they don’t want to protect the resource, that, I believe, is their decision.

CURWOOD: If indigenous groups don’t want to protect it, well then, that’s their decision. What do you mean by that? And what does Conservation International do in those circumstances? Walk away and say, look, local folks don’t want to protect this, therefore we shouldn’t be involved?

SELIGMANN: Well, as I said, it is their decision. And we will do everything in our…that we can do … to work with them and show them that it is in their best interest – in terms of the future of their young people, and the future of their options, in terms of generating wealth and health – that they should be engaged in conservation.

CURWOOD: You say they own the land and that’s that, but in many cases, particularly with indigenous groups, there’s not a formal recognition of what land they might “own.”

SELIGMANN: Even if it’s informal, the correct, honorable and appropriate action is to deal with the communities even if it’s an informal ownership. We would never, and have never, done anything differently. Now, I have heard, I heard in the very beginning of this, Armstrong say that CI has. He’s wrong. I mean, he’s wrong in that he had the example incorrect, but also, I don’t challenge his intent or his well-meaning or – actually, I don’t challenge his core belief, because I share his core belief. But it’s very, very important that we do work collaboratively in changing the funding, changing the engagement and giving the support to indigenous communities so that they can work effectively to protect their landscape which is their future.

CURWOOD: Sounds to me, Peter Seligmann, that as CEO of Conservation International, that you feel that some changes have needed to be made over time, and perhaps more changes need to be made in terms of dealing with indigenous groups. Specifically, what changes do you have in mind?

SELIGMANN: I believe and support very strongly Armstrong Wiggins’ suggestion that a organization that is working with different sectors of society needs to have representatives from those sectors on their board of directors and governors. And I support and am committed to having a leader of the indigenous community on Conservation International’s board, and I really welcome that call. And we will respond to that positively.

CURWOOD: Armstrong Wiggins, you’ve been waiting a long time here.

WIGGINS: Peter, the problem is, even in Guyana, it’s very hard for you to really understand what we are going through. There was a serious, serious struggle between Wapushani community and Wai Wais because you guys just went one side and not working with the other side. And that created what we call “divide and conquer” approach, which indigenous people are very, very concerned about that. They need to work together.

The Toshou of indigenous leaders are very concerned about that. These are Indian leader, Indian chiefs, that they want to work with all of the communities – not just divide them and then left the others in the cold. And so I think that’s why Amerindian people associations – they’re very concerned in Guyana about how they divide them and conquer one group against another. And I think that doesn’t help the environment struggle.

CURWOOD: I want to turn now to Sanjayan, you’re the lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and I want to ask you about a teaming that you have made, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International together. As I understand it, the two organizations recently teamed with a number of energy groups – including BP, Chevron, Texaco and Shell – and came up with what’s called the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative.

The goals of this initiative as stated on – actually, I saw this on the Conservation International website – these goals are, quote, “to develop and promote a framework of best practices for integrating biodiversity conservation into upstream oil and gas development.”

Tell me, what is your organization hoping to accomplish with this partnership? And to what extent are indigenous groups at the table? I saw no mention of them on the website describing this project.

SANJAYAN: Well, Steve, thanks very much. First, let me just take a minute just to say that, you know, the question of should we be working with indigenous communities is a bit moot. The question is not should we – we must. The question really – and what I think we’re trying to struggle here with – is how we carry out that work. You know, you started with Teddy Roosevelt, and I’m here in Montana right now. And here’s a state where The Nature Conservancy helped the Blackfeet Tribe establish the very first Native American land trust in the entire United States. So our history of working with indigenous people, local people, traditional people, is long, and it occurs in many of the places in which the Conservancy works.

In terms of working with industry, whether it be the energy industry or any other industry – they represent a sector of society. Many people are gainfully employed in these sectors; to simply ignore them would be foolish, at best. We firmly believe that you need to make friends not just with your friends, but also with your enemies. The point of having dialogue with these sectors is in order to help move them from current practices to something slightly better.

CURWOOD: Slightly better doesn’t sound terribly ambitious.

SANJAYAN: It’s incremental progress. And it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to have huge revolutions, necessarily. You’re going to have an engagement but they are probably promoted by a different set of beliefs and a different set of values. And it’s that continual engagement that is going to get you to the place where you ultimately want to be.

CURWOOD: Peter Seligmann?

SELIGMANN: We are not looking for incremental changes; we’re looking for very significant changes in the way that the energy sector operates.

CURWOOD: Tell me, to what extent are indigenous groups involved in this energy and biodiversity initiative?

SELIGMANN: The agreement that we have with The Nature Conservancy and BP is really looking at the challenge of how do they extract, how do they reinvent the methodology of extraction? In that particular approach, the only people involved from CI and the people involved from the corporations are the people that are involved in that technical component. In terms of the –

CURWOOD: So, no indigenous folks there at the table?

SELIGMANN: I can’t – I don’t know the – the answer is, I don’t know if the engineers from the oil companies and the people that are involved are indigenous peoples or not.

CURWOOD: But, no people from the indigenous communities where the oil industry is looking to drill?

SELIGMANN: Well, we’re not – if this effort was targeted at specific sites, indigenous people on the lands where the companies were drilling would be involved. But that’s not the purpose of this particular agreement and it’s not located in any particular place.

CURWOOD: Peter Seligmann, I think some of the critics here might say that this is the precise example of the problem they’re concerned about.

WIGGINS: Exactly.

CURWOOD: If indigenous people are relegated only to a portion of the decisions here, if they’re not involved in the overall development of concepts, they become sort of an add-to, rather than part of the formulation. You know, oil companies have gotten into some pretty big pickles –

WIGGINS: What’s happening in Ecuador right now…

CURWOOD: There are issues in Ecuador and a number of places. So the criticism –

WIGGINS: And Colombia…

CURWOOD: This is Armstrong Wiggins here from the Indian Law Center speaking, as well. The criticism is, is that you guys are leaving out indigenous folks at the formative stages here.

WIGGINS: And this is why indigenous groups are supporting Marc Chapin’s article. Because I think collaboration between the conservation organizations and the indigenous communities of an area can result in a better, more effective conservation. Because the big conservation organizations have all information, all the resources that can help us, work with us, and then go together and work towards what you was questioning. If they don’t do that then I think there’s a serious problem, again to divide and conquer our natural resources, because we live in a very pristine area that needs to be developed.

But it needs to be developed sustainably. And this is why I think foundations, I think Congress or senators if they’re listening right now, the appropriation committee need to think about these things when they give money to AID to give to these big conservation organizations. To be clearly, to make sure that they work with indigenous people, but as partners, to have them in their board. That they can make decisions. Not the pickings or the bones that fall from their table that comes from Arlington, Virginia or from Washington, D.C., in a very rural area of Guyana or Nicaragua or in Africa.

CURWOOD: Armstrong Wiggins is Director of the Central and South America Program at Indian Law Resource Center. We also spoke with Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International, Guillermo Castilleja, Vice President for World Wildlife Fund’s Latin America and Carribean program, and Sanjayan the Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

To read Mac Chapin’s article “A Challenge to Conservationists”, as well as responses from the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, log on to our website Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g. And, of course, we welcome your comments. Send them to comments at l-o-e dot org. That’s comments at l-o-e dot o-r-g. Or call 1-800-218-9988. That 1-800 218-99-88. Real mail goes to 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts 02144.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: reclaiming an indigenous homeland by painting a mountain. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Swamp Walk” MUSIC BY RY COODER (Warner Brothers – 1995)]



“A Challenge to Conservationists” by Mac Chapin [PDF]
– The Nature Conservancy Response [Word]
–  Conservation International Response

World Wildlife Response [Word]
–  Indian Law Resource Center


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