Conflicted Conservation: When Restoration Efforts Are Pitted against Human Rights

Saving Earth might mean trampling indigenous societies

Concerns of displacement are particularly acute in Indonesia, where villagers opposing logging operations and paper, pulp and palm oil plantations on their territories have experienced violent attacks. Some 20 carbon forestry projects are already in the works there. Colchester warns that the government’s regulations on REDD do not adequately protect in­digenous peoples. In the Kampar Penin­sula, for instance, a forestry company proposes to clear-cut a ring of swamp forest and plant it with acacia—so as to protect the forest in the core area and thereby earn REDD credits. The project would limit the access of the Melayu people to their traditional fishing creeks and hunting grounds; they have protested by preventing company staff from entering the area.

Similar fears of dispossession color attempts to protect coral reefs. In May six nations in Southeast Asia, with technical support from the Nature Conservancy, WWF and Conservation International, committed to the Coral Triangle Initiative, which will protect 75,000 square kilometers of coastline, coral reefs and ocean. M. Riza Damanik of KIARA, the Fisheries Justice Coalition of Indonesia, worries that the richest fishing grounds will be zoned off as protected areas.

Environmental psychologist Lea Scherl of James Cook University in Australia, who has studied the region’s marine protected areas, believes that such concerns are justified. In the largest conservation organizations, she explains, scientists design projects on the macro level—as if the map contained only natural features—and factor in culture afterward. “The people rarely have a meaningful voice at the very outset,” she says. Furthermore, efforts to mitigate a project’s impacts on local communities are underfunded and often unsystematic, compared with the scientific aspects.

In the end, it is those who have intimate details of the land and the seas, accumulated over generations, who hold key insights to conservation. As Scherl puts it: “You lose that knowledge when you take the people away.”

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