Saving threatened habitats worldwide

WLT’s conservation programmes in Argentina and Paraguay are benefiting indigenous communities

22 October, 2015 - 12:04 -- John Burton

Regular readers will know that I have written extensively about indigenous peoples in my Green Diary.

Or rather, I have written mostly about the issues relating to protecting land for conservation in places where indigenous communities and local communities are involved.

It is widely recognised that conservation can only be sustained if communities are committed to protecting biodiversity. In many cases social anthropologists play a part in developing local engagement and they have certainly added a dimension to the work of World Land Trust (WLT).

In developing WLT’s conservation projects, I have worked with social anthropologists (granted, mostly from academia). I joined the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) a few years ago in order to get a better understanding of some of the issues. I have been appointed a Member of the RAI’s Environment committee. And I have received strong support for the work of WLT from contacts made through RAI.

WLT has achieved considerable success in involving communities in conservation and in negotiating land rights for local people. WLT has funded the acquisition of large tracts of forest in both Argentina and Paraguay in partnership with indigenous communities, and is seeking to do more. WLT can also easily demonstrate the benefits accruing to the few surviving indigenous groups in the Chaco and Atlantic Rainforests - benefits made possible thanks to conservation activities funded by WLT over the past decade.

WLT has 30 conservation partners in 20 countries. All these partners are working with local communities to achieve lasting conservation. And, unsurprisingly, some of these local communities are defined as indigenous.

It was therefore with considerable surprise that I read recently an article by Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International making wide ranging attacks on wildlife conservationists, and picking me out for a specific criticism. It is well worth reading all the comments that his article has provoked. 

Survival International was founded in the 1960s by the brilliant travel writer Norman Lewis, who was appalled at what was happening to tribal people in South America. Norman had the backing of a number of significant wildlife conservationists, such as Sir Peter Scott, and the support of WWF. (The Director of Information of WWF, Nigel Sitwell, was also a long-serving Trustee of Survival International).

So, quite why Stephen Corry is attacking wildlife conservationist so broadly is unclear. Many of the criticisms he levels, may well have been true pre-1960, but the world has moved on.

Stephen Corry seems to have a problem with wildlife conservationists, but doesn’t seem to realise that in places like the Gran Chaco, and the rainforests, conservationists are potentially, and often actually, the greatest allies of tribal and other indigenous communities.

Corry writes: “Few environmentalists protest at the theft of tribal lands or stand for indigenous rights. For example, John Burton, of the World Land Trust, formerly of Friends of the Earth, and Fauna and Flora International, openly opposes the very idea, though other key players, some in Greenpeace for example, have signalled support for tribes.”

Anyone who knows what I have done over the past decade or so will know the inaccuracy of this statement – although I have certainly written that the concept of indigenous rights is more complex than a simple statement of ‘rights’ suggests.

For example, I have asked questions about indigenous communities that relate to the future management of the places where they live, and where I hope both people and wildlife will survive. I have also drawn attention to conflicts between indigenous rights and human rights. 

We live in a time of environmental crisis. Now is the time for action not backbiting. The catastrophe affecting the world’s forests is a disaster not just for those communities that live in them but for all of society. Anthropologists should be joining forces with conservationists not picking them apart. 


Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

Thank you John very much for this post - and crucially for engaging with Stephen Corry with his position and whole argument.

I do agree with you that his whole stance is distinctly confused and confusing, and what he really is trying to achieve here (beyond creating an online stink and a bit of 'argey-bargey' to raise Survival Int's profile) I honestly couldn't fathom.

This is disappointing because I have long admired Stephen Corry and often agreed with with his views, even when they got decidedly pointed on occasion (he did a grand job having a go at Anita Roddick twenty or more years back when she went a bit mental pretending that her high priced toiletries were going to save the rainforest and all the lovely ethnic peoples in them etc etc).

I'm very glad that you have responded to this argument (or is it a campaigning/fundraising tactic?) because I saw it a while back and hoped that you clarify WLT's approach and experience.

Because crucially - isn't really all about outcomes? What actually works best, on the ground, in the 'field'? I don't care much about academic point scoring or ego driven debates. I want to see real-time conservation working hand-in-hand with human rights for a decent, liveable world in the most effective manner. Times have changed (mercifully) since the nineteenth century, and so has best practice.

Submitted by John on

Thanks for the comment. Interestingly the Body Shop is now a significant sponsor of WLT. And I too was very critical of some of the claims they made 20+ years ago. But that was in the past, and we are all aware of the mistakes. I hope that what we are now doing with Body Shop really will make a difference. More importantly, Survival International don't seem capable of supplying any sensible answers to the questions I pose. And while I am personally not convinced that there are any real answers, it is surely important that SI at least discusses them in a rational way. But at present I stand by my view that SI (as voiced by Corry) are little different to 19th century missionaries: they know what is right, and have "god" on their side.

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