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.