Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Rights in Conservation

13 June 2024 Off By Bambam

This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, WCS and Nature are bringing you stories in the fields of nature and conservation.

Gokyo lake, Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park, is a lake sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus with a belief that wildlife should not be harmed in such a holy place. Photo credit: Dawa Yangi Sherpa

Growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal, nestled in the Himalayas, I witnessed firsthand the challenges of water management and availability in a densely populated valley. These experiences sparked my interest in addressing water issues, which deepened during my time spent in Northeast India for high school, and motivated me to pursue studies in science and policy with a focus on improving water management systems for the benefit of local communities.

Throughout my undergraduate studies in Biology, my primary research was on water quality monitoring. My perspectives on water shifted when I took a course called “Expanding Environmental Consciousness.” That class exposed me to critical concepts such as environmental ethics and water sovereignty, shaping my understanding of climate and environmental justice.

After graduating, I moved to New York City and became interested in urban environmental issues—in particular, environmental (in)justice and how marginalized communities are disproportionately at risk of exposure to lead, air pollution, hazardous waste and extreme heat in the United States.

Dawa at 30×30 Philippines First National Workshop and High-Level Launch presenting on Social Safeguards and Contributions of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities to Biodiversity Conservation (Equity, FPIC, IP&LCs). Photo credit: Renz Perez/WCS Philippines

As my interests grew, I came across the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management (EPSM) program at The New School, chaired by one of the leaders in environmental justice in the region. Having previously looked at climate change through the prism of carbon emissions, I was introduced through my graduate studies to topics like planetary boundaries, ecological debt, Indigenous sovereignty, land sovereignty, Indigenous ecology, and biodiversity crisis.

As my orientation to the climate crisis then shifted to decolonization, I began examining systems of power and resistance. In particular, I’ve looked at economic development policies and national agendas, where top-down approaches to nature and/or biodiversity by state and multinational institutions too often come at the exclusion of the well-being of Indigenous Peopless & Local Communities. Such approaches most often perpetuate the extraction and commodification of nature, and colonial and/or post-colonial systems that undermine Indigenous knowledge systems and worldviews.

Observing and examining the impacts of these shifts over a decade have led me to reflect on my identity as an Indigenous Sherpa Woman, and in particular the way my community is impacted by national and international biodiversity goals, discussions and negotiations happening at global platforms like the United Nations, its conventions on climate and biodiversity, and other spaces.

Dawa visiting sacred sites at her ancestral homeland in Solukhumbu, Nepal. Photo credit: Dawa Yangi Sherpa

Furthermore, the translation of international discussions and their implementation within the national boundary of Nepal directly effects my Sherpa community and other Adivasis and Janajatis (Indigenous Peoples group or tribe and Indigenous ethnic groups) .

Indigenous Sherpa communities living in Nepal’s Himalayas are primarily based on respecting nature. Sherpa communities maintain sacred relationships through Buddhist rituals, Indigenous knowledge, and communal practices integrated with Indigenous ecosystem governance, which not only nurture and safeguard ecosystems but also restore them. For example, Sherpa Buddhist communities consider their homeland beyul—a term rooted in Tibetan culture and Buddhism, which means sacred or a hidden valley—and they believe that its landscapes (including mountains, forests, and lakes) are the abodes of local divinities.

This extends in practice to interactions with wildlife. For example, human-wildlife conflict, a topic of contention within the conservation sector, is analyzed in this blogpost, which argues that natural, social, and cultural dimensions of coexistence are inextricably interwoven and rooted in fundamental Buddhist framework of understanding.

These reflections have led me to center the rights of Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities and their role in conservation as we face the climate and biodiversity crises. United Nations data suggests that while Indigenous land makes up only around 20 percent of the Earth’s territory, they contain as much as 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity and hold more than a third of the world’s high integrity forest blocks critical to climate change mitigation.

WCS Rights + Communities meeting with WCS Cambodia Program and Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Organization (CIPO). Photo credit: WCS Cambodia

Since joining Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as the Social Safeguards Technical Specialist with the Global Rights + Communities program, I have primarily advocated for a shift towards a holistic approach that centers and respects the dignity and worldviews of Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities.

This entails reconceptualizing conservation to acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples, while also honoring the rights and values of local communities deeply rooted in their inter-generational connection to land, culture, language, worldview, institutions, and ecological wisdom.

WCS has programs and regions where there are key areas of partnerships with Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities. As a Safeguards Specialist in conservation programming, I believe it is a critical space to engage with fellow conservationists, funder organizations, conservation programming managers, livelihood and community managers, and others who may or may not have the orientation to a human rights-based approach to conservation.

I believe that WCS as an international conservation organization has started to bring a shift by centering the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and championing a Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to conservation.

However, there is much work ahead as the organization recognizes the impact of colonial history, post-colonial structures, and racism within the sector. We premise our work on the understanding that biological and cultural diversity are interconnected, mutually reinforcing, interdependent, and often co-evolved. All of this provides the basis for the change we seek.

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