The International Protected Areas System, developed in the 70’s within the IUCN, has traditionally ignored this reality, denying the rights of indigenous peoples inhabiting such territories.
Currently, in South America only, protected areas systems cover more than 1 million square kilometers, which represents more than 6% of the territorial area. In the case of Central America, declared protected areas represent more than 25% of the region’s territory (129,640 Km2). The traditional conservation paradigm, essentially based on the establishment of protected areas, considers nature as an asset that needs to be protected from human activity. However, more than 86% of Latin America’s protected areas are inhabited. Among those, 80% of South America’s protected areas and 85% of Central America’s protected areas have indigenous peoples living within their limits.
The traditional concept of conservation, which turns biodiversity and human activity into mutually excluding concepts, has had devastating effects for those communities who have historically lived in the territories where protected areas have been established: forced movements, loss of traditional means of survival, accelerated poverty processes and loss of identity. Currently, there are more than 100,000 protected areas worldwide, most of them established on ancestral indigenous territories, rich in biodiversity. In brief, massive violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, recognized in international legislation and in the bodies of Latin American constitutions. The adverse effects have also affected the field of biodiversity conservation. Firstly, because valuable traditional practices which implied a sustainable use of resources, have been lost. Secondly, because movement of populations into buffer zones in precarious conditions has led, often, to an increased pressure to obtain resources in a non-sustainable way.
In recent years, however, we are witnessing a paradigm shift. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002), recognized that the way indigenous peoples manage their territory and natural resources plays an essential role in sustainable development. The V World Parks Congress, held in Durban in 2003, backed the idea of steady integration of indigenous themes in protected areas policies; and the World Conservation Congress, held in Barcelona in September 2008, recognized a new type of management of protected areas placing them in the custody of indigenous peoples.
All the foregoing are important steps towards the acknowledgement and respect of indigenous peoples’ rights, and towards the generation of better biodiversity conservation and sustainable use systems. They imply moving towards a conservation and sustainable development paradigm fully respectful of human rights. However, there is still, clearly, a long way to go. Commitments undertaken in the international field have been scarcely converted into legislative amendments or changes in public policies. Due to the lack of technical capacity, resources, or political determination, very few States have passed the necessary reforms in order to implement such advances. There are still frequent cases of violation of indigenous peoples’ rights over their lands and ancestral territories.