(IPS) – Far from being uninhabited places where nature holds sway, the vast majority of Latin America’s protected areas are places where people live, so a balance has to be found between conservation goals and the need to reduce poverty.
"Thirty years ago it was thought that these were basically uninhabited areas, possibly home to a few traditional communities, but now we know that at least 86 percent of the nature reserves are inhabited, and in some regions the percentage is even higher," Gonzalo Oviedo, an Ecuadorean adviser on social policy for the World Conservation Union (IUCN), told IPS.
Oviedo is attending the Second Latin American Congress on National Parks and other Protected Areas, which opened last Sunday and runs through Saturday at the ski resort city of Bariloche, in the heart of the Nahuel Huapí National Park, 1,500 kilometres southwest of Buenos Aires.
Those attending the congress have emphasised that participation of resident communities in the management of protected areas has increased sharply since the first regional congress was held in Colombia 10 years ago. But this involvement, which in many cases serves the cause of conservation, has not always been free from conflict.
For many years, indigenous people and other communities living in Latin American reserves were rendered "invisible" by the laws approved in the 1970s by military dictatorships, Oviedo said. This legislation copied the model of national parks in the United States, and "ignored the presence of people" in the reserves.
"Those obsolete laws, which are still in force, stated that no one lived in the parks, that the land belonged to the state, and that if anyone was there, they had no right to be. As an Ecuadorean indigenous man told me, ‘I went to bed one night and the next morning I was told that I was in a national park and was trespassing,’" Oviedo said.
The denial of the existing communities "was a mistake that caused people a lot of suffering, and the protected areas suffered too," he said. Now, however, there is a consensus that communities should be involved in the management of resources, and successful models of this new arrangement do exist.
For instance, in Bolivia, which harbours 66 different ecosystems out of the 112 classifications existing in the world, three indigenous groups are managing the Kaa Iyá national park, the largest in the country and the world’s largest reserve of tropical dry forest, with technical support from the Wildlife Conservation Society and political backing from the government.
"Kaa Iyá is an excellent example and makes a solid case, but experience has also been accumulated in Colombia, Ecuador and Central American countries, where protected areas are managed by communities of Afro-descendants, campesinos (small farmers) and fisherfolk, as well as indigenous peoples," Oviedo said.
"The main thing is to understand that this is a process, in which people need to acquire decision-making capability and find sustainable lifestyles," he said.
Participation by indigenous peoples at the congress was by no means marginal. "We found unprecedented openness to our proposals, and we played a prominent part at this meeting," Verónica Huilipán, spokeswoman for the Neuquén Mapuche Confederation in Argentina, told IPS.
About 70 representatives of the region’s native peoples held their own forum ahead of the conference of academics, environmentalists and national parks administrators, and on the opening day of the congress they joined in the symposiums and workshops, putting forward their proposals for inclusion in the meeting’s final declaration. A preliminary version of this document recognises the right of indigenous peoples "to their lands and natural resources," and argues that "lands declared protected areas without the consent of the indigenous peoples" should be restored to them and "prompt and fair compensation" provided.
"Protected areas that overlap indigenous territories must be managed with respect for the rights of these communities, ensuring the full and effective participation of their representative organisations in making decisions for the management and protection of these areas," the draft declaration says.
According to Huilipán, this change in attitude can be traced back to the political boost arising from the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently adopted by the United Nations.
"We used to be seen as protesters who staged roadblocks and distributed leaflets, but here we sat down to contribute to designing policies for protected areas," Huilipán said.
The Argentine National Parks Administration (APN) announced at the congress that an advisory council on indigenous policy would be created within the APN directorate. "This is an example of how the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be an instrument to strengthen our status, so that we can express ourselves," said Huilipán.
But relations between governments, environmentalists and indigenous groups are not always harmonious. In an interview with IPS, Mexican biologist Julia Carabias, a former environment minister in Mexico and currently head of the organisation Natura Mexicana, warned about a new wave of conflicts.
"There’s a false dilemma that’s causing confrontations between conservationists and indigenous peoples today," she said.
"There are people who have historically lived in the national parks, and protection of their rights is right and proper, but there are outside groups that, in the name of their communities, are invading the reserves in order to demand land," Carabias complained.
"This is happening in many places in Latin America, and it’s happening at the moment, for example, in the Montes Azules reserve in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, where indigenous people who have lands elsewhere, or landless campesinos, are moving into protected areas as if they were theirs for the taking," she said.
Arguing that their communities need land in order to survive, the leaders exert pressure and colonise reserves. This leads to conflict with those who defend sustainable use of natural resources in areas protected by and for communities already living in the protected areas.
"Communities living in protected areas have a range of options for living well there, including agriculture projects, timber management and ecotourism," said Carabias, but she added that national parks alone cannot solve the enormous challenges of poverty in an entire country.