Protected areas (PAs) are often considered a cornerstone strategy in the fight against climate change. In December 2022, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was unanimously embraced by over 190 nations. This international accord aims to protect the planet we all share. The framework comprises 23 targets dedicated to reversing species and habitat loss, one of which calls for the safeguarding of 30% of the Earth’s coastal, terrestrial, and marine regions by 2030. This target is colloquially referred to as “30×30.” The 30×30 goal coincides with an initiative called the “Global Deal for Nature,” or the 2015 Paris Agreement, to prevent a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase that could cause irreversible environmental damage.

However, whilst the 30×30’s objectives are in pursuit of improved planetary health, in practice this accord often contributes to the “fortress conservation model.” Fortress conservation is premised on the belief that nature and mankind are inherently incompatible, and the only role that humans play in nature is one of destruction. It fails to consider the creative ways in which many Indigenous Peoples (IPs) have fostered healthy ecosystems that enhance biodiversity rather than threaten it for tens of thousands of years. Approximately 476 million IPs reside in areas that encompass 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. While 30×30 was not adopted with the intent of furthering the fortress conservation model, its effects are contingent upon its local implementation – and too often, these efforts use a fortress conservation approach.

For example, PAs are often “created” on ancestral lands already inhabited by IPs. When following a fortress conservation approach, new PAs must be “cleared” of humans, which leads to dispossession and rights violations. Recent research by Project Expedite Justice has shown that conservation-motivated exile of IPs in key areas, such as Nepal, India, Tanzania, Cameroon, and others, are not isolated occurrences, but rather illustrate a systematic pattern of exclusion. When new PAs are established in Indigenous territories, the following often occurs: (1) land dispossession and displacement – IPs are told to leave the lands they occupy; (2) consequent indirect human rights infringements; and (3) grave human rights violations and abuses committed to persuade IPs to abandon efforts to stay on or near their ancestral lands, now “PAs”, even if they have nowhere else to go.

In this context, it is clear that if conservation efforts in international development are going to move forward sustainably then they must involve collaborative and inclusive efforts to respect land rights and recognize the vital role of Indigenous communities in preserving biodiversity.

Whilst slow, this shift in conservation effort policy is underway and being applied by organisations such as Survival International and Greenpeace.

Maasai village. Source Pixabay/PEJ

At PEJ, our vision of sustainable development is rooted in this commitment to protecting IP’s rights. At the heart of our programs is the belief that we can protect the environment while respecting the knowledge and practices of Indigenous communities. And, in turn, this can lead to the achievement of SDG:16 “fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence”.

On the other hand, we reject the “fortress conservation” approach that displaces IPs, excludes them from decision-making processes that impact their lives and severs them from rights to lands they have traditionally occupied. At their worst, atrocities committed in the name of conservation have been reminiscent of colonial-era policies or mindsets that posit Indigenous paradigms as a threat to wildlife or natural habitats, such as the Chenchu people in Telangana State, India. On the other hand, there is evidence of IP-managed areas delivering equally good results at conservation as other approaches and without human rights violations, such as the Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania.

Afterall, nothing about this process is inevitable and the safeguarding of our planet should not come at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous populations, especially not while corporations and states with “large ecological footprints and greenhouse emissions” continue business as usual. Conservation does not necessitate infringing on the rights of Indigenous communities who preserve biodiversity on their own lands. Collaborating with local organizations and partners in various conservation sites to pursue accountability for human rights violations committed in PAs and help prevent such abuses from occurring in the future is a further critical step forward.

Sustainable, rights-protecting development must also acknowledge IPs’ inherent right to self-determination (and, as an extension, self-determined development), as well as rights to their ancestral lands. Indigenous property rights are closely tied to conservation. In fact, land tenure insecurity in Indigenous Peoples’ lands is an underlying driver of deforestation. This underscores the need for conservation models to integrate Indigenous knowledge and practices. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, where Indigenous property rights have been recognized through a legal process called demarcation, there has been a notable reduction in deforestation.

Finally, it should be understood that Indigenous-led conservation efforts offer a contrasting vision that is both successful but also cost-effective. Indigenous community-owned or designated forest areas, which span approximately 370 million hectares across the globe, are often regions of high biodiversity. IPs take an active role in maintaining their land. Indigenous communities invest an impressive $2 to $4 billion annually in resource management and conservation, equivalent to one-quarter of the total expenditure by the global conservation community on public protected areas. Subsequent analysis by the Rights and Resources Initiative in 2018 corroborated these findings, emphasizing that IPs and local communities are major investors in conservation efforts. This is especially notable since official and international funding allocated to PA systems remains insufficient, particularly in global-majority countries.

At PEJ, we are urging leaders, such as members of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to center Indigenous voices and take a human rights-centric approach to conservation. We also welcome opportunities to partner with other people of goodwill and organizations that want to further development in a way that protects the planet, and respects and centers Indigenous rights and practices.


Mahum Qazi is the Communications Assistant at Project Expedite Justice. Previously, she received her Master’s in South Asian studies from Columbia University where she specialised in modern South Asian history and post-atrocity nation building efforts.

Project Expedite Justice (PEJ) is a United States-based NGO founded in 2016. PEJ’s mission is to use all available legal options to seek justice for individuals inadequately protected under the law, who cannot access legal resources, and who are exploited by governments, corporations, or others. PEJ applies a novel, victim-centered approach to addressing mass atrocities.

Feature image: Batwa women in Burundi. Source Pixabay/PEJ