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The creation of protected areas and parks in Central America aimed at conserving tropical forests has pushed indigenous people off the land they have nurtured for generations, researchers said on December 9.
Protected areas are more effective when the rights of indigenous people living on the land are formally recognized, said the report released on the sidelines of a U.N. conservation conference in Cancun, Mexico.
A lack of consultation between governments, environmental groups and indigenous communities hurts conservation efforts and leads to land conflicts, said researchers from Mexico, the United States and El Salvador which analyzed five conservation areas across Central America and Mexico.
“A wall has effectively grown up around many protected areas, shutting out the people who depend on the forests for their survival,” said Andrew Davis, a researcher with the El Salvador-based Prisma Foundation and one of the study’s authors.
In northern Guatemala, indigenous Q’eqchi communities occupied the Semuq Champey park earlier this year, saying they had not received any revenue from the park entrance fees as they had been promised.
Security forces used tear gas on the protesters leading the death of a community elder in the popular tourist destination of freshwater turquoise pools and natural limestone formations.
Some guardians of region’s protected areas are starting to respond to the concerns of indigenous people, however.
In Honduras, the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is moving towards recognizing land rights for traditional inhabitants, following protests from Muskitia indigenous people, Davis said.
“There is enormous potential to make protected areas more effective if they respect territorial rights,” Davis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A study published in October by the Washington-based World Resources Institute found that giving indigenous people land title deeds is one of the most cost-effective ways to preserve South America’s endangered rainforest and combat climate change.
This is because indigenous communities who own the territory are more likely to conserve the forest than other land users.
Some governments and environmental groups argue that indigenous people need to be moved out of protected areas because they “overgraze and overuse natural resources,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples Rights, said in a statement.
“Such perception fails to recognize the complexity of ecological and social relationships of many indigenous peoples with their ecosystems,” Tauli-Corpuz said.
Protected areas, when properly managed, allow indigenous people to harvest plants and animals, co-existing with the environment and making a living the way they have for hundreds of years, the report said.
Indigenous groups and local communities have legally recognized rights to about 65 percent of the forests in Central America and Mexico, according to Prisma’s research, a better record than in other regions.