Applying Rights-Based Approaches to Conservation – From Theory to Reality

06 February 2013 | News story

The Shuar Arutam People of the Cordillera del Cóndor in the Ecuadorian Amazon have been stewards of their forests for millennia. But now, as mining and illegal logging encroach on its territories, this indigenous group faces a struggle to maintain their rights to live in their ancestral lands. To assist them, IUCN is helping to test a new idea: a rights-based approach to conservation (RBA).

As described in the IUCN publication “Conservation with Justice – A Rights-based Approach,” an RBA aims to harmonize nature conservation activities with respect for people’s rights (in particular, human rights). IUCN’s Environmental Law Center, with the support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), has developed a step-by-step approach for implementing RBAs. Because RBAs represent a relatively new way of thinking about how to adjust legal and policy instruments to harmonize nature conservation and people’s rights, the project “Applying Rights-Based Approaches to Conservation – From Theory to Reality” sought to test different steps of an RBA to gain experience.

A crucial step is the dissemination of information; in this case, the project sought to raise awareness among the Shuar of their rights, and to strengthen local governance and implementation of indigenous rights in order to promote forest conservation and manage their territory. To start with, the project team created a booklet that used comics to present a story about indigenous people’s rights to manage their territory. The comic book was well-received by the Shuar Arutam: “They liked it,” said Santiago Kingman, a specialist in indigenous governance who worked as a consultant on the project. Other media played a key role as well: The Shuar Arutam’s communication team, supported by a local consultant and an IUCN communication officer, launched a radio and video campaign on similar themes; the Shuar Arutam eventually took ownership of the campaign, generating greater commitment and responsibility for the project.

With the assistance of Fundación Natura during the first year of the project implementation, extensive capacity-building workshops and training events followed, tailored for the Shuar Arutam Governing Council, communication team, local leaders and families. In addition, the project provided technical assistance to manage conflicts arising from illegal gold-mining activities that could adversely affect the Shuar Arutam ’s conservation plans. Lastly, an essential action of the project was supporting the Shuar Arutam in implementing their Life Plan, a 10-year plan developed in 2003 to ensure integrated planning of socio-cultural development and the use and conservation of forest resources.

The workshops and training sessions did more than just disseminate knowledge; they engendered a sense of trust and empowerment when discussing issues of critical importance with local, regional and national-level authorities. In the case of the Shuar Arutam People’s Governing Council, they now have stronger arguments to participate in dialogue and to take actions in response to the demands of the families that live in their territory.

Perhaps the RBA project’s greatest success has been in the connection of culture to conservation issues, and the creation of a concept of rights that will lead to better, more balanced relationships with the government, Kingman said. “It is a very simple idea, but very strong,” he said. As for whether RBAs like this one are replicable elsewhere, Kingman said that such an approach can be applied wherever the forest and the environment “are part of the lives of the people – not just their economy, but their social life and their family life.”

Written by: Bruno Vander Velde.