The livelihoods of indigenous peoples, custodians of the world’s forests since time immemorial, were eroded as colonial powers claimed de jure
control over their ancestral lands. The continuation of European land regimes in Africa and Asia meant that the withdrawal of colonial powers did not bring about a return to customary land tenure. Further, the growth in environmentalism has been interpreted by some as entailing conservation ahead of people. While this may be justifiable in view of devastating anthropocentric breaching of planetary boundaries, continued support for “fortress” style conservation inflicts real harm on indigenous communities and overlooks sustainable solutions to deepening climate crises. In reflecting on this issue from the perspective of colonial land tenure systems, this article highlights how ideas—the importance of individualised land ownership, cultivation, and fortress conservation—are intellectually flawed. Prevailing conservation policies, made possible by global non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and statutory donors, continue to harm indigenous peoples and their traditional territories. Drawing from the authors’ experience representing the Batwa (DRC), the Ogiek and Endorois (Kenya) and Adivasis (India) in international litigation, this paper examines the human and environmental costs associated with modern conservation approaches through this colonial lens. This article concludes by reflecting on approaches that respect environmental and human rights.
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