Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part three

By Nick Leeson and Jacqueline Ohayon

Law360 Canada (October 18, 2023, 8:33 AM EDT) --
Nick Leeson
Jacqueline Ohayon
Jacqueline Ohayon
Having previously explored the structure and essence of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), it becomes even more crucial to contextualize them against the backdrop of colonial conservation practices. Understanding the divide between Western-style conservation and the approach taken under IPCAs is crucial to appreciating their profound impact on conservation practices and Indigenous sovereignty.

Historically, extractive practices and conservation efforts have often collaborated to deflect public criticism of the environmental damage caused by extractive industries. Both sectors tend to commodify natural areas for different commercial uses, whether this be through tourism or resource development. In this regard, both extractivism and many conservation efforts have dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of their territories for capital gain.

Conservation, colonialism

Tracing back, conservation in the past has been used to justify colonial expansion and has operated as a form of “conservation-via-dispossession.” European-derived conservation efforts, which are based on the idea of “human vs. nature,” often centre on preserving “wilderness,” seen as that which is “untouched” by humans as the answer to environmental degradation.

In Canada, this often meant displacing Indigenous communities to pave the way for National Parks. Even today, as a recent report for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples noted, in many state-protected areas, “Indigenous peoples are denied their rights to land and resources, self-determination and autonomy, and cultural heritage, and suffer from forced evictions, killings, physical violence and abusive prosecution.”

The idealization of “pure” and untouched nature in Eurocentric conservation discourse, or what is referred to as “fortress style” conservation, clashes with Indigenous worldviews, effectively ignoring or seeking to erase their inherent relationships with their lands and waters. Crown-led conservation efforts that disregard Indigenous sovereignty reproduce the colonial myth of terra nullius, which was used to excuse the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous Peoples after first contact.

Evaluating impact of colonial conservation approaches

The effectiveness of colonial conservation approaches has been questioned. It has often led to uncertain ecological results. A 2013 study by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development highlighted significant disparities between the commitments made by Parks Canada and their actual accomplishments. The study showed that less than half of all parks were in satisfactory condition, and that ecosystem health was getting worse in 43 per cent of the parks that were in fair condition. In addition, both Parks Canada and various non-governmental conservation organizations have raised concerns over the health of ecosystems within Crown-managed parks.

Studies show that “fortress-style” conservation can exacerbate ecological degradation and social inequality. Extractive activities often occur near park boundaries, affecting primarily Indigenous communities and other racialized minorities. Some critics of the Eurocentric conservation paradigm convincingly argue that relying on the same system that caused ecological degradation won’t halt it.

Understanding diverse Indigenous approaches to land relationships

It is paramount to highlight and understand there is no single pan-Indigenous approach to relationships with their lands and waters. The vast diversity of cultures and knowledge is intimately linked to the diversity of ecosystems and bioregions that different communities have been tied to for millennia. This diversity exists not only across but also within Indigenous Nations. Understanding this helps to avoid oversimplifying Indigenous cultures, which flattens complexities and reinforces harmful stereotypes.

Indigenous knowledge systems, ecological integrity

While avoiding oversimplification or generalizing Indigenous Peoples is critical, many Indigenous knowledge systems and practices prioritize the health of ecosystems as part of a holistic approach to ensure collective well-being. They form relationships with human and non-human kin, across time and space, and embody ways of cultivating reciprocity with and responsibility towards the natural environment. Indigenous law, culture, sovereignty and livelihood are tightly bound to their territories.

Indigenous governance, role of guardians programs

Guardian programs led by Indigenous communities are a modern manifestation of this two-way relationship, presenting a stark contrast to dominant European-derived concepts of conserved areas. Guardians act as stewards, guided by Indigenous knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. They maintain the balance between the use and protection of the land.

These programs go beyond mainstream conceptions of park rangers in state-led conservation initiatives, employing Indigenous knowledge holders and community members as land stewards. Guardian programs act as vessels for revitalizing cultural practices and knowledge central to Indigenous sovereignty.

IPCAs as beacon of Indigenous self-determination

Guardian programs underline the importance of Indigenous stewardship and its centrality to cultural, linguistic and legal resurgence. While colonial endeavours have tried to suppress and overshadow Indigenous Peoples, initiatives under the IPCA umbrella have emerged as a counterforce. They mobilize traditional knowledge towards managing ancestral territories, challenging the status quo of conservation.

IPCAs provide a compelling alternative to conventional conservation models. They challenge colonial conservation approaches and provide opportunities for the resurgence of Indigenous laws, knowledge and cultures. They are not merely conservation initiatives but robust embodiments of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination — a testament to the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determine their futures. As Canada inches towards embracing IPCAs, a horizon of transformative potential unfolds.

As we move to the next and final part of our four-part series of articles on Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in Canada, we’ll focus on their future trajectory. How do they align with global conservation efforts? And what promises and challenges do they herald? Join us as we dive deeper into these crucial discussions.
This is the third instalment of a four-part article. Part one: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities in bridging conservation, reconciliation. Part two: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part two.

Nick Leeson is a senior counsel with Woodward & Company LLP, a law firm located in Victoria, B.C. and Whitehorse, Yukon. His practice is based out of British Columbia, from where he represents Indigenous clients and interests from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Jacqueline Ohayon is a term student with Woodward LLP. She is also a master’s in law student (LL.M.) at the University of Victoria. Her research focuses on settler allyship in contexts of Indigenous ecological stewardship and governance.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, LexisNexis Canada, Law360 Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

Photo credit / Valerii Molodavkin ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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