Study: Indigenous lands have superior environmental quality despite armed conflict



  • Global biodiversity hotspots cover only 2.4% of the Earth’s landmass, but were the site of more than 80% of armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000, some of which are currently occurring. But it continues.
  • Armed conflicts caused by a variety of factors cause significant losses to biodiversity and affect the way of life of indigenous peoples.
  • Four-fifths of armed conflicts in biodiversity hotspots occur on indigenous lands, but these areas are less ecological than conflict-affected non-indigenous lands, according to a new study. remains in good condition.
  • This study highlights the role that indigenous peoples play in environmental conservation and emphasizes that indigenous self-determination is key to environmental conservation and armed conflict prevention.

For nearly 2,000 years, the indigenous Karen people of southeastern Myanmar have lived a relatively peaceful life in the hilly forests that are part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. But for the past 70 years, Karen civilians have been caught up in the world’s longest armed conflict between the Karen National Union and Myanmar’s military junta. The armed conflict is a fight for ethnic self-determination that is part of Myanmar’s broader civil war.

For them, the forests once managed by their ancestors are also a refuge from the military regime’s repeated airstrikes on villages, schools, and hospitals.

“Even when the Burmese military came in the past, the reason we always had a safe place to evacuate is because they protected forests and maintained biodiversity,” said the nonprofit organization Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN). said program advisor Casper Palmano. ), based in neighboring Thailand.

Armed conflicts in biodiversity hotspots, such as the one faced by the Karen people, are not unique to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Between 1950 and 2000, nine out of 10 major armed conflicts occurred in countries with areas rich in biodiversity. More than 80% of these conflicts in hotspots result in large-scale biodiversity loss, deforestation, and other environmental impacts.

Villagers seek shelter after an airstrike on an internally displaced persons camp in Salween Peace Park in March 2021. Image courtesy of KESAN.
Karen villagers seek shelter at an internally displaced persons camp in the Salween Peace Park, a biodiversity hotspot in Indo-Burma, after airstrikes in March 2021. Image courtesy of KESAN.

And a recent study published in the same journal found that over the past 70 years, a disproportionate number of such armed conflicts have occurred, with around four-fifths also occurring on indigenous lands within biodiversity hotspots. are doing. biological conservation. Indigenous peoples face indiscriminate killings, forced displacement, and cultural collapse as societies and economies irrevocably change.

Despite the conflict, these lands experienced less environmental damage and human impact than other lands exposed to the same external pressures but not designated as indigenous lands.

The study found that a quarter, or 25%, of the area of ​​conflict-affected indigenous land within the biodiversity hotspot is ‘natural land’, meaning it has not been modified by humans and has no biodiversity. It was found that this is an area that is likely to support In comparison, only 10% of other lands facing armed conflict were “natural lands.”

Conflict-affected indigenous lands have also been recorded to have a smaller human footprint compared to other conflict-affected lands in biodiversity hotspots. The study attributes this to the centuries-old relationship that indigenous communities, such as Myanmar’s Karen people, have had with their land and its difficult terrain.

“I knew that indigenous lands had better biodiversity and environmental conditions, but the fact that we actually had these results in so many different conflict situations was a big deal to me. It was a real surprise,” said corresponding author Stephen Garnett from Australia’s Charles Darwin University. said Mongabay.

Factors of armed conflict

Like many of the planet’s last remaining untapped resources, indigenous lands have increasingly become the subject of development and exploitation in recent years.

“These are areas where people have a very caring relationship to their environment, and that environment is left somewhat untouched for that very reason,” says the nonprofit International Nikita Branin of the Indigenous Affairs Working Group (IWGIA) said: Along with studying.

She told Mongabay that there is a lot of economic interest around these indigenous lands because in other areas the resources have been exploited to some extent and there is nothing left.

Jabari Valley indigenous territory
The indigenous territory of the Javari Valley in the Brazilian Amazon spans four municipalities: Atalaia do Norte, Benjamin Constant, Jutay, and São Paulo de Olivenca. Kanamari has an estimated population of 1,600 people. Photo by Bruno Kelly/Amazon Watch.

The study found that 31 of the 36 recognized global biodiversity hotspots include indigenous lands. Of these, 79% have experienced armed conflict in recent decades. In contrast, only half of the other lands within the biodiversity hotspot experienced armed conflict.

In Myanmar’s Kayin State, home to the Karen people, their resource-rich territory is at the center of conflict. These lands contain mineral resources such as gold, some of the world’s best teak forests, and rivers suitable for hydroelectric dam projects. “Influential politicians [the] The military wants to control territory and exploit it to make money,” said Paul Sein Twa, co-founder and executive director of KESAN. “We’re caught in the middle.”

Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Environment did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment by the time of publication.

In some indigenous communities, poverty forces people into the “gray” or informal economy, where they are drawn into further conflict and overexploited once-cherished resources. This can lead to conflicts within and between indigenous communities. In many cases, governments forcibly remove people from their land as part of conservation programs or to extend territorial control, leading to heightened tensions.

And when armed conflict escalates in any type of region, there is significant collateral damage, including to the surrounding environment, said David Berger, an IWGIA advisor.

To conduct the study, researchers used spatial data from indigenous lands, biodiversity hotspots, and 265 armed conflicts that have occurred since the 1940s across South Asia, South America, Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. We analyzed and looked for areas of intersection. We then assess the environmental quality of these intersecting lands by measuring the human impacts observed there, such as road, rail, and waterway construction, cropland and pasture, the built environment, economic activity, and artificial light pollution. estimated.

We then calculated that indigenous lands within conflict-affected biodiversity hotspots have more than twice the proportion of natural land compared to other lands.

“This shows the importance of recognizing indigenous land rights, including in some of the most difficult situations such as armed conflict,” says Philippe Roubillon of the University of British Columbia in Canada. He studies political ecology and war, and has nothing to do with current politics. study.

Group of Experts (GEF) conducts operation to combat illegal gold mining on Kayapo indigenous land
The Group for Specialized Examinations (GEF) is conducting an operation to combat illegal gold mining on the lands of the Kayapo indigenous people in the state of Pará. Image by Ibama via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Over the past year, the Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA) has carried out raids against illegal loggers in the Jamancim National Forest in Brazil’s Pará state. Former President Jair Bolsonaro slashed the Environment Agency’s staff and budget and did not allow its staff to carry weapons when dealing with organized crime, often armed illegal logging and mining. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

The study paints a global picture of how armed conflict impacts indigenous lands in biodiversity hotspots, but only recent data are available for some of the areas studied. could not. “But in the big picture, [from the study] We think it makes sense,” Garnett said.

Berger said this finding resonates with experience in the field. But he added that he was not sure that IWGIA could support that with the available data, and said the research community should work towards updating such important datasets and measurements. Ta.

Supporting peace in conflict zones rich in biodiversity

Preventing armed conflict is the first step toward helping conserve biodiversity in affected areas, but it will be a complex feat. However, indigenous self-determination and participation in mining projects can go a long way in maintaining peace in conflict areas. Rather than displacing communities or halting their livelihoods, working together on conservation projects will also address the root causes of conflict.

“We should actually expect our Indigenous partners to mentor and guide us in conservation efforts, rather than the other way around,” said study co-author says Madeleine Beatty of Conservation International.

IWGIA’s Boulanin points to the example of Myanmar’s award-winning Salween Peace Park, saying indigenous peoples can creatively solve problems if left alone. Established in 2018 by local groups including KESAN, the park spans 5,485 square kilometers (2,118 square miles) and aims to usher in a model of regional peace, conservation and self-determination. However, the park itself has recently been embroiled in the conflict of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war.

Once armed conflict has largely subsided, peace plans will also be needed to protect biodiversity hotspots, the study authors said.

In post-conflict periods, environmental degradation is often greater as the advent of relative peace opens up more land and attracts investment in extractive activities. That makes it even more important to strengthen indigenous rights and protect environmental defenders, Rubiron told Mongabay in an email.

“If the world thinks that the work we’re doing is really important to the whole world,” says Khe Sanh’s Towa. Please support us even in times of armed conflict. ”

Banner image: Vanda Ortega, leader of the Witoto tribe, lives in the forest west of Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil. Image by IMF Photo/Raphael Alves via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Award-winning Indigenous Peace Park becomes embroiled in Myanmar’s violent conflict


Beattie, M., Fa, J. E., Leiper, I., Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Zander, K. K., and Garnett, ST (2023). Even after armed conflict, the environmental quality of indigenous lands in biodiversity hotspots exceeds that of non-indigenous lands. Biological Conservation, 286, 110288. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2023.110288

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