Blog / May 7, 2015

Whose voice first? An open request to the Guardian

Last week, Guardian online published an open letter calling for “a new approach to conservation, one that respects tribal peoples’ rights.” The letter was signed by a number of leading Western campaigners – including Eric Avebury, Noam Chomsky, Ben Goldsmith, Zac Goldsmith MP, Tony Juniper, George Monbiot and Jonathon Porritt. It stressed how indigenous peoples are the best stewards of our natural environment but are increasingly being forced off their land amid the global scramble for land and resources. As a recent Global Witness report shows, these evictions are becoming ever more murderous.  

The plight of indigenous peoples defending their land is a hugely important issue, but is woefully under-reported. The prominent names on the Guardian’s letter will no doubt help propel this message into the mainstream, making this an admirable endeavour. But it is worth raising how much better would it be if those prominent voices were joined, or ultimately succeeded, by those directly affected?

The only indigenous name was that of Brazilian activist, Davi Yanonmami. Giving voice to those most affected by injustice is integral to campaigning – environmental or otherwise - and this should extend to the media. There is often a paradoxical north/ south dynamic in campaigning discourse, whereby the voice of the developed world presides over the voices of those most affected in emerging economies. These power structures need to be challenged.

‘People-centred’ conservation has been at the centre of environmental and human rights discourse for decades. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Parks Congress in 2003 called for an approach which would equally empower local communities, including indigenous peoples.   The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 168 countries worldwide, also takes a holistic approach, recognising that poverty alleviation and conservation go hand in hand. Putting communities in charge of their forests is having a transformative effect, as stories from forest peoples in Africa and Latin America collected by Global Witness reveal.

The Guardian should use its status to bring indigenous voices to the forefront of such calls to action. The paper could help convene leading activists in the fight against environmental destruction and human rights abuses to meet with leading decision-makers, just as the Goldman Environmental Prize recently did. This would enable them to speak on their experiences, express their views, and discuss solutions relevant to their own unique perspectives.

As the fight for natural resources intensifies, indigenous communities are literally putting their lives on the line to protect their land, forests and rivers.  These people above anyone should be at the forefront of decisions about the fate of the natural environment, not side-lined in decision-making or thrown off their land. Only then will their rights be truly respected.