Many of our Planet’s most beautiful areas are also sites of intense conflicts because finding the right balance between protecting the environment and securing social justice for indigenous and forest-dependent people is not so simple.
This is the issue addressed in an article published recently on Grist by Kashwan Prakash, author of the book 'Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico'. According to Kashwan, conflicts are about frequent violations of local people’s forest and land rights but Mexico’s experience shows it is possible to protect land rights without harming natural resources. After the Mexican revolution, in fact, the government put nearly 70% of the country's forestland under the control of peasant collectives and, along with strong social mobilization, this process gave peasants a voice in in political and policy decisions. Contrary to fears that political populism would cause large-scale destruction of forests, these reforms in Mexico have contributed to the sustainable protection of Mexico's forest and wildlife resources.
Things are very different in Tanzania and India. In 2014, safaris and tourism generated 25% of Tanzania’s foreign exchange earnings and 17% of the country’s total GDP but government and forestry agencies continue to deprive local groups of constitutionally mandated opportunities for benefits from wildlife tourism, leaving more than a third of residents in severe poverty. Similarly, India has abundant natural resources and has experienced rapid economic growth over the past two decades, but has yet to secure social and environmental justice for its 300 million indigenous and forest-dependent people.
Prakash Kashwan's research shows that when countries protect the rights of forest-dependent people and support popular participation in the political process, they are better able to handle conflicts related to the environment and its conservation. The research carried out by the Rights and Resource Initiative, the Woods Hole Research Center and World Resources Institute show that areas managed by indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent groups account for at least 24% of the carbon stored above-ground in the world’s tropical forests. If forest conservation efforts fail, they will worsen the effects of climate change, thereby endangering national and international security in the years and decades to come.