Indigenous peoples: Conservation paradox

Phil O'B. Lyver Jason M. Tylianakis

Building resilience in ecosystems, including the involvement of people in a social and ecological context.

This paper deals with an issue of importance in the NZ context, but is international in its scope. It highlights an important class of social feedback, which can drive ecosystem decline. This feedback emerges from a paradoxical disconnect between the stated importance of indigenous peoples to conservation aims (in national and international policy) and the legislative exclusion of indigenous peoples from carrying out management practices in their own cultural context.


The customs and culture of indigenous peoples often reflect a deep knowledge of local biodiversity that leads to ecologically responsible behavior. As a result, conservationists advocate the engagement of indigenous peoples in environmental protection programs. However, such programs often limit the use of fauna and flora without regard for indigenous peoples. By interfering with indigenous peoples' connection to nature, restrictive policies undermine the people who could serve as the first line of defense in conservation. Such policies often break the integral relationships indigenous peoples have with the environment, such as those held by the Māori people in New Zealand , the Innu and Inuit in Canada, the San in Botswana, the Manggarai in Indonesia, and the Soliga in India.

Despite good intentions, protectionist policies can turn local peoples against conservation and authorities instead of empowering them to take an active role in protecting their land. By preventing people from using the land according to their traditions, these policies also lead to the loss of knowledge that could help future generations respond and adapt to environmental changes. For example, small-scale fire management by Aboriginal people in Australia maintains local vegetation diversity by preventing larger natural fires and creates opportunities to harvest both flora and fauna. When local people are prohibited from acting according to their traditions, community kinship is lost and adherence to customary norms declines. This may lead to rogue behavior such as overharvesting or harvest of the wrong life stages, and to a tragedy of the commons situation as individuals use resources according to their own self-interest rather than that of the community.

As environmental conditions deteriorate, conservation policies become stricter, creating a feedback loop in which even temporary restrictions to resource access could cause irreversible ongoing harm to both biological and cultural diversity. It is critical, therefore, that conservation efforts also protect the continuity of indigenous peoples' relationships with their environments.


Lyver P O'B, Tylianakis J.M. 2017. Indigenous peoples: Conservation paradox. Science, Vol. 357 (Issue 6347): 142-143.
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0780