Walk into any conference on biodiversity or natural resources conservation today and you’ll find a whole host of characters that 10 years ago had no business or interest being there. Representatives from large companies, economists, vice-ministers for business development, UN agencies with annoying acronyms and consultants who always seem reluctant to reveal their area of expertise. This mixed bunch of folks are a bit like tourists who stumble into a local bar; tolerated as long as they keep quiet and pay for their drinks (at special tourist rates of course). Occasionally they are allowed on stage provided they punctuate their talks with suitable phrases like sustainable development, triple bottom lines and win-win situations.

The only ‘stakeholder’ you don’t see is a representative of indigenous people. I mean the real kind not someone who has ‘worked’ with them for 20 years. There is no shortage of representatives claiming to know what indigenous people want and willing to make decisions on their behalf. All one has to do is mention Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, Equitable Sharing of Benefits and Prior Free Informed Consent a few times and the box on indigenous people concerns is ticked.

That conservation organisations do not have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of indigenous people has become increasingly obvious. For example, the Resolution of Amazonian Indigenous Forum on Climate Change states in its introduction that;

“Considering that the positions and measures taken by the majority of the NGOs and their representatives do not represent our viewpoint in the decision making process in the negotiations and agreements on the Kyoto Protocol and its consequences;”

When indigenous people do make it to conservation forums, they end up feeling marginalised. For example, at the ad hoc Working Group on Protected Areas of the Convention on Biodiversity in 2008, members of the International Indigenous Forum of Biodiversity staged a walkout to protest against not being taken seriously. In their statement they said that;

“the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) withdrew from the Working Group on Protected Areas because on the previous two days, indigenous peoples were not given the floor on matters of concern to them in a timely manner. This led to missed opportunities for indigenous peoples’ comments and proposed text to be appropriately discussed and reflected in the conference room papers (CRPs)”

Indigenous groups are still hurting from the failure of big conservation organisations to support local movements relating to forest rights, land tenure, extractive industry and encroachment of forests by non-indigenous people. Lack of opportunities for meaningful representation and marginalisation is definitely not the way to rebuild trust. When it comes to indigenous people issues, conservationists tend to shy away as they believe it is a complicated minefield that is best left to others. If conservationists can spend lifetimes in hostile environments trying to understand what makes elusive species tick, they sure can spend some time trying to understand how to regain the trust of indigenous communities.