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Striving for Coexistence: Indigenous Peoples and Conservation in the Manu National Park

With over 400 Indigenous communities and more kinds of animals and plants documented than any other terrestrial environment on Earth, the Amazon is a global hotspot of biocultural variety (Gorenflo et al. 2012). The indigenous groups living in the Amazon are a vital element that shaped the past and will influence the future of the region, as they manage approximately 27% of the biome (RAISG, 2020). However, conservation, as presented in Western discourses and methods of approach, is highly implemented in these areas. These approaches have had a huge impact on the indigenous population, as they brought about human displacement and land alienation, as well as restrictions on livelihood activities and access to resources (Brockington and Igoe, 2006; West et al., 2006; Agrawal and Redford, 2009; Dowie, 2009). This article explores the conservation challenges and opportunities in Manu National Park, highlighting the importance of balancing conservation objectives with the needs and aspirations of indigenous communities.  


Defining Conservation

Conservation refers to the protection, preservation, and sustainable management of natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity. It involves the responsible use and stewardship of natural resources to ensure their long-term viability and the maintenance of ecological balance. It can be defined as the safeguarding of wildlife from irreversible harm, encompassing all nondomestic species, populations of plants, microorganisms, and animals, along with their habitats (Hambler & Canney, 2013). Harm, in this context, refers to damage or declines attributed to human activities. Notably, conservation also involves mitigating irreversible harm within a single human generation, thereby reducing the impact of one generation on the welfare of future generations. The World Conservation Strategy of 1980 offers a broader perspective, defining conservation as "the management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to the present generation while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations" (Hambler & Canney, 2013). However, this definition has faced criticism for its anthropocentric focus on nature's utility to humans rather than valuing nature intrinsically.


The Manu National Park


Manu National Park is a globally recognized conservation area, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to an incredible array of plant and animal species, including several endangered and endemic species. The park's diverse ecosystems, ranging from lowland rainforests to high-altitude grasslands, contribute to its ecological importance. The history of Manu National Park dates back to the mid-20th century (Castañeda, 2018). In the 1950s, the notion of establishing a protected area in the Manu region gained momentum due to its remarkable biodiversity and unique ecosystems. By the 1960s, the Peruvian government, backed by international conservation entities, began exploring the creation of a national park in the area. In 1973, the Peruvian government officially established Manu National Park, with the primary objective of safeguarding the region's rich biodiversity and ecosystems (Castañeda, 2018). Recognized for its exceptional universal value, the park attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1977. Throughout the 1980s, the park faced numerous challenges, such as illegal logging, poaching, and encroachment by settlers. However, conservation organizations and indigenous communities collaborated to protect the park and combat these threats. In the 1990s, efforts were intensified to involve local communities in the park's management and conservation through participatory approaches and community-based initiatives. Today, Manu National Park remains a vital conservation area in Peru and a biodiversity hotspot, managed by the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) with support from various national and international organizations (Castañeda, 2018).

Figure 1: Map of the Manu National Park showing areas of conservation and the extractive interests adjacent (Marris & James, 2016).
On the Nature-Culture Dichotomy

The process of naturalizing nature refers to the idea that nature is seen as something separate from human society and untouched by human influence. This concept has its roots in the Enlightenment period and has been perpetuated through colonial ways of understanding social difference and the "Other" (Castañeda, 2018). According to Ecological-evolutionary theory (EET), humans are seen as a threat to the natural system when they deviate from traditional practices. In this sense, conservation is seen as a form of governmentality that seeks to control and govern certain subjects over a specific territory. It operates through a combination of mentalities, organizational apparatuses, spatial layout, technologies, and control devices (Castañeda, 2018). The Manu National Park is not only one of the most valuable areas within the SINANPE (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado—National System of Natural Areas that are protected by the Government), but it is also a national park, whose conservation and protection represent a priority for the Peruvian National Park System. The high level of protection in Manu National Park (one of the most restrictive categories in the SINANPE, with more than 95% of the park zoned at the maximum level of protection) is based on limiting human activities to avoid alterations to ecological processes and conserve biodiversity (Tauli et al., 2018). The imaginaries of nature and indigeneity shape the perception of Manu National Park as a "virgin" paradise without humans. These imaginaries are influenced by colonial ways of understanding social differences and the persistent influence of Western dualisms (Castañeda, 2018).

Imaginaries about nature and indigenous people significantly influence policies and treatment within Manu National Park. Indigenous people are often romanticized as "guardians of nature" or "ecological natives," reinforcing the perception of their harmonious coexistence with the environment and framing them as natural allies of conservation efforts. However, they are also exoticized and othered, depicted as different and primitive, which can lead to policies restricting their access to resources or development opportunities (Castañeda, 2018). Conservation efforts may prioritize preserving traditional indigenous culture, sometimes freezing it in time and overlooking community agency and adaptation. More often than not, this approach of nature/culture dichotomy clashes with the lifestyle of the indigenous inhabitants of the area, resulting in their actions being limited, their collective rights infringed upon, or them being held to standards that are nearly impossible to live up to in practice (Tauli et al., 2018; West et al., 2006). Additionally, the separation of nature and culture within park management can neglect the social and economic needs of indigenous communities. Surveillance and control measures aimed at protecting the park's ecological integrity can further strain relations, imposing restrictions on resource use and traditional practices. This results in conflicts over the importance of the socio-economic development of the Indigenous Peoples belonging to the Yora, Mashko-Piro, Matsiguenka, Harakmbut, Wachipaeri, and Yine ethnic groups that are present in the area, as well as in legislative conflicts over land rights and political conflicts with governmental or nongovernmental actors that are driven by interests in logging, mining, and petrochemical exploration (Timmons, 2003).

Figure 2: On the Manu River (Patry, 2010).
Indigenous Peoples and Conservation


The intersection between conservation efforts and indigenous rights reveals a complex dynamic fraught with tension and conflict. While conservationists prioritize safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems, their actions often encroach upon indigenous peoples' ancestral lands and traditional practices (Castañeda, 2018). The establishment of protected areas, though aiming to preserve natural habitats, can lead to the forced displacement of indigenous communities, disrupting their social fabric and cultural identity. The imbalance of power in these interactions, with conservationists holding greater resources and decision-making authority, further marginalizes indigenous voices, perpetuating historical injustices and exacerbating social inequalities (Castañeda, 2018). From 1973 to 2019, the relationship between Protected Areas (PAs) and indigenous communities has been marred by crises, including health system vacuums leading to increased infant mortality rates, sedentarization efforts disrupting traditional ways of life and leading to cultural assimilation, and conflicts over land use and resource management within or near PAs (Altamirano, 2021). Ethnocentric perspectives often view indigenous peoples as obstacles to conservation, neglecting their valuable traditional ecological knowledge essential for sustainable resource management and biodiversity conservation, thus undermining effective conservation strategies and partnerships (Altamirano, 2021).

In the context of Manu National Park and similar regions, conflicts arise from competing interests over natural resources, exacerbating the challenges faced by indigenous communities. Encroachment by settlers, restrictions on traditional practices like hunting and gathering, and limited access to resources underscore the need for inclusive conservation approaches (Altamirano, 2021). Balancing conservation objectives with the livelihoods of local communities is crucial, necessitating sustainable resource management strategies and community-based initiatives. However, the criminalization of traditional practices and the economic costs of resettlement programs highlight systemic issues that must be addressed through rights-based approaches, equitable collaboration, and the prioritization of indigenous rights and knowledge in conservation efforts.


Governance, Conservation Practices, and the Fight for Resources


Conservation initiatives inherently shape the socio-political landscape of the area they aim to protect. In other words, conservation is not just about preserving natural spaces; it also involves establishing a particular political order that governs how people interact with and utilize those spaces (Castañeda, 2018). The governance practices within Manu National Park shape socio-spatial processes by defining relationships between different stakeholders, including indigenous communities, governmental authorities, conservation organizations, and tourists. For instance, policies regarding land use, resource extraction, and cultural practices within the park are governed by a set of regulations that influence how indigenous peoples interact with their environment (Castañeda, 2018). The exclusionary nature of conservation governance in Manu National Park reflects the production of a political order that prioritizes conservation objectives over the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities often find themselves marginalized and excluded from decision-making processes, as the park's management is heavily influenced by colonial imaginaries and exoticizing repertoires that position indigenous peoples as traditional subjects disconnected from modernity and development. This perspective perpetuates a state of exception within the park, where indigenous communities are governed but lack agency in decision-making processes (Castañeda, 2018).

Figure 3: Children in Yomibato carry pots to make masato, a casava beer (James, n.d).

Furthermore, the governmentality of conservation in Manu National Park strips indigenous peoples of citizenship rights, as they are subjected to strict regulations and limited agency in land use and cultural practices, perpetuating a narrative of bestialization where their legal and political identities are eroded (Castañeda, 2018). The institutional arrangements of Manu National Park (PNM) employ a multifaceted approach to controlling access to nature and resources, primarily through legal frameworks, zoning systems, permits, park rangers, surveillance, and community engagement. These mechanisms aim to regulate human activities within the park to safeguard biodiversity and ecological integrity (Castañeda, 2018). The legal designation establishes the park's protected status, while zoning and regulations delineate permissible activities in different zones. Permits are required for specified activities, and park rangers enforce regulations through patrols and inspections. Surveillance technologies supplement enforcement efforts (Castañeda, 2018). Additionally, the park may engage local communities in collaborative management approaches, recognizing traditional knowledge and rights. However, this control-focused approach sometimes sidelines social issues, leading to fragmented governance and a "state of nature" that prioritizes preservation over improvement (Castañeda, 2018).

In addition to the contradictory laws governing land titles in parks, the legislation that limits indigenous activities in parks is also a key issue for these communities. For instance, several important laws grant ancestral indigenous populations the right to remain in parks as long as their traditional activities do not interfere with a park’s conservation goals. Yet, even if indigenous activities are blocked out, the park is still vulnerable to harmful activities such as illegal logging and mining, as well as resource exploitation and road construction (Tauli et al., 2018). Matsigenka inhabitants of Manu Park thought that the park was "at best, a nuisance, and at worst, an oppressor and a menace, denying them access to goods, services, and the market economy without providing any obvious benefits in return" (Timmons, 2003). In August 2017, in a report issued by Mongabay, it was stated that despite the richness of Manu National Park, the inhabitants were extremely vulnerable, with cases of people dying even from a common cold (Tauli et al., 2018). According to Julio Cusurichi, President of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (FENAMAD), the condition of the National Park and its Native Tribes is indicative of the clash that exists between nature conservation and Indigenous Peoples' basic rights. Furthermore, he stated that indigenous communities are obligated to subsistence activities such as hunting and fishing and are unable to engage in other economic or creative activities that would allow them to live with dignity. Nevertheless, the indigenes lack access to multicultural education, comprehensive health care, and basic social rights (Tauli et al., 2018). 

Figure 4: Manu National Park, from its highest point, into the Amazon basin below (Patry, 2010).
Land Rights as a Neo-Colonialist Approach and the Disregard for Indigenous Sovereignty and Self-Determination

Displacement can be defined as the involuntary physical removal of people from their historical or existing home areas as a result of actions by governments or other organizational actors. It involves the forced relocation of individuals or communities from their lands, often without their free, prior, and informed consent (Agrawal & Redford, 2009). Displacement can occur due to various reasons, including the establishment of protected areas, infrastructure development projects, land acquisition for resource extraction, or conflict situations. It can result in the loss of homes, livelihoods, cultural connections, and social networks, leading to significant social, economic, and psychological impacts on the affected individuals and communities (Agrawal & Redford, 2009). The discourse on conservation-induced displacement, as articulated by Agrawal and Redford (2009), delineates the multifaceted nature of displacement, encompassing both physical removal from ancestral lands and the deprivation of resource access. Such displacement is not merely a matter of spatial relocation but entails the exclusion of marginalized communities from their traditional resources and habitats, amplifying the ethical quandaries inherent in conservation efforts. Criticism directed towards conservation programs is rooted in the palpable misery inflicted upon vulnerable populations, challenging the moral underpinnings of biodiversity conservation. This critique underscores the imperative for conservation initiatives to confront the adverse human impacts they engender, particularly among politically marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups (Agrawal & Redford, 2009). Moreover, the absence of comprehensive guidelines from major international conservation bodies exacerbates the plight of displaced communities, standing in stark contrast to efforts addressing development-induced displacement. The spatial dynamics intrinsic to conservation necessitate restrictions on human activities within designated areas, predominantly through the establishment of protected areas. However, the implementation of such measures often precipitates uncertainty and displacement for local residents, further exacerbating social dislocation and economic disempowerment (Agrawal & Redford, 2009).

Colonial ideologies persist within conservation policies, prioritizing biodiversity protection over indigenous sovereignty and perpetuating injustices (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). For instance, the wilderness ideal in conservation discourse perpetuates the exclusion of humans from protected areas, leading to conflicts and destructive responses from marginalized communities (Rosenzweig, 2003). In this sense, the direct violence and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, what Patrick Wolfe (2006) has termed a settler-colonial logic of elimination, is not an event but a structure that perpetuates the neo-colonial attitude towards the indigenous communities (Urzedo, D., & Chatterjee 2021). The creation of protected areas often overlaps with indigenous territories, leading to legislation that limits indigenous access to their ancestral lands (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020; Stevens, 2014). When PNM was created in 1973, Peruvian law did not yet recognize indigenous territories, which resulted in the state reserving the right to make land-use decisions, thus expelling indigenes from their own traditional territories or subjecting them to exploitative economic relations (Timmons, 2003). Official recognition for indigenous groups often proves challenging due to bureaucratic hurdles and elitist gatekeeping, further entrenching inequalities and tensions (Brockington, Igoe, & Schmidt-Soltau, 2006). In the case of PNM, although all four "stable" indigenous communities have been officially recognized, none have titled land (Tauli et al., 2018), reflecting the persistent lack of recognition of indigenous rights, including land ownership (Urzedo, D., & Chatterjee, 2021). The perpetuation of settler-colonial logic maintains a neo-colonial attitude toward indigenous communities, resulting in ongoing violence and dispossession (Urzedo, D., & Chatterjee, 2021). Conservation efforts are complicated by the politics of indigeneity, with non-governmental organizations sometimes exacerbating marginalization dynamics while representing indigenous peoples (Brockington, Igoe, & Schmidt-Soltau, 2006).

Figure 5: Matsigenka people in the national park along the Manú River and its tributaries (James, 2016).

In conclusion, the conservation efforts in Manu National Park exemplify the intricate interplay between biodiversity protection, indigenous rights, and socio-political dynamics. While the park stands as a beacon of global conservation, its history is marked by tensions and conflicts arising from the imposition of conservation practices on indigenous communities. The dichotomy between nature and culture, perpetuated by colonial ideologies, underpins conservation policies, often marginalizing and disenfranchising indigenous peoples. Displacement, restricted access to resources, and limited agency in decision-making processes underscore the challenges faced by indigenous communities within conservation paradigms. The governance practices within the park reflect a state of exception, prioritizing conservation objectives over indigenous rights and well-being. Furthermore, the persistence of neo-colonial attitudes perpetuates injustices, undermining indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Addressing these challenges necessitates a paradigm shift towards inclusive conservation approaches that prioritize indigenous knowledge, rights, and aspirations. Balancing conservation objectives with the socio-economic development of indigenous communities is paramount to fostering sustainable coexistence and equitable partnerships. Ultimately, the journey towards effective conservation in Manu National Park and beyond must prioritize the decolonization of conservation practices to ensure indigenous and long-term justice for both ecosystems and communities.

Bibliographic References

Agrawal, A., & Redford, K. (2009). Conservation and displacement: an overview. Conservation and society, 7(1), 1-10.

Altamirano, A. G. (2021). El Parque Nacional del Manu, los pueblos indígenas y sus derechos: situación actual y tendencias. Revista de antropología, (8), 37-60.

Brockington, D., Igoe, J., & Schmidt-Soltau, K. (2006). Conservation, human rights, and poverty reduction. Conservation Biology, 20(1), 250-252.

Domínguez, L., & Luoma, C. (2020). Decolonising conservation policy: How colonial land and conservation ideologies persist and perpetuate indigenous injustices at the expense of the environment. Land, 9(3), 65.

Gorenflo, L. J., Romaine, S., Mittermeier, R. A., & Walker-Painemilla, K. (2012). Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8032-8037.

Hambler, C., & Canney, S. M. (2013). Conservation. Cambridge University Press.

RAISG  (Rede Amazônica  de  Informação  Socioambiental  Georreferenciada). 2020.  Online  map.  Amazon  Network  of  Geo-Referenced  SocioEnvironmental  Information.

Castañeda, C. R. (2018). Bridging nature and culture in the Manu National Park: Towards a critique of protected areas. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 37(4), 467-481.

Rosenzweig, M. L. (2003). Win-win ecology: how the earth's species can survive in the midst of human enterprise. Oxford University Press.

Stevens, S. (2014). Advancing the new paradigm. Indigenous peoples, national parks, and protected areas: a new paradigm linking conservation, culture, and rights, 283.

Tauli-Corpuz, V., Alcorn, J., Molnar, A., Healy, C., & Barrow, E. (2020). Cornered by PAs: Adopting rights-based approaches to enable cost-effective conservation and climate action. World Development, 130, 104923.

Timmons, J. R. (2003). Trouble in paradise: Globalization and environmental crises in Latin America. Routledge.

Urzedo, D., & Chatterjee, P. (2022). The colonial reproduction of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Violence against Indigenous peoples for land development. In The Genocide-Ecocide Nexus (pp. 146-168). Routledge.

West, P., Igoe, J., & Brockington, D. (2006). Parks and peoples: the social impact of protected areas. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 35, 251-277.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of genocide research, 8(4), 387-409.

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I see the challenges of balancing conservation goals with the needs and rights of indigenous Buckshot Roulette communities residing within protected areas like Manu National Park.

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Ioana-Sorina Alexa

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