Towards a rights-based model of conservation

In light of the recent pipeline conflict and the fraught deadlock Canada has found itself in, Madison Stevens talks about the intersection of stewardship rights and conservation, where people may find ways to reduce community friction and promote greater understanding.

From a BA in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from Franklin University in Switzerland, to the pursuit of a PhD at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Stevens has come a long way. Her work in conservation has taken her from the Wapusk National Park Leadership Camp in Manitoba with Polar Bears International, to Uttarakhand in India for her current research. Her doctoral research on the intersection of human rights and biodiversity conservation has led her to explore approaches to the complex overlap of these two needs.

The cost of conservation efforts

Looking at history, Stevens says, it becomes clear that the cost of conservation efforts was, and sometimes still is, human rights abuses. “Much of the world’s conservation practice has been what we called ‘fortress conservation’. Essentially, you build a wall and you say that the wildlife is inside, and the people are outside,” she says. “ And that’s been the dominant model for conservation around the world for a while now, at least since 1872, when Yellowstone National Park was founded. This model would lead to the displacement of millions of people.”

Madison Stevens. | Photo courtesy of UBC

There has been a widespread displacement of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and the abuse of their rights to resources, or their rights to participate in decision making. “Conceptions of conservation began to shift in the 80s or 90s to a mode of ‘participatory conservation’, which was the second kind of conservation model, often involving varying degrees of consultation and benefit sharing”, says Stevens

One of the biggest landmark moments, she explains, happened at the 2003 International Union for Conservation of Nature World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, when a group of activists protested prioritizing conservation over human rights. “It was about giving the right of decision-making to the people who lived in and around regions of the parks and protected spaces. This resulted in what we call the ‘new paradigm’, which is rights-centric,” she explains.

Thinking inclusively about conservation

One often hears about ‘stewardship rights’, but what exactly are they? Stevens clarifies. “What I mean by stewardship rights are the rights which enable communities – particularly Indigenous and other local communities – to effectively take care of the land and territories they call home,” she says. “ That involves unpacking the terms ‘territories’ and ‘taking care’, about which many people have different perspectives and priorities, and so it isn’t as straightforward as it seems. A lot of the rights that stewardship involves are procedural rights, such as decision-making”.

Canada has been home to the First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples since time immemorial. Later, it also became a settler-colonial nation. Stevens observes that this makes it a complicated case. In addition to Indigenous People’s rights, the rights of other vulnerable groups, such as migrants, are something she still struggles with when thinking about an inclusive paradigm for conservation.

“When one asks how we are to promote conservation in settler-colonial regions, I feel like the best course of action is to start by defining ‘we’,” Stevens explains. “Who is the ‘we’ that gets to make the decisions about conservation? Historically in Canada, the ‘we’ that made the conservation decisions has been the Crown, which is dominated by a settler-colonial process. Who gets to decide is important because that’s where the procedural rights come in?”. She points out that Canada is home to many successful conservation efforts. “There are some successful cases of co-management here. Wapusk National Park, where I was working, is a protected, co-managed area. It is managed by a panel which includes Cree, Metis, Dene and Inuit, as well as the federal and provincial governments,” she says.

It may be a complex and tough road ahead to balance the two goals of human rights and biodiversity conservation, but Stevens remains optimistic. “We need to be comfortable with sitting down with complexity,” she adds.

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