© Cristina Mittermeier

Indigenous Rights and Ecological Justice in Amazonia: Exploring Ethics of Wilderness Conservation

International Perspectives

April 2019 | Volume 25, Number 1

by Helen Kopnina

Anthropologists, political ecologists, and social justice advocates working in biological conservation have mediated between discriminated communities and outsiders, particularly helping to influence public opinion and bring attention to indigenous rights through advocacy work. A less explored area is how indigenous rights relate to ecological justice in Amazonia. As social scientists rarely talk about violence against nonhumans and related wilderness destruction, this case study of conservation in Amazonia explores this new area of concern. Ethical inquiries in conservation also engage with the manifold ways through which human and nonhuman lives are entangled and emplaced within wider ecological relationships, converging in the notion of environmental justice. However, as environmental justice is often conflated with social justice in distribution of natural resources, it often fails to account for overt violence or exploitation of nonhumans (Crist 2012) (Figure 1). Noting interdependence between human and nonhuman species, anthropologist Veronica Strang (2016) observes that a “short-term focus on immediate human interests has longer-term detrimental effects on humans and non-humans alike” (p.259). Strang (2016) notes that the result of privileging exclusive social justice is only a short-term gain at the long-term expense of the nonhumans; this is not a sustainable way to achieve either social or ecological equity.


Kopnina Fig 1

Figure 1 – Silk floss trees (ceiba speciosa), native to South America, are used as material for making canoes, ropes, stuffing, wood pulp for paper, and vegetable oil. In Western societies it has been increasingly popular for flown-in shamans who serve people seeking “cleansing” and “insight” as ingredients to some versions of the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca.


This article develops an argument that we need a more balanced theory and practice of social and ecological justice that not only recognizes the mutually constitutive processes but also human dependency on nature (Washington 2015). It supports the call for the simultaneous provision of justice for all human and nonhuman beings based on the case of conservation in Amazonia.

Recently, protest against protected areas has appeared from an unexpected corner, from academic disciplines that have “environment,” “ecology,” or “conservation” in their titles, namely environmental anthropology, political ecology, and conservation science. The emergence of the so-called critical social science and new conservation, signaled in the Future of Conservation debate (for detailed analysis of it, see Kopnina et al. 2017) opened a venue of moral attacks against both the underlying ethic and practice of conservation.

This article will explore the following questions: Is the idea of ecological justice sufficiently supported in conservation debate, and more pragmatically, in the Amazonian context? Can advocacy of inherent rights be applied to the case of nonhumans? Can indigenous communities still be considered as “traditional” in their treatment of nonhumans? How do human population growth and increased “modernisation” affect Amazonia? (Figure 2)


Kopnina Fig 2

Figure 2 – Local Kayapo people harvesting fish. Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier


Conservation in Amazonia

From the 1980s onward, alarming trends in deforestation and loss of biodiversity in Amazonia have become widely known (Barrett 1980). The largest and possibly most threatened tropical savanna and one of the 25 most important terrestrial hotspots in the world is the Cerrado, a region that occupies the center of South America (Myers et al. 2000). Cerrado, concentrated in an area of 1.86 million square kilometers (718,150 sq. miles), includes 10,000 plant species, 161 mammal species, 837 bird species, 120 reptile species, and 150 amphibian species (Myers et al. 2000). However, even a decade ago the situation of the Cerrado’s biodiversity could be categorized as catastrophic, as only 20% of the region remained undisturbed, and only 1.2% is preserved in protected areas (Mittermeier et al. 1999; Cardoso da Silva et al. 2002). Presently, the situation has worsened due to overexploitation, climate change, and many other associated factors (Lahsen et al. 2016; Mustin et al. 2017). Other places in Amazonia face similar turmoil.

Conservation of Amazonian habitats (Ter Steege et al. 2015) and creation of protected areas has recently helped preserve biodiversity (Watson et al. 2014), including Amazonian endangered species (Pimm et al. 2014) such as giant otter, South American tapir, and red-faced uakari monkey. Strict conservation in the Amazon region prohibiting all economic activities other than very limited “traditional” subsistence activities have been shown to be most effective in Peru (Bodmer and Puertas 2007; Nunez-Iturri et al. 2008; Dourojeanni 2015) and Brazil (Turner 1993; Nepstad et al. 2006; Hahn et al. 2014; Lahsen et al. 2016). Bruner et al. (2001), Nepstad et al. (2006), and Nunez-Iturri et al. (2008) provide evidence that banning all hunting in Amazon protected areas has greatly contributed to biodiversity protection. In Peru, results of animal censuses in the Samiria River basin show a general increase in animal densities of the white-lipped peccary, howler monkey, woolly monkey, lowland tapir, giant river otter, Amazon manatees, and black caimans and agouti between the period of strict control and the period of local community involvement (Bodmer and Puertas 2007).

Indigenous People and Conservation

Indigenous lands occupy one-fifth of the Brazilian Amazon – five times the area under protection in parks (Nepstad et al. 2006). When assessing success of conservation in terms of biodiversity protection, a question of indigenous participation and compensation remains ambiguous.

On the one hand, the indigenous people are seen as the “noble savages” living “in harmony with nature” (Koot 2016) and “natural” protectors of the forests against the encroachment of extractive industries (McSweeney 2005; Orta-Martínez and Finer 2010). Modern forest-dependent indigenous communities are seen as ecologically wise based on the traditional knowledge of their ancestors, and it is assumed that local beliefs and practices that influence the use of biodiversity are essential for understanding sustainable use and conservation policies (Van Vliet et al. 2018). Examples of indigenous communities protecting their forest are well-known, including in Ecuador, where the government allows the exploitation of underground resources in national parks and where oil development has been unsuccessfully but persistently opposed by both indigenous peoples and conservationists (Chicchón 2009). Also, conservation, indigenous rights, and poverty reduction are often seen to go hand in hand. Win-win scenarios in conservation and poverty reduction are often discussed (e.g., Adams et al. 2004; Naughton-Treves et al. 2005). Jane Goodall (2015) reports the results of the TACARE case study, whereby environmental degradation was due to a local community’s strife for survival. Goodall mentions that “ranger forces are underpaid and poorly equipped, making them vulnerable to bribes from poachers” (p. 24). Effectively, a program for poverty alleviation was enacted. Goodall (2015) certainly makes a strong case in favor of the environment and civil actions necessary to keep up the environment and also discusses the economic benefit from nature. (Figure 3)


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Figure 3 – A pet macaw in local Kayapo village. Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier


In describing conservation alliances with local communities, Schwartzman and Zimmerman (2005) note that local support is crucial for conservation, and typically both conservation and indigenous people benefit. As Chicchón (2009) notes in the case of Latin America, the magnitude of the displacement by infrastructure and industrial development in natural areas is much greater than displacement due to the creation of protected areas. In many cases, protected areas have benefited indigenous people because they have established alliances that have brought more national attention to their situations (Chicchón 2009).

On the other hand, due to expanding populations and the use of “modern” weapons by indigenous communities (Jerozolimski and Peres 2003), the “traditional” sustainable relationship with the environment has been scrutinized (Turner 1993). Indeed, indigenous fertility is high, and with the introduction of “modern” medicines, infant mortality is low with populations correspondingly young (Holt et al. 2004; McSweeney 2005).

Although indigenous groups have historically evolved without endangering native flora and fauna, the assumption that they still “live in harmony with nature” is now questioned (Koot 2016; Shoreman-Ouimet and Kopnina 2016). This is due to population expansion and growing needs readily satisfied by food, logging, and mining industries. Indeed, in most parts of the world, indigenous populations are growing (Kirkup 2017), while indigenous populations of nonhumans are declining. Although it is argued that “indigenous population growth need not inevitably lead to resource degradation” (McSweeney 2005, p. 1375), this position discounts the fact that humans, indigenous or not, as large apex predators, have a very significant effect on local ecosystems (Turner 1993). It also assumes that only humans can be indigenous in their habitats. In the Amazon, and elsewhere, deforestation for subsistence agriculture and fuel, or rampant “bush-meat” consumption leads to the “empty forest syndrome” (Crist and Cafaro 2012).

In some situations, “local,” “Native,” and “indigenous” people (as these definitions are not always clear) were involved in conservation-based, income-generating activities (Chicchón 2009). “Traditional” nonmonetary economies have typically collapsed under the influence of industrial development, with protected areas becoming fragmented. Larger reserves without any human interference have greatly increased the efficacy of conservation for endangered species and reduced deforestation (Laurance 2005; Peres 2005). Compromise positions allow habitation and traditional indigenous activities combined with some form of financial compensation for protection of some species from hunting.

The most successful anti-deforestation strategy has been strict protection, allowing neither direct (commercial) or indirect (limited) use of the area (e.g., Boucher et al. 2013; Dourojeanni 2015). There is evidence that human-free zones have been most effective in preserving biodiversity (Bruner et al. 2001; Laurance 2005; Peres 2005). For example, in unfragmented forests of southeastern Peru, which are not strictly protected, regular hunting with firearms rather than traditional weapons for 30 to 40 years, have led to significant reduction of primates compared with protected forests (Nunez-Iturri et al. 2008). Empirical evidence shows that biodiversity strives in habitats minimally disturbed by humans (Jerozolimski and Peres 2003; Buttler 2017).

Although the amount of conserved land in Amazonia has nominally increased recently, there is also sustained resistance to effectively securing protected areas from economic activities (Watson et al. 2014). Part of this shortfall is the predictable resistance by major corporate and political players (Laurance et al. 2004; Ter Steege et al. 2015). The less obvious resistance comes from the critique of conservation itself.

Despite reported success of integrating indigenous and biodiversity interests under the banner of protecting biocultural diversity, this relative success of conservation has not been met with heavy resistance. To understand this resistance, we shall consider below two ethical “camps”– anthropocentrism and ecocentrism.

Two Main Schools of Thought in Conservation

Biological conservation, environmental anthropology, political ecology and social geography address sources of legitimacy and indigenous land rights in connection to conservation practice. Conservation is often discussed in the context of two main ethical standpoints: the preservation of natural resources for human use (an anthropocentric position that supports biodiversity protection for utilitarian reasons), and the protection of nature for its own sake (an ecocentric position that recognizes intrinsic value of nature).

These standpoints are illustrated in the context of Amazonia and its deforestation. Deforestation of Amazonian region has accelerated significantly between 1991 and the present, closely followed by associated loss of biodiversity. In 2004, the forest loss rate of 27,423 square kilometers (10,588 sq. miles) gained international attention, both in the media and in academic publications (Laurance et al. 2004; Fearnside 2015). Accelerations in deforestation were witnessed in 2008, 2013, and in 2017 (Buttler 2017). The major cause of deforestation is illegal logging, but state-sponsored “legal” timber operations (Hahn et al. 2014), cattle and soya farming (Nepstad et al. 2014), road building (Fearnside 2015), and climate change all contribute as well.

Figure 4 – A Kayapo overlooking the rainforest. Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

Anthropocentric Position

Although biological conservation was originally intended to preserve wilderness and protect wildlife, protected areas are now expected to achieve an increasingly diverse set of social and economic objectives (Watson et al. 2014), including poverty alleviation (Adams et al. 2004; Goodall 2015) and addressing the needs of vulnerable communities (Naughton-Treves et al. 2005). Some conservationists and critical social scientists have argued that the aim of conservation should be solely the enhancement of human well-being (e.g., Kareiva et al. 2011; Marvier 2014; Büscher 2015; Fletcher and Büscher 2016). Environmental justice in this case refers to equitable distribution of environmental goods such as natural resources and clean air and water among human populations (Schlosberg 2004; Kopnina 2014).

The anthropocentric position is exemplified by the “new conservation” biologists (e.g., Kareiva et al. 2011; Marvier 2014); social scientists, specifically anthropologists and human ecologists that claim that conservation should only protect the interests of vulnerable human communities (e.g., Kalland 2009; Büscher 2015; Fletcher and Büscher 2016); and academics working in the field of economic development (e.g., Baviskar 2013). These authors place the moral focus on vulnerable, poor communities rather than biodiversity (see detailed discussion in Kopnina et al. 2017). These scholars see violence as originating from capitalist elites (industrial developers but also conservation NGOs) directed against poor poachers and indigenous ways of life. Practically, this has led to the assumption that conservation’s highest value is to contribute to the people’s well-being (e.g., Kareiva et al. 2011; Marvier 2014).

Recently, anticonservation as well as a movement against protected areas has appeared not just from corrupt governments, industrial lobbies, timber, mining, and energy industries but also from organizations such as Cultural Survival and several “justice”-focused organizations. They blame a generalized group of “environmentalists” for endangering poor people’s livelihoods, for violating human rights by persecuting poachers, and by imposing their own Western and elitist views. Critical social scientists and new conservationists have argued that environmentalists entrench economic inequality as they marginalize local communities (e.g., Baviskar 2013; Büscher 2015). Generally, entitlements to the benefits derived from the exploitation of wildlife are ethically unquestioned as long as local, vulnerable, or poor communities profit from them.

Ecocentric Position

Others have argued in favor of preserving biodiversity for its own sake (Cafaro and Primack 2014; Miller et al. 2014; Batavia and Nelson 2017; Cafaro et al. 2017). This position is based on ecological justice or justice between human and nonhuman species (Baxter 2005), with erasure of natural habitats seen as a violation of justice (White 2013). The ecocentric perspective, instructed by land ethics (Leopold 1949) and deep ecology (Naess 1973), considers biodiversity loss as a moral wrong (Cafaro 2015). This position is represented by conservation biologists (Cafaro and Primack 2014; Miller et al. 2014; Washington 2015; Cafaro et al. 2017) and by social scientists (Crist 2012; Kopnina 2016a and 2016b; Mathews 2016), among others. The ecocentric position is based on the recognition of the intrinsic value of ecosystems (e.g., Curry 2011; Batavia and Nelson 2017; Piccolo et al. 2018; Washington et al. 2018).


These two positions differentiate on who needs justice, who is being abused, who is getting protected, and who profits from conservation: endangered habitats, endangered species, or indigenous communities. In ecological justice, the “right” to exploit living beings as objects rather than as indigenous nonhumans needs to be ethically considered (Cafaro and Primack 2014; Miller et al. 2014; Cafaro et al. 2017).

Increasingly, deciding on the rights of access to “natural resources” becomes an ethical rather than scientific discussion based on optimal territory needed for preservation of biodiversity. The assumption that only human species have rights to resources (Crist 2012), and that these rights become even more inalienable in the case of indigenous communities, overrides the possibility that conservation should guarantee an abundance of species and not just bare survival (Mathews 2016).

One needs to be careful not to equate “indigenous” with “traditional harmony with nature.” The inhibitory effect of indigenous land ownership on deforestation was not correlated with indigenous population density and the use of modern transport and hunting weapons (Jerozolimski and Peres 2003; Nepstad et al. 2006; Nunez-Iturri et al. 2008). In today’s practice “traditional sustainable use” can mean hunting, logging, grazing, and so forth (Cafaro et al. 2017; Kopnina et al. 2017). As indigenous populations and their economic activities have expanded, the rights of access cannot be treated as ethically normative for any human group.

Besides, the concept of exclusive rights simultaneously idealizes and denigrates indigenous people as premodern “noble savages” (Koot 2016). Anthropologists such as Koot have correctly problematized the question of who in today’s world can we call local, ethnic, or indigenous. Can we still refer to people who moved to cities or intermarried as indigenous? Are we ourselves not in some way indigenous? Although local support remains crucial for the success of conservation, the trade-offs between the needs of indigenous communities and the dire predicament of endangered species need to be carefully weighed (Cheung and Sumaila 2008; McShane et al. 2011; Shoreman-Ouimet and Kopnina 2015).

Points of Reconciliation

The deep ecology was largely derived from the ideas of indigenous traditions of animistic spirituality that incorporate humanity into nature and fostering natural protection (Devall 1980) as well realization that industrial development is the enemy of both cultural traditions and biodiversity (Crist and Kopnina 2014). The united call for preservation of biocultural diversity in Amazonia using indigenous traditional knowledge provides one of the points of reconciliation between human and biodiversity interests (Van Vliet et al. 2018).

There is evidence that biodiversity-motivated conservation is compatible with rights of indigenous groups (Doak et al. 2015). Initiatives such as Roots and Shoots provide a good example of an integrated approach to poverty alleviation while simultaneously conserving forests by providing education and participatory activities within local communities (Goodall 2015). However, these examples are also often place-specific, and caution should be used when applying integrating policies in different Amazonia contexts. If treated as normative, poverty alleviation may serve as a euphemism for a transition to an industrial economy (Crist 2012) without contributing to preservation of biocultural diversity. Thus, one of the areas of reconciliation of social justice and ecological justice is in addressing neoliberal economic assumptions (Shoreman-Ouimet and Kopnina 2015; 2016).

Strang (2016) has argued that prioritizing justice for people over justice for the environment is self-defeating, as we are interconnected with natural habitats, and the cultural survival of indigenous peoples and the physical survival of biodiverse habitats are intimately interlinked. Yet, anthropocentric motivation is not enough. Indeed, “giving humankind priority in the provision of justice leads down a path that is morally questionable, carries high risks, and is intellectually problematic” (Strang 2016, p. 259). The call for justice should be a joint plea for human rights combined with the rights of other species to exist and flourish (Shoreman-Ouimet and Kopnina 2015; 2016). Yet, in line with Corrigan et al. (2018), more research is needed in order to provide causal explanations of how and why indigenous- and community-led conservation could help protect biodiversity in socially sustainable and ecologically just ways. (Figure 5)


Kopnina Fig 5

Figure 5 – Collecting Brazil nuts within the forest. Photo © Cristina Mittermeier



In the anthropocentric discourse, the growing populations and the use of “modern” tools and weapons by indigenous communities is not discussed. Although supporting indigenous rights, this article argues for the need to consider how indigenous rights can be balanced with ecological justice. Although recognition of the need for social justice is widespread, equal commitment to justice for wilderness is lacking. Whereas proponents of indigenous rights rightly argue for the need to include the voices of the powerless, the “voices” of billions of non-humans (or at least their human proxies) are not currently involved in this debate. What is important to advance for both social and ecological justice is the ability to determine how environmental and human values overlap, conflict, and where the opportunity for reconciliation lies. To reconcile social and ecological justice, a number of conditions need to be met, as supported by Strang (2016). First, we need recognition that humans and nature are interdependent, and that disruption for any of the participants has potentially major impacts on the others, as exploitative systems are functionally unsustainable. Second, to be morally reconcilable, the social justice movement needs to be empathetic with a disenfranchised silent nonhuman majority. In the case of Amazonia, the white-lipped peccary, howler monkey, woolly monkey, lowland tapir, giant river otter, Amazon manatee, black caiman, agouti, and millions of nonhuman others need to be considered as living agents worthy of moral consideration and legal protection. This requires protection of large natural areas characterized by biological cores, corridors, and carnivores (Noss and Cooperrider 1994; Peres 2005; Noss et al. 2013). In order to have any chance of preserving vulnerable habitats and endangered species, increased recognition, funding, effective management, planning, and enforcement are urgently needed (Watson et al. 2014).

As a result of human population growth, along with commercialization of the economy, indigenous communities cannot be assumed to be unconditionally benign in their relationship to the environment. Exploitation of environment is “driven by the life-ways of both the world’s rich and poor, and most especially by their Faustian economic partnerships” (Crist 2012, p. 145). This Faustian relationship between the global North’s demand and global South’s supply (and increasing demand as middle classes grow everywhere) reflects on the fate of Amazon biodiversity. According to the ecocentric school of thought, international consumers are collectively responsible for demand, which is readily satisfied by the timber and mining companies, and indigenous rights need to be balanced with nonhuman rights and ecological justice. Practical and scientific aspects of conservation cannot be decoupled from ethics and justice in Amazonian conservation.

DR. HELEN KOPNINA (PhD Cambridge University, 2002) is currently employed at The Hague University of Applied Science in The Netherlands, coordinating the Sustainable Business program and conducting research within three main areas: environmental sustainability, environmental education, and biological conservation. Kopnina is the author of more than 90 peer-reviewed articles and (co)author and (co)editor of 15 books; email: h.kopnina@hhs.nl.


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In 2018, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the birth of our Wild and Scenic River System. Created in 1968 with only eight rivers, the system has grown to include more than 12,000 miles (19, 312 km) and over 200 protected rivers.