“Fortress” conservation is one of the most popular forms of environmental protection globally. Fortress conservation assumes that people exploit nature for their benefit, causing environmental degradation. To protect nature from this exploitation and degradation, forests, biodiversity, and ecosystems need to be isolated from people. Examples of fortress conservation in action include creating national parks and exclusive wildlife zones, which are usually patrolled by rangers and use fences to keep people compliant with their protectionist policies. Although this model aims to protect nature, fortress conservation can do more harm than good to the environment and locals by marginalizing and displacing the communities that have lived on and maintained the land for centuries.

Millions of Indigenous people are forcibly removed from their land to make room for national parks and wildlife protection zones, with some estimates ranging from 8.5 to 136 million displaced people. While fortress conservation aims to slow environmental degradation through isolation, ecological degradation actually declines much slower on Indigenous land. Some methods used to support biodiversity include bush-burning and long-term ecosystem management. Instead of separating people from wildlife, conservation should center the expertise of Indigenous communities, who are responsible for safeguarding 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Clearly, their conservation methods show that nature and humans do not need to exist in separate spheres for each to thrive. 

When Indigenous communities have legally-recognized land rights, communities and ecosystems flourish. Their intimate relationship with the land allows them to support and nourish it in ways that the western conservation discourse does not understand. Land rights would also eliminate the human rights abuses that occur through displacement and forced removal, allowing Indigenous communities to coexist peacefully with the land. Rather than pushing their voices to the side, their expertise and skills should form the basis for the global conservation movement. It’s time to tear down the fortress walls and usher in a new paradigm of conservation, one that prioritizes Indigenous knowledge and respects their relationship with the natural world.