Using “Protected Natural Areas” to Appropriate the Commons

Ana de Ita

Even as worldwide pressures mount to protect sites with high biological diversity, indigenous peoples and local communities are redoubling their struggles of resistance against a “solution” that claims to protect ecosystems, the establishment of protected natural areas (PNAs). The policy of establishing PNAs, which seeks to maintain the best conserved redoubts of the planet, is often at odds with the rights of native peoples, since many of those redoubts exist in the first place only because indigenous communities have conserved, recreated, and maintained them.

In Mexico, half the national territory, some 106 million hectares, is the property of ejidos and comunidades agrarias,1 home to peasants and indigenous peoples. Although the discourse of protecting nature is familiar to the ways of thinking of such communities, PNAs have become a threat to their territories and to their autonomy or self-determination, which is their main demand.

PNAs are established by the decree of any level of government and are considered to be of public utility, which according to Article 27(VI) of the Constitution means that lands can be expropriated. In PNAs the rights of persons who possess the territory are legally inferior to the decrees regulating the area, management programs, or environmental land use regimes. In addition, the possessors whose lives depend on these territories, which they use and tend, do not have priority over any other person or social group involved; they are merely considered one more stakeholder. Nor do the possessors have any right to veto management rules, nor to have the guaranteed right to give or withhold their free, prior, and informed consent, even if they are indigenous peoples.

Moreover, PNAs do not even guarantee that conservation objectives will prevail over moneyed interests, for highly contaminating activities such as oil operations and mining are not prohibited. Nor is the appropriation of water or any other resource by any economic actor prohibited; all that is required is that the commercial uses “not cause degradation to the ecological balance.”

In the PNAs government administrators, international conservation organ­izations such as Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy, and even private companies such as Coca Cola, breweries, hotels, and many others wrest control over decisions on the territory and resource use from the assembly of ejidatarios and comuneros, making it ever more difficult for the government to establish them.

Up until the year 2010, the National Commission on Protected Natural Areas (Conanp: Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas) administered 174 PNAs in Mexico covering 25.4 million hectares in all. According to a World Bank study, 95 percent of the PNAs are situated in areas of common use, both ejidos and comunidades agrarias, and at least 71 of them are on the territories of 36 indigenous peoples. Of the more than 152 priority terrestrial areas for conservation, covering some 51 million hectares, at least 60 overlap with indigenous territories.

In the late 1980s, the government, upon announcing plans to establish PNAs, were confronted by the ejidos and comunidades possessing the territories that were proposed as “voluntary” conservation areas. There are now 177 voluntary areas in 15 of Mexico’s 31 states, encompassing approximately 208,000 hectares, and at least nine indigenous peoples participate in them. Most are located in Oaxaca, with 79 voluntary certification areas.

Yet in 2008, the General Law on Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection introduced a change, making voluntary conservation areas one more category of protected natural area. The lands were declared to be under federal jurisdiction and of public utility – and then new conditions for their management imposed. This included promoting the entry of newcomers to the lands and giving them decision-making authority over resources used in common – which the communities had specifically sought to prohibit.      

The 2008 law has sparked major conflicts in the territories between the communities and the Conanp. Each has its own model of conservation and structure of government. One seeks conservation from within the communities, with the regulations decided by agreement of the assembly, based on consensus-building. The other seeks conservation from outside, with government decisions imposed on the territories. When the communities have sought to terminate their commitment to “voluntary conservation,” they have found that it is in fact mandatory, and that they must either wait for the commitment period to run its course or else pay for a technical study to justify their refusal to do so.

In 2010, just before the Conference of Parties in Nagoya, on the Biodiversity Convention, and in Cancún, on climate change, several indigenous peoples – Kuna, Kichwa Kayampi, Q’eqchi de Livingston, Bene Gulash, Ñu Savi – began to circulate what was called the Declaration of Heredia. It demanded that no more protected natural areas be established in indigenous territories; that the ones decreed to date be canceled; and that those lands and territories be returned to the communities and peoples from whom they were taken. The Declaration stated: “No government, no environmental policy or legislation can be imposed above our territorial rights, which are guaranteed in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The establishment of PNAs has become a modern instrument of colonization that regards indigenous and peasant territories as empty “no-man’s land” that the state can manage as it sees fit.


  • World Bank. 2001. Diagnósticos sociales y planes de desarrollo de pueblos indígenas en las ANP. Mexico City.
  • Boege Eckart. 2008. “El patrimonio biocultural de los pueblos indígenas de México.” INAH, CDI.
  • The General Law on Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection, Article 59, amended in May 2008.
  • Declaration of Heredia, Pronouncement in defense of Mother Earth and against environmental policies, Costa Rica, September 24, 2010, available at
  • 1. Ejidos denotes a common or collective possession of land or forest that includes private use rights. During colonialism, rights and obligations with respect to land and forests – i.e., the relationships among the Spanish crown, its local represenatives and indigenous peoples – were handled through ejidos. The Mexican constitutions of 1917 underlined and widened the importance of ejidos (Article 27). During the government of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934–1940), about 18 million hectares of land were newly distributed and handed over to ejidatarios for their indefinite, unlimited use. A communidades agraria is another form of collective ownership over land and forests. In has the same essential features of the traditional ejido system but uses another institutional framework.