The Wildlife Conservation Society welcomes as a first step the Vatican’s statement on March 30, 2023 renouncing the “doctrine of discovery.” The statement recognizes past errors, acknowledges the terrible effects of assimilation, as well as the pain experienced by Indigenous Peoples.  It highlights the importance of abandoning the “colonizing mentality.”

The Doctrine of Discovery was a deeply problematic and racist framework that gave legitimacy to the “discovery” of the “New World.” Colonial legacies were also experienced through historical acts of cultural and ethnic genocide, and assimilation in Latin America. This also affected the way the conservation sector was historically shaped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The historical creation of many conservation reserves and national parks without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities were an intrinsic feature of conservation history, and continue in some contexts, thereby creating many grievances and a deep distrust of the conservation sector by those directly or indirectly affected.  Such experiences have shaped discussions and narratives about fortress conservation.  The history of science and research in many places also shaped the conservation sector’s historical approach of excluding traditional knowledge/Indigenous science systems. Consequently, the close relationship with the natural world was often disregarded, even as Indigenous Peoples and many local communities drew on nature for their spiritual well-being, culture, livelihoods, and economies while guarding and sustaining it.

Sushil Raj, WCS’s Executive Director of Rights and Communities emphasized: “It is important to support the revitalization of Indigenous cultures, languages, and customary institutions of Indigenous Peoples who have been displaced or where their social fabric and cultural integrity has been destroyed by colonial governments or post-colonial legacies.”  

This statement by the Vatican is a timely reflection for its own structures to move forward at the national and local levels.  It is also an apt moment for conservation related institutions as they go through introspection, build and deepen partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, and design and implement new conservation paradigms.

Said Joe Walston, Executive Vice President of WCS Global: “We look forward to building new models to tackle the climate, biodiversity, and health crises facing our planet. Equitable, just, and durable conservation can only take place when premised upon respecting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” 

WCS will play its part in revisiting and reconceptualizing the practice and purpose of protecting and restoring nature by seeking and valuing the guidance of Indigenous Peoples’ ways of being, living, and doing.  The conservation sector at large should renew its dialogue with Indigenous Peoples, and also play a role in helping governments look at a wide variety of options to repair past harm.  

The Wildlife Conservation Society stands in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and continues to utilize the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as an overarching framework in implementing its programs with Indigenous Peoples.