North America

North America is the cradle of iconic elements of today’s global conservation movement. Efforts to define areas of scenic beauty and/or ecological importance as public patrimony, as opposed to reserves for people of privilege, which should be protected from appropriation and transformation by private, commercial interests, arise from ideas developed in 19th century North America. 

At the same time, protected areas in the U.S. and Canada have been vehicles for restricting access and removing Native Americans First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Nations from their lands. Furthermore, the self-images protected areas often promote, of being areas characterized by unpopulated wilderness, help obscure the dispossession and genocide that preceded and made possible their creation. 

Globally, protected areas are widely associated with “fortress conservation” and their creation often has been closely associated with larger processes of appropriation of the lands and resources of Indigenous and traditional peoples. One unfortunate outcome of this is that protected areas often contribute to the Western tendency to treat nature as a thing or object that is found in places from which people are excluded, rather than as a relationship that binds people to one another and to other living things.

To the extent that they were troubled by these issues, early leaders of the conservation movement justified them as unfortunate, but necessary outcomes of trade-offs that served the greater good. This reflected the priority they gave to cultivating relationships with powerful political and financial interests, to secure their support to preserve and protect landscapes from which people had been removed. At the same time, they ignored what was happening to the Indigenous Peoples displaced from these landscapes and eschewed alliances with emerging environmental justice movements. 

Only recently have non-Indigenous political leaders began to consider conservation and the creation of protected areas in particular as an opportunity to reconsider relationships between Indigenous Peoples and settlers including as part of reconciliation. One reason for this reconsideration has been the realization that Indigenous Lands have a critical role to play if countries are to meet global conservation goals. For example, a recent report by conservation organizations found that approximately 32% or the world’s land and inland waters (43.5 million km2) are owned or governed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and, thanks to their effective stewardship, most of these areas maintain a high degree of ecological intactness. While not news to Indigenous Peoples, this finding has helped build awareness of the need to acknowledge and address injustices that constrain and threaten effective Indigenous governance of their lands and waters.  

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada provided 94 calls to action to address social and ecological justice in which all Canadians, organizations, and sectors have a role to play. Conservation efforts have largely focused on addressing the governance of new protected areas and reframing what protection means.  Examples include the 14,000 km2 Thaidene Nëné national reserve park in the Northwest Territories, which is co-managed by Łútsël K'é Dene First Nation and the Canadian government. Other examples of critical conservation initiatives based on Indgenous-led governance include the 64,000 km2 Great Bear Rainforest, in British Columbia, the 29,040 km2 Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site, in Manitoba and Ontario and the proposed Tallurutiup Imanga, in Nunavut, which should become the largest protected area and co-governed with the Inuit.. 

These and other efforts have arisen from and guided research that provides important insights into how Indigenous-led conservation can help Canada achieve conservation goals that contribute to the quality of life in Canada and globally. During the past year, the naming of Indigenous Americans to lead the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service have given reason to hope that conservation can also provide a setting for meaningful reconciliation that leads to more effective conservation, in the U.S. as well.

Unfortunately, the conservation community has often been unwilling or unable to engage in ways that will allow us to build on these opportunities. For example, we have often insisted that our understandings of nature are the only valid ones and declined to work with potential collaborators unless they subordinate their knowledge and priorities to ours. Similarly, while we have often said that we want to collaborate, we have also often waivered in our commitment if collaboration created awkwardness with governments and donors. This history has led many Indigenous Peoples to view us with ambivalence, if not outright antipathy. 

Nonetheless, North American conservationists have an opportunity and an obligation to provide leadership in building alliances to create the critical mass of support for actions that will address human activities that drive today’s global conservation threats. Our opportunity is rooted in the resources we can cause to be brought to bear, compared to many other areas of the world, the ecological integrity protected areas in our region, the large areas of land outside of protected areas that have high conservation value thanks in large measure to Indigenous stewardship and the willingness of Indigenous Peoples in the region to contribute knowledge and resources based on recognition of and respect for their land and resource rights. 

Our obligation derives from the facts that non-Indigenous peoples and their communities consume goods and services at a scale that threatens the integrity of ecosystems globally. Also, the political choices we made in the interest of building a strong network of protected areas benefitted from and helped legitimize the displacement of Native Americans, First Nations, Métis and Inuit. 

As North America contributes to CEESP’s efforts to lead the conservation community in re-imagining conservation, we can help create conditions that help ensure that new ideas will be put into action by:

  1. Working with Indigenous organizations to identify opportunities for the conservation community to collaborate more fruitfully with Indigenous-led conservation initiatives on behalf of more effective stewardship North America’s lands and waters;
  2. Harvesting experiences, developing practical tools and developing standards that contribute to a framework for building mutual confidence that we can accomplish more together than we can separately and
  3. Working together to plan and implement actions that are sufficiently durable and of the appropriate scale to address the processes that undermine the quality of natural ecosystems and the life they support. 



Dr Michael PAINTER

Regional Vice Chair, North America
Michael Painter is an ecological anthropologist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. His long-term research interests have focused on the social and ...

Regional Vice Chair, North America
Michael Painter is an ecological anthropologist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. His long-term research interests have focused on the social and economic factors that shape how people use land and natural resources. After completing his Ph.D., Michael worked at the Institute for Development Anthropology, a private, non-profit research and education institute dedicated to integrating social science perspectives into conservation and development initiatives. He was also a technical advisor to the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, where he led a team that monitored the impacts of Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). Michael has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) since 1997, except for a two-year period at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, from 2015-2017. At WCS, Michael played diverse roles, including country director, first in Bolivia, then in Peru, and director of the Amazon program. Upon moving to the US, Michael worked as an associate director of the Latin America and Caribbean program, and director of what was then called the Conservation and Quality of Human Life initiative. In these roles, he focused helping WCS build effective conservation partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and undertook several innovative initiatives with Indigenous organizations, supporting their efforts to strengthen their ability to engage more effectively with government agencies, donors, and private companies. He helped establish the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR) and has represented WCS in CIHR. He was also part of the group that helped set up the WCS Institutional Review Board, a federally registered body responsible for reviewing human subjects research conducted by WCS, to ensure that the organization complies with all U.S. federal and international standards. In 2015, Michael joined the staff of Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, where he was a Program Officer in the Andes Amazon Initiative (AAI), of the Environmental Conservation Program. In 2017, Michael returned to WCS as a senior technical advisor. He serves as a member of WCS's Social Safeguards Management Team and chairs the WCS Institutional Review Board, Michael also provides support to field programs on issues related to human livelihoods and governance. Michael retired from full-time work at WCS in 2021, but continues to provide support on a part-time basis to the Rights and Communities Program and the Andes, Amazon and Orinoco Regional Program.

Julia Whelan

Ms Julia Whelan

Deputy Regional Vice Chair, North America

Julia Whelan is the current Executive Assistant at the Jane Goodall Institute. She is a recent graduate of University College London, having been awarded ...

Deputy Regional Vice Chair, North America

Julia Whelan is the current Executive Assistant at the Jane Goodall Institute. She is a recent graduate of University College London, having been awarded her Master's of Research in Anthropology in November 2022. Her background is in animal behavior research, and she spent most of her graduate and undergraduate study conducting research on chimpanzee tool use and communication, both remotely and in the field in Tanzania. Protecting wildlife has been the main motivation for her academic projects. Having worked closely with local communities in both Tanzania and Ecuador, she is passionate about organizations that prioritize their role in conservation.