Peace Science Digest

Transitional Justice as a Response to Conservation Violence against Indigenous Peoples

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Luoma, C. (2023). Reckoning with conservation violence on Indigenous territories: Possibilities and limitations of a transitional justice response. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 17 (1), 89-106.

Talking Points  

  • Conservation violence against Indigenous Peoples can be understood as a proper concern of transitional justice, as it entails “large-scale past abuses,” and the present moment constitutes a period of transition towards greater recognition of Indigenous rights in relation to environmental protection. 
  • Applying transitional justice to conservation violence may ultimately have indirect positive effects on environmental protection, but doing so also comes with practical challenges, most notably related to whether it can effectively meet the demands of the victims—especially demands for land restitution.  
  • Applying transitional justice to conservation violence has value, despite its shortcomings: it can identify harms experienced by Indigenous Peoples as significant and worthy of redress, foreground counternarratives on conservation that acknowledge its colonial dimensions, and—through reparations/redress—establish more just relationships between Indigenous Peoples and conservation actors, ultimately benefiting sustainable ecosystems. 
  • On the whole, it is worthwhile to apply transitional justice to cases of conservation violence, “with potential benefits flowing to both Indigenous Peoples and the environment,” as long as it is approached with modest expectations and in combination with other efforts.  

Key Insight for Informing Practice 

  • As the land back movement gains momentum in what is now called the United States, all the individual acts of land return that are happening through different mechanisms—as well as the potential return of national parks to Indigenous nations, should that ever happen—become significantly more powerful if accompanied by transitional justice processes that recognize and speak the truths of the historical harms that make land return meaningful as an act of restitution. 


Environmental conservation is often perceived as an unmitigated “good.” Yet, the history of conservation, and of “protected areas” in particular, is inextricably tied up with the history of colonialism and Indigenous dispossession. The establishment of protected areas worldwide has routinely pushed Indigenous Peoples off their land—often violently—cutting them off from key economic and spiritual resources that previously sustained their communities. With this history in mind, Colin Luoma examines whether and how transitional justice mechanisms might provide a way to address the widespread human rights abuses inherent in “conservation violence.”

Conservation violence:

“large-scale human rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples through the creation and enforcement of protected areas on their territories,” including “forced evictions of Indigenous Peoples, ongoing exclusion from their natural resources,” and “heavily militarized tactics” and direct violence against Indigenous Peoples trying to access their lands.

Fortress conservation:

“nature conservation approaches that displace Indigenous Peoples and other land-dependent communities from their lands to establish strictly protected, State-managed protected areas.”

Transitional justice:

Now more broadly understood as “how societies respond to the legacies of massive and serious human rights violations… It focuses on [victims’] rights and dignity as citizens and human beings and it seeks accountability, acknowledgment, and redress for the harms they suffered.” Originally, however, transitional justice was conceived as “a framework to address relatively recent acts of physical and political violence in countries transitioning away from either repressive rule or armed conflict.” Transitional justice mechanisms include, among others, truth commissions, war crimes tribunals, memorials, reparations, and national apologies.


Conservation violence has roots in the “fortress conservation” model emerging out of 19th-century U.S. westward expansion and the related “wilderness myth” that represented certain natural areas as uninfluenced by human activity. In truth, the “wilderness” Euro-American settlers encountered had been influenced by Indigenous human activity for millennia, and the act of establishing protected areas was not “preserving” wilderness but rather producing the idea of it through Indigenous dispossession.

As the fortress conservation model was exported to other parts of the world, the harms of conservation violence multiplied. These have included not only the forcible dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their land and resources but also direct violence used by state security forces to remove them or keep them from returning, including murder, rape, torture, and other forms of physical injury. The long-term results of land dispossession include the poverty that comes with being made landless and dependent on the state, as well as “significant religious and cultural loss,” as “Indigenous cultural and spiritual identities are inextricably intertwined” with place. Beyond these harms to Indigenous Peoples themselves, conservation violence has also entailed environmental costs, including biodiversity loss—undercutting the arguments often used to justify the establishment of protected areas.

Indigenous resistance—which intensified against the conservation movement in the 1960s-1970s—has begun to shift the perspective of conservation actors such that it is no longer considered acceptable to separate biodiversity policy from Indigenous perspectives. With this growing connection between mainstream conservation practice and Indigenous rights have come calls for a “historical reckoning” with the harms of fortress conversation, including calls by a prominent international conservation organization for transitional justice in the form of truth commissions at different scales.

The author assesses transitional justice as a potential tool for responding to conservation violence on two levels: theoretical and pragmatic.

Transitional justice can be theoretically justified as an appropriate response to conservation violence against Indigenous Peoples on the basis of its traditional features: its focus on “large-scale past abuses” and its occurrence during periods of transition. First, conservation violence “entails large-scale human rights abuses” worldwide, with roughly half of all protected areas globally having been established on lands previously used by Indigenous Peoples, resulting in tens of millions of people displaced and subject to direct violence and/or violations of economic, social, or cultural rights. Second, although transitional justice has typically occurred along with transitions from authoritarianism to democracy or from armed conflict to peace, in this case there is at least a rhetorical and institutional transition happening towards greater recognition of Indigenous rights in relation to environmental protection. Therefore, conservation violence meets these two criteria for being a suitable focus of transitional justice.

There are also key pragmatic justifications for applying transitional justice to conservation violence, as well as practical challenges—which together point towards employing transitional justice with modest expectations and in combination with other approaches. The first major pragmatic justification is that doing so may have indirect positive effects on environmental protection. When Indigenous Peoples are disconnected from their lands—lands they have stewarded for millennia—and are also alienated from state conservation efforts, their “sustainable resource management” practices are disrupted, leading to “unsustainable resource extraction.” Conversely, although counter-examples can always be identified, generally speaking, Indigenous communities have been shown to be better stewards of their natural environments than states are, so righting these historical wrongs can help reinstate more sustainable practices.

Key practical challenges include the overwhelming breadth of historical and contemporary abuses to address, the “transnational nature of the harm at stake,” and the many actors responsible for that harm. The most significant challenge, however, is whether transitional justice can effectively meet the demands of the victims—especially regarding land restitution. Although restitution is internationally recognized as a form of reparation, transitional justice processes have seldom effectively addressed land return, often overlooking land-related harms. Although transitional justice processes that do not secure land return could, at worst, become tools of co-optation—solidifying colonial wrongs in the name of “reconciliation”—they can also ultimately help advance land return efforts through, for instance, establishing “a truthful record of land issues and claims.”

These considerations point toward the need to have realistic expectations about what transitional justice can and cannot do. Yet, despite the modest expectations and shortcomings of transitional justice in this context, it still has value, especially in combination with other efforts. First, applying transitional justice to conservation violence identifies the related harms experienced by Indigenous Peoples as significant and worthy of redress, and as the result of “conscious policy decisions,” rather than as “collateral damage” that occurred as a byproduct of environmental protection. Second, transitional justice processes—particularly truth commissions—can open up space for counternarratives on conservation to emerge, revealing hitherto-unacknowledged harms, so that the public better understands these and their relationship to protected areas. Finally, redress/reparation mechanisms can help establish more just relationships between Indigenous Peoples and conservation actors, ultimately serving their collective goal of sustaining healthy ecosystems.

Informing Practice

The history of settler colonialism is a history of violence—in what is now called the United States, the direct violence of land dispossession, genocide, and forceful cultural assimilation that characterized settlers’ westward expansion, and the structural violence experienced by Native peoples disconnected from their lands and therefore from traditional livelihoods and cultural heritage. It is also a history of resilience and resistance, as Native peoples continue, against the odds, to pass traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and spiritual connection to place down from generation to generation. In the context of this history, efforts to reckon with and repair the harm from the conservation industry’s role in this violence are best understood as efforts to create holistic human security and build positive peace.

The findings of this research regarding the value of transitional justice processes in reckoning with and repairing these harms can inform current “land back” activism in the United States. In particular, the distinct capacities of transitional justice—to help reframe certain harms as worthy of redress, to create space for counternarratives about conservation and its relationship to colonial violence, and to shape more just relationships between Native peoples and conservation actors—remind us that the sheer act of transferring title, as significant as that is, needs to be accompanied by a broader process of recognition and truth-telling to fulfill its potential as an act of reparation. In other words, a land donation by a private land owner to a tribe, a tribe’s purchase of land, or even the handing over of a land trust or national park to tribal ownership and stewardship becomes significantly more powerful if it is understood within the frame of restitution. Within this frame, all the individual acts of title transfer happening from the Atlantic to the Pacific can begin to be woven together as part of a greater narrative whole—the newest, surprising chapter in a story of Indigenous dispossession and its eventual reversal. Ceremonies, truth commissions, or memorials to mark the transfer of land ownership can help serve this purpose, recalling the history of a particular piece of land and re-affirming Native sovereignty over it, as was the case with the recent ceremony marking the transfer of land back to the Saanich people (on what is generally known as Vancouver Island, British Columbia), who prominently displayed their Saanich Indian Territorial Declaration (written in 1987) at the ceremony.

With regard to conservation land in particular, the writer David Treuer (Ojibwe) has argued for the return of U.S. National Parks to Native ownership and stewardship. There is a striking pattern that emerges if one looks at the chronology and acreage of Native dispossession and the chronology and acreage of national park formation in the U.S.: just as Native nations were losing land, national parks began to form—and often in the very same locations. Native ownership of the national parks would ensure that (at least some) tribes could regain access to their sacred places and traditional foods, to the basis of their culture and economy, while also ensuring continued access to these sacred places that inspire awe and reverence for all people. If this transfer ever happens, it should be accompanied by a transitional justice process that recognizes and speaks the truths of the historical harms that make the transfer of title necessary and meaningful as an act of restitution. Although the United States and other countries have a long way to go to right the wrongs of settler colonialism, this would be a good start. [MW]

Continued Reading

Goodluck, K. (2023, September 11). How the land back movement is unraveling manifest destiny. Sierra. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Bartoo-Smith, N. (2023, September 16). How land trusts overlap with the land back movement in Oregon. OPB. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Oliver, O.L. (2022, May 3). Significant Washington land returned to the Colville tribe, its original stewards. The Nature Conservancy. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Secaira, M. (2021, April 25). What does Indigenous reclamation mean? Three Native voices discuss. Crosscut, Cascade PBS. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Treuer, D. (2021, May). Return the national parks to the tribes. The Atlantic. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Wsanec Leadership Council. (2023, August 18). TIKEL land back ceremony marks historic moment. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Kuhnhausen, K. (2022, August 5). Indigenous-led cultural burning training brings healthy fire back to the land. Oregon Coalition of Land Trusts. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Bloom, I. (2023, November 3). How a California tribe fought for years to get their ancestral land back in Eureka. The California Report Magazine, KQED. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Onondaga Nation. (2022, July 1). The Onondaga Nation, in unprecedented land back moment, regains 1,023 acres of the land from New York state. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Harvard Kennedy School. (2022, October 27). Returning land to Native nations is about righting historical wrongs—and also averting future environmental disaster. Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. (N.d.). About the monument. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from

Driver, G. (2022, July 14). The fact of our national estate. North & South. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from


Indian Land Tenure Foundation:

The Oregon Land Justice Project:

Key Words: transitional justice, conservation violence, settler-colonialism, fortress conservation, Indigenous peoples/nations, human rights, land back, national parks, protected areas, environmental peacebuilding

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This analysis is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.