World Heritage Day 2024: Survival accuses UNESCO of being complicit in illegal eviction, abuse of indigenous people

Survival report lists six World Heritage Sites which it claims are on stolen Indigenous land; Kaziranga in Assam on list

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 18 April 2024
Zebra, wildebeest and flamingos in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo: iStock

Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous and/or tribal peoples and uncontacted peoples, accused UNESCO of being complicit in the illegal eviction and abuse of Indigenous people in a new report launched on World Heritage Day 2024.

Many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are, in fact, located on what were once indigenous lands, it said. Even now, repeated cases of torture, rape, and killings of indigenous people are taking place in and around World Heritage Sites, it added.

The report listed six World Heritage Sites that occupy stolen Indigenous land. Three are in Africa and three in Asia.

They include Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania), Kahuzi-Biega National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Odzala-Kokoua National Park (Republic of Congo), Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (Thailand), Kaziranga National Park (India) and Chitwan National Park (Nepal). All six sites are the scene of serious and continuing conservation-related rights abuses, said Survival.

The world-famous Ngorongoro Crater has become “the scene of intimidating security operations and the denial of basic services, as the (Tanzanian) government presses ahead with plans to evict thousands of Maasai people from lands where they have lived for generations.”

Similarly, the report claimed that the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the DRC had been the site of rape, violent attacks and an all-out campaign since 2019 to purge the area of indigenous Batwa people from their ancestral lands.


It also levelled serious charges against UNESCO on Kaziranga in Assam, globally famous for its one-horned rhinos:

Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve in Northeast India has been a UNESCO WHS since 1985. Since that time, it has become infamous for brutal extra-judicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests, with park guards shooting on sight with impunity. It is home to the Mising and Karbi people, as well as other Indigenous peoples brought to the area to work on the tea estates, collectively known locally as the “tea tribes”. Between 1990 and 2016, park guards killed 144 people in the park, including a severely disabled Indigenous man.

Far from expressing alarm at the extrajudicial killings in Kaziranga, the UNESCO World Heritage Center, in its 2011 State of Conservation report, praised a government notification which gives forest officers immunity from prosecution if they use firearms in the course of their duty, as a “significant step to prevent poaching and boost staff morale”, alleged Survival.

And while the number of extrajudicial killings had reduced after the matter came to light in 2016, the indigenous people living around the park are still harassed and banned from entering their ancestral lands, according to the report.

Survival called on UNESCO to remove World Heritage status from any site where human rights atrocities are occurring.

 “UNESCO has played a key role in giving legitimacy to many of the most notorious Protected Areas in Africa and Asia, and it’s largely ignored the well-documented atrocities being committed on its watch,” Survival’s Director Caroline Pearce said.

She added that what the UNESCO called “Natural World Heritage Sites”, are very often the stolen ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples, who are being kept out by force, intimidation and terror.

“Its complicity has gone beyond silence to encompass the active support of governments, and actions, that violate Indigenous rights. It must remove World Heritage Status from any such site where abuses are taking place,” she concluded.

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