Despite evidence about the contribution of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to conservation, prevailing strategies still seek their separation from nature, often triggering conflicts. Current pledges to expand global protected area coverage suggest a need for the critical analysis of governance quality and the way conservation interacts with the well-being of IPLCs. We present the case of Catimbau National Park in the Caatinga dry forest of northeast Brazil, where we explored connections between the well-being of IPLCs and landscape through different values, practices and institutions, and perceptions of how environmentally just the park's governance has been. The well-being of IPLCs is inextricably connected with the Caatinga landscape, through multiple place-based relational values that, although differing between Indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants, have in both cases developed over generations. Although often framed as degraders, IPLCs exhibit a strong motivation to conserve, reflected through local institutions including forest gardens, sustainable use regulations, restoration activities and prevention of external encroachment. The strict form of protected area implemented at Catimbau, instead of a locally led or sustainable use reserve, explicitly targeted the resettlement of IPLCs and livelihood reorientation. These imposed objectives have clashed with a way of life in this peopled landscape and precluded local stewardship on a larger scale. Long-term conflict arose through governance deficiencies which sparked multidimensional injustices. These include not only the misrecognition of local values and customary institutions but also the lack of procedures for consent or decision-making influence, plus distributional harms including tenure insecurity and denied development assistance. Development and conservation strategies must reject narratives about poor, resource-dependent rural communities and embrace the opportunities that local knowledge and institutions bring for effective conservation. As conservation efforts are expanded post-2020, the people of the Caatinga and beyond must be recognised as embedded and a key part of any solution. In strict protected areas like Catimbau, where social conflict constrains their ability to function, seeking legal changes in governance type can be onerous. However, we describe other local-level actions to build relationships and agency that may foster transitions towards better governance, and just treatment of IPLCs. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.
- Indigenous Peoples and local communities
- environmental justice
- protected areas
- tropical dry forest