National parks and other area-based natural protection measures are often hailed as environmentally beneficial policies. Yet, local populations affected by such projects have to bear costs disproportional to their local benefits. These costs, we argue, originate from states’ strategic use of natural protection measures to subjugate peripheral, often ethnically distinct areas, manage their populations, and extract resources from them. We propose that ethnic groups excluded from executive power are most targeted by such measures. We test this argument using Africa-wide and global spatio-temporal data on ethnic groups’ executive power status and natural protected areas since countries independence. Difference-in-differences models estimate the causal effect of ethno-political exclusion on the establishment of protected areas. We then examine the effects of protected areas on state repression, spatial population distributions, and local economic development as observable corollaries of governments’ motivations of ethnically biased environmental policies. This project promises insights on how governments strategically (mis-) use environmental protection for ethno-political control.