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The global biodiversity agenda received an unexpected boost at November’s United Nations climate summit in Egypt. A key outcome document from the summit, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, referred to ‘the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards’.
Linking efforts to address the climate and conservation crises is essential, but not without real challenges. The language in the Implementation Plan showcases one of the ways potentially competing objectives exacerbate the risks of conflict and human rights abuses while undercutting the original goals. Protecting nature and addressing the climate crisis should go hand-in-hand with protecting human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. This is often recognized but at times has proved challenging to achieve in practice. One essential step is ensuring that provisions on protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) remain prominent in the Global Biodiversity Framework.
The new framework, covering 2020–30, is being negotiated at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which opened today in Montreal, Canada. The framework is meant to replace the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–20, which expired two years ago (without any of its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets being achieved in full).
COP15 was originally scheduled for October 2020 in Kunming, China. After multiple delays it was split into a virtual segment hosted by China in October 2021 and a second segment, chaired by China but hosted by Canada two months later.
As the final round of negotiations gets underway, many key elements and provisions of the framework hang in the balance. Among these is how, and how far, the framework will deal with the rights of IPLCs. A working draft from October 2022 contains language recognizing IPLCs as ‘custodians of biodiversity and partners in the restoration, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity’. Among other things, it also calls for full participation in decision making and for Indigenous knowledge and sustainable practices to be valued and legally protected. These are important safeguards essential for the ultimate success of the framework.
For many years, conservation of wild habitats and species was the at the heart of the environmental agenda. Campaign literature was full of threatened charismatic species like whales, songbirds, polar bears and pandas. Deforestation was discussed in terms of species lost, not carbon budgets.
Around the turn of the 21st century, worries about climate change started to eclipse other environmental issues, including nature conservation, in policy and public debate. However, recent research has underlined not only the alarming speed and scale with which biodiversity is being lost but also the dire consequences for human development, economies and well-being. We have learned more about how interdependent biodiversity and local ecology are with larger-scale systems, including the climate.
It is clear that conserving and restoring global biodiversity is an urgent, even existential, task, on a par with combating climate change. It is equally clear that addressing climate change or biodiversity as separate issues will not succeed. Many key players are putting this scientific insight at the heart of their approach to the COP15 talks. The challenge now is to fashion robust and inclusive responses that integrate the social, economic and political responses as well.
The past is replete with examples of violence and other repressive tactics deployed against the very people trying to protect nature—often with the acquiescence, and even the involvement, of states. Today, targeted violence against environmental defenders is becoming much better documented. IPLCs are disproportionately the victims.
Traditional Indigenous territories constitute nearly a quarter of the earth’s land surface and contain around 80 per cent of global biodiversity. Their livelihoods, well-being and sense of identity are often closely tied to the landscape and its flora and fauna. Nevertheless, only about 10 per cent of IPLCs have legal title to the land they depend on for survival and livelihood. Many IPLCs question the formal practice of private ownership. When forests and other wild areas are converted to farmland, or are converted for mining, dams or other forms of development, it often means IPLCs are evicted with little say and little or no compensation. These choices often create a legacy of violence, poverty, vulnerability and grievance.
Negotiators in Montreal must ensure that essential biodiversity conservation does not add to this history of injustices. One of the headline elements in the draft Global Biodiversity Framework is a target to protect 30 per cent of the earth’s areas ‘of particular importance for biodiversity’ by 2030 (commonly referred to as the 30x30 Initiative). This would of course protect much of the traditional territory of IPLCs, but how it will be done in practice raises the critical question of what this means for the IPLCs themselves.
Advocates are confident that 30x30 efforts can help to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights, not violate them. However, IPLCs are divided on the expansion of protected lands. Last year’s Marseille Manifesto warned that ‘mainstream conservation’ is often based on ‘a model of conservation that is often violent, colonialist and racist in approach’ and that ‘Even “reforms” that claim to avoid the worst excesses of such “fortress conservation”, are usually only cosmetic and only include Indigenous and local people as an afterthought, or as subsidiary to the principal goal’. In contrast, last year some US tribal leaders welcomed the 30x30 Initiative as ‘necessary to safeguard our communities and our world’. Alarmed at the rapid rate of biodiversity loss, Indigenous Peoples have supported a Global Deal for Nature that would protect at least 50 per cent of land area, with a system of science-based regional targets.
The challenge in the COP27 statement is the risk that it encourages seeing conservation (mainly in poor areas of the Global South) as chiefly a means of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions linked to high-consumption lifestyles enjoyed far from the areas to be protected. Without strong norms to prevent this reductionist view, IPLCs and even local ecologies risk being sidelined in the design and implementation of large-scale climate and conservation programmes.
The history of nature conservation is littered with initiatives that have forcibly banned IPLCs from land and practices that they have used sustainably for generations, and on which their livelihoods and traditions depend. This ‘coercive conservation’ approach not only creates unjust outcomes but also misses opportunities to work with IPLCs, who are often skilled and highly motivated to protect the landscape and its biodiversity.
The Convention on Biodiversity recognizes these dynamics, yet as the Montreal Manifesto notes, these threats and opportunities are still too often ignored in conservation practice. Adequately anchoring this point in the Global Biodiversity Framework would help to reinforce it in the context of 30x30 implementation.
While some Indigenous Peoples’ groups oppose legal formalities of ownership, giving IPLCs legal title to their traditional lands is, for some, a way to safeguard their security while at the same time improving environmental protection. In Peru, for instance, where more than 1200 communities have received land title since the 1970s, a study using satellite imaging found that deforestation in the two years after the titles were granted fell by more than three-quarters.
Ultimately, managing the relationship between IPLC rights and nature conservation in a way that maximizes the benefits for both is a question of good governance.
The Environment of Peace report sets out principles and recommendations for implementing the sustainability transition in a way that fosters, rather than undermines, peace. Many of these approaches are highly relevant to the question of IPLCs’ role in conservation: being deliberately inclusive; involving marginalized groups fully and in a meaningful way in decision-making; identifying integrated, collaborative solutions to multi-faceted problems; and anticipating potential negative knock-on effects of pro-environment measures early on.
Keeping language focused on the positive role and rights of IPLCs in the Global Biodiversity Framework could contribute to ensuring that implementation of ambitious conservation targets is just, peaceful and effective.