Defending the indigenous defenders of biodiversity

03-01-2023 09:34 AM
Project Syndicate

In the southwest corner of the Philippines, the forest of the Batak people is a biodiversity hotspot. At least 31 endangered and threatened species, including the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal, can be found only here, in an area the size of Montreal. The forest also played a critical role in shielding people from the 160-mile-per-hour winds of Super Typhoon Odette at the end of 2021. The Batak maintain and monitor the forest for only $20,000 per year, about the price of a low-end Rolex watch.

The Batak are not alone in calling a biodiversity hotspot home. The Innu homelands of Nitassinan, in what is now known as Quebec and Labrador, lie in Canada’s boreal forest, the largest intact forest left on the planet. Home to migratory and woodland caribou, lynx, wolves and polar bears, and a major flyway for birds, scientists predict that it will become a refuge for even more animals and plants as climate change transforms their habitats. The Innu Nation, longtime stewards of these lands, is attempting to protect them by proposing and establishing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

An estimated 80 per cent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity can be found on the lands of indigenous peoples and local communities. With as many as 1 million species of plants and animals at risk of extinction today, the need to empower these groups to protect nature should be obvious. The just-concluded United Nations summit on biodiversity (COP15) in Montreal, several hundred miles south of the Nitassinan, offered an opportunity to do just that.

The world has failed to recognise the seriousness of the extinction crisis, let alone taken the action needed to address it. COP15 was delayed for more than a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the problem goes back much further. Scientists were publishing papers about the extinction crisis more than a decade ago, while indigenous communities were fighting to stop rapacious development, from open-pit mines to vast soybean plantations to massive hydropower barrages, from destroying their lands.

Now, the world is finally beginning to wake up to the extent of the ecosystem damage that has been done and to the injustices committed against the indigenous peoples who have proved to be nature’s most responsible stewards. Achieving the global “30x30” goal of protecting at least 30 per cent of terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030, while respecting indigenous and community rights (including land rights), is one of the most important ways to avoid catastrophic loss of species. At COP15, it was a major topic of discussion, and on the final day of the summit, roughly 190 countries approved an agreement that included the 30x30 goal.

Representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities from around the world attended the summit to push world leaders to match their ambitions for sustaining biodiversity by recognising indigenous and community land rights and supporting tried-and-true conservation practices. Their advocacy helped to ensure that language about indigenous rights were included in the agreement, an important safeguard for communities that feared being displaced by measures linked to the 30x30 goal. Indigenous peoples and local communities should have the opportunity to give their informed consent to measures linked to the goal, which must be pursued with a human-rights-based approach, and should receive direct funding for their work on biodiversity protection.

In this respect, Canada is setting a powerful example. Like indigenous people around the world, Canada’s First Nations, including the Innu, have proved that they know how to manage ecosystems sustainably. Indigenous leadership or partnerships have been behind the creation of nearly 90 per cent of the protected areas established in Canada over the past two decades. And First Nations are leading the way on proposals to establish scores more protected areas.

The Canadian government has recognised indigenous peoples as essential partners in achieving biodiversity goals. Last year, it announced CAN$340 million ($258 million) in new funding for indigenous-led conservation, to be delivered over five years. Almost half of the total will support indigenous-protected and conserved areas; the rest will fund First Nations-led stewardship initiatives. The success of the COP15 agreement hinges on whether other industrialized countries follow this model.

As it stands, indigenous peoples and local communities receive only 16-23 per cent total support for land protection from international conservation institutions. But we deliver the same outcomes with fewer resources than government-run conservation. In other words, indigenous peoples and local communities are not only the best protectors of biodiversity, but also the most cost-effective, and among the most in need. Support for their conservation and stewardship benefits people and the planet.

The COP15 agreement is an important step towards stopping the biodiversity crisis from robbing us of our pollinators, our sources of new medicines and superfoods, and the ecosystem services that underpin healthy and prosperous communities. But given how rapidly the extinction crisis is progressing, transforming commitments into action is vital. Indigenous peoples have shown that we can protect the Earth’s biodiversity. But we can’t do it alone. We need the world’s support.

Valérie Courtois is director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. KM Reyes is a co-founder and adviser at the Centre for Sustainability PH. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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