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OPINION: Without indigenous peoples, we can't stop nature's destruction

by Brian O’Donnell | Campaign for Nature
Tuesday, 20 October 2020 08:03 GMT

Samela Satere-Mawe, a 24-year-old biology student and Indigenous activist poses for pictures near her home, which is also the headquarters of the Satere Mawe Women's Association in the Compensa neighborhood in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil, October 1, 2020. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A proposed global goal to conserve 30% of land and seas by 2030 must take into account the rights and contributions of indigenous communities

As recent headlines about forest blazes, melting glaciers and sinking islands have made clear, the natural world is in peril. And with repeated warnings about the grim state of biodiversity - and, at the same time, promising predictions about the role of nature in boosting our economies and protecting our health - we need a change in the way we are protecting nature, more than ever before. 

Right now, government officials in countries around the globe, from Canada to Australia, are beginning to take note of a solution critical to a global effort to stop the breakdown of nature. That is partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities who have successfully conserved the biodiversity on their lands for millennia, using traditional knowledge passed down through generations. 

Examples of their stewardship of the land includes the protection of wild plant species at risk of extinction, the use of traditional burning practices to preserve animal habitats and the revitalisation of degraded lands.

But with a recent report noting that the world has largely disregarded this expertise when implementing action plans to stave off mass extinctions of plants and animals, it is crucial that all of us working to preserve what remains of the planet’s biodiversity acknowledge the mistakes, failures and abuses of an outdated model of conservation that has not always respected the rights of indigenous peoples, and in many instances has led to violence and displacement.

It is also crucial that we pivot to effective conservation models of the future. Addressing the biodiversity and climate emergencies facing our planet requires the swift alignment of large conservation area targets with indigenous land rights and leadership. 

The goal to conserve at least 30% of our planet’s land and oceans by 2030 as an interim step to 50% by 2050, is recommended by scientists and experts worldwide. This target is now being promoted by over 30 countries as part of a new global deal for nature.

But this goal will only work if it’s implemented with the leadership of indigenous peoples and local communities, and with respect for their land rights. After all, indigenous peoples’ lands contain approximately 85% of the world’s biodiversity


My organization, the Campaign for Nature, has been at the forefront of the 30x30 proposal. From the outset we have explicitly advocated that recognising indigenous rights is both a moral imperative and critical to its success. Without the leadership of indigenous peoples, we can’t achieve 30x30. 

Indigenous peoples and local communities are among the most effective stewards of biodiversity, with landmark United Nations and peer-reviewed research documenting their contribution. Additional research has further revealed that where the rights of indigenous and local groups are strong, the forests and other ecosystems on their lands are at less risk of destruction. 

Ensuring traditional peoples continue to make this fundamental contribution to biodiversity requires the recognition and enforcement of their land rights, and their free, prior and informed consent in the creation of conserved areas. It is also crucial that donors move to fund indigenous land tenure opportunities.

Doing so is an effective, moral, and affordable solution for protecting nature and preventing the indigenous rights violations that have historically plagued a number of conservation projects. Without strong land rights, these areas and the people who safeguard them remain vulnerable.

With 190 countries negotiating the United Nations post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, nations have a new opportunity to codify a rights-based approach to conservation. But indigenous peoples and local communities must be supported to have their own voices represented directly in this U.N. process with a seat at the table, and their priorities must be integrated throughout the new framework. 

The U.N. should also ensure that indigenous and community conservation efforts are counted towards global area-based targets, creating an incentive for governments to more rapidly recognise the land rights and conservation contributions of these groups. This will help indigenous conservation get the recognition it deserves and enable the integration of indigenous rights into national conservation plans.

It is way past time for an improved approach to conservation that values indigenous peoples and local communities as partners and leaders. We have an opportunity now to re-shape conservation to be effective and inclusive. Let’s make sure to achieve it.