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OPINION: To conserve nature, protect human rights

Thursday, 3 June 2021 13:55 GMT

Adivasi tribals are see during a celebration on the occasion of International Day of the World's Indigenous People, in a forest in Mumbai, India, August 9, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

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

Remaining ecosystems are largely found on the lands of Indigenous peoples, but they are under assault

John Knox, a professor at Wake Forest University, was the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment from 2012 to 2018. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who is a member of the Kankana-ey-Igorot people in the Philippines, was the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples from 2014 to 2020. 

Governments are currently discussing an international plan to conserve nature, which will chart a course for the next decade. The stakes could not be higher: one million species face extinction, so the future of life on this planet literally depends on getting conservation right.

The part of the draft plan that has received most attention is the 30x30 target, which calls for the expansion of land and marine conserved areas to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030 - more than doubling the extent of areas designated for conservation.

Many governments have expressed support, and the United States just published its 30x30 plan. But the 30x30 target is just one element of a comprehensive Global Biodiversity Framework, to be adopted in October at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

This isn’t the first attempt at a global plan to save nature. In 2010, the CBD Parties agreed on 20 targets to be met by 2020. That plan utterly failed: none of the targets were fully met, and only six even partially met.

Unfortunately, as Indigenous and other organizations have pointed out, the current plan is on course to repeat the mistake that undermined past efforts: failing to recognize that the best way to protect nature is to protect the human rights of those who live there.

Remaining natural ecosystems are found largely on the lands of Indigenous peoples, who have often proved to be better than governments at protecting against deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. But they are under assault from the same forces destroying nature, including land grabbing, logging, mining, and poaching.

When they try to protect their ways of life, they face harassment, violence, and even death. Of the 331 human rights defenders killed in 2020, more than two-thirds were defenders of Indigenous, land, or environmental rights.

Rather than strengthen the rights of these environmental defenders in their traditional lands, many governments have historically seen the ideal national park as one without human beings. They have often violently expelled their inhabitants, treating them as enemies rather than allies.  

Today, governments and conservation organizations say that they reject exclusionary conservation, but many protected areas continue to exclude their original inhabitants. When they return to their ancestral homes, park rangers arrest them - or worse. In the last two years, reports described allegations that rangers in Africa and Asia committed grave abuses against local communities, including murder, rape, and torture.

Many of the rangers were paid and equipped by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and, indirectly, by its donors. The allegations led to several investigations, including one by an independent expert panel commissioned by WWF, in which one of us (John Knox) participated.

In November, the panel reported that WWF has supported rangers for years despite knowing of the alleged abuses, and that it has often failed to meet its own human rights standards. Its failures have stemmed in large part from its lack of experts in human rights, including Indigenous people themselves.

In its response, WWF did not apologize or accept responsibility, but it did promise to appoint an Ombudsperson (starting in August) and adopt a risk assessment process modeled on that of the World Bank (which opened for public consultation this month). However, WWF did not commit to adding the expert staff necessary to implement effective protections against abuses. And it rejected the panel’s recommendation to have at least one Indigenous person on its board. 

WWF is not unique. The failure to integrate human rights runs throughout international conservation. Recent investigations by the US government and the UN Development Programme concluded that they, too, have failed to follow safeguards to ensure that their conservation funds do not contribute to human rights violations.

The draft Global Biodiversity Framework says, correctly, that transformational change is needed. For it to occur, governments must center the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the Framework, including the 30x30 target.

That means that, at a minimum, protected areas and other conservation initiatives must recognize and respect the title, tenure, access, and management rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities in their collective lands and territories, including the right of free, prior, and informed consent to any actions that affect them.

Rangers must be trained to international standards and subject to effective review and accountability. Local residents must have access to independent mechanisms that can receive complaints of, and provide remedies for, violations. Park authorities and conservation organizations must report publicly on how they are meeting human rights norms.

Funding for conservation projects should flow only if these baseline standards are met. And donors should provide far more support directly to Indigenous and local conservation organizations.

In short, to conserve nature, governments must first protect the rights of those who are on the front lines of conservation.

Three other current and former UN Special Rapporteurs have also signed on to this article: David Boyd, the current Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Mary Lawlor, the current Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders; and Michel Forst, the former Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.