Press play to listen to this article
MARSEILLE, France — There’s a big challenge facing efforts to protect large swathes of the planet to preserve threatened biodiversity — indigenous people live on a lot of that land and they feel excluded from formulating such policies.
Ahead of next year’s COP15 global biodiversity talks, a group of countries led by France, Costa Rica and the U.K. is pushing to put 30 percent of the planet under protected status by 2030 as part of a wider effort to reverse biodiversity loss by mid-century.
But doing so will be impossible “without the recognition of the political and economic space of indigenous people,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CEO of the Global Environment Facility and former environment minister of Costa Rica.
That means acknowledging that indigenous people have property rights over a lot of that territory. “We’re not recognizing that indigenous people own a third of the spaces we need to restore,” he said.
Indigenous people account for about 4 percent of the global population but are estimated to be present on 24 percent of the earth’s surface — land where some 80 percent of remaining biodiversity is concentrated.
“The challenge is to conserve biodiversity with people in, not create fortress conservation areas,” said Kanyinke Sena, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee.
The clash between nature preservation and the rights of discriminated people living in areas like the Amazon rainforest and the Congo basin is coming to a head at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille this week. The congress is supposed to set the agenda for the COP15, but indigenous groups complain they’re being used to add color to the talks without much ability to influence the outcome.
If we are invited, it’s often “to present our traditions, songs and dances,” José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said during an event at the congress.
Too often, indigenous communities are left out of major conferences and debates because “we do not have the resource in terms of capital to have our people present to these kinds of events,” said Noelani Lee, executive director of the non-profit Ka Honua Momona in Hawaii.
‘Voice and vote’
That’s something campaigners are pushing to change.
Before the Marseille congress organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) kicked off on Friday, representatives from indigenous groups met for their own summit — the first World Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nature — to set out their own goals, push for the recognition of their rights and ask for support in their conservation efforts.
The indigenous groups are also presenting a motion — which will be put to a vote to IUCN members at the end of this week and isn’t legally binding — to call for protecting 80 percent of the Amazon rainforest by 2025.
It’s about “building a participatory-based platform within the IUCN,” said Mirabal. “We want to be there with voice and vote.”
Policy solutions for protecting biodiversity “need to come from the territories, from the jungle, from the water … that’s what we keep saying,” he added.
There’s scientific evidence to back up that assertion, according to Carmen Josse Moncayo, biology expert and executive director of Ecuador’s EcoCiencia Foundation. Leaving land under the care of indigenous groups can be an effective way of preserving biodiversity.
“The data clearly shows that protection against deforestation and forest degradation in indigenous territories is practically as strong as in protected areas,” she said. The problem is that “indigenous territories lack resources and a legal framework.”
People vs. preservation
The issue of how to treat indigenous groups is deeply dividing environmental campaigners.
A batch of more radical green groups worry that aggressive preservation measures can come at the cost of dispossessing the people who live on threatened land.
A group of human rights NGOs — including Survival International, the Rainforest Foundation U.K. and the Minority Rights Group International — organized a counter-summit last week to protest human rights violations of indigenous people, alleging that their rights and territories are being compromised for the sake of conservation projects.
That’s the kind of accusation that prompted Extinction Rebellion activists to occupy a WWF center in London last week, accusing the rival green group of promoting conservation policies that violate human rights.
Martin Léna, advocacy officer at Survival International — the NGO that co-organized the counter-summit — said that the “so-called solutions of the IUCN” are dangerous for indigenous people because “they are evicted from their territories to create national parks in the name of the preservation of a wild and intact nature.”
“We wanted to give a chance to speak to indigenous people who are negatively impacted by fortress conservation, suffering from land grab and violence, because they don’t have a voice at the IUCN.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s Sustainability Pro service, which dives deep into sustainability issues across all sectors, including: circular economy, waste and the plastics strategy, chemicals and more. For a complimentary trial, email [email protected] mentioning Sustainability.