In December 2022, the U.N. Biodiversity Conference, or COP15, convened governments from across the world to set ambitious 2030 and 2050 conservation goals aimed at addressing the dangerous loss of biodiversity and restoring natural ecosystems. This was the latest conference held to strategize through the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity, an agreement adopted by all UN member states, excluding the United States and the Vatican.
Despite countless acts of genocide and historical injustices inflicted by colonialism, Indigenous communites across the world continue to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity. Indigenous peoples’ lands host 80% of the world’s biodiversity, yet they constitute just 5% of the world’s population. Apart from the invaluable ecosystem services and climate benefits robust biodiversity provides, the livelihoods, well-being, and sense of identity of indigenous peoples are inseparably tied to healthy flora and fauna.
Given the dire role of Indigenous knowledge and land stewardship in healing the planet, many environmentalists are asking to what extent COP 15 protects Indigenous communities and their lands.
Some argue that the U.N. Biodiversity Conference is a monumental step towards uplifting Indigenous perspectives and efforts in worldwide conservation strategy. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) includes 20 references to Indigenous Peoples, with seven out of the 23 targets acknowledging Indigenous rights and wisdom. This is a step up from the Aichi Biodiversity targets, adopted during the 2010 U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) summit, where only 2 out of the 20 targets explicitly mention Indigenous communities.
Many headlines focused on Target 3 of the GBF, which aims to conserve at least 30% of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems by 2030. The target also requires that sustainable use is consistent with conservation outcomes, “recognizing and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities including over their traditional territories.” For some Indigenous communities present at COP 15, the inclusion of indigenous rights in this particular target was transformational. “We were afraid that if we did not have any inclusion in target three, we could suffer human rights violations in the name of conservation,” said Viviana Figueroa, a member of the Omaguaca-Kolla indigenous peoples of northern Argentina and a representative of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.
According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, more than 250,000 people in 15 countries were evicted because of protected areas from 1990 to 2014. In Botswana, the San people have been unjustly reprimanded for sustainably hunting on their ancestral hunting grounds in Central Kalahari game park. In 2016, nine young San men were shot at, stripped, brutally beaten, and detained just days after Botswana’s wildlife minister announced a shoot-on-sight policy for poachers. In 2009, a mass eviction from areas near the Serengeti, Maasai Mara and Ngorongoro national parks left more than 200 homes burned and 3,000 pastoral Maasai peoples homeless in Tanzania. Unfortunately, these instances of Indigenous displacement and human rights abuses are commonplace in the name of conservation.
With these dangers in mind, many Indigenous activists say that COP15 didn’t go far enough to protect and uplift Indigenous communities. Many believe that there remains a gap for ensuring Indigenous sovereignty that goes beyond mere recognition and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories. For example, some activists would have liked to see a third type of area-based conservation for indigenous peoples specified in Target 3. Indigenous groups also fear that the commodification of biodiversity through things like biodiversity credits would perpetuate debt-for-nature swaps, in which countries in debt, mostly in the Global South, would pay off debt by “handing over their biodiversity to banks”.
Others reference procedural limitations at COP15 that prevented the full recognition of Indigenous perspectives. Indigenous nations are not among the list of parties with status under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, so they don’t have equal status during negotiations. Additionally, when more detailed negotiations break off from large plenary meetings, Indigenous groups can only participate with permission from co-leads of the discussion. This came off as infantilizing to Indigenous representatives at the conference. “We always have to have this sponsor to speak for us. It’s as if we are children,” said Jennifer Corpuz, a representative for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.
So how can world forums on biodiversity value both Indigenous Peoples and the planet in the future? The first step is ensuring that the time and effort put into deliberating global biodiversity strategy doesn’t go to waste due to lack of accountability. The monitoring framework for the GBF includes global reviews of progress, based on national reports. However, the framework notes that countries “may take the outcome of the global reviews into account,” rather than assigning concrete requirements for countries to meet their goals.
Additionally, Indigenous Peoples cannot protect biodiversity if they are not adequately protected from harm’s way. At least 613 Indigenous activists have been murdered over the last decade, according to environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness. These attacks are disproportionately directed towards indigenous communities. Though they make up 5% of the global population, Indigenous people were victims of more than 41% of the fatal attacks documented against environmental defenders in 2021. Global biodiversity policy in the future must explore the intersectionality between race and environmentalism to ensure a just conservation strategy.