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Indigenous communities’ role in addressing biodiversity crisis not recognised by govts, says study

A new study of 42 countries, released on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 by the Rights and Resources Initiative, suggests that numerous governments, conservation groups and investors have ignored a growing body of peer-reviewed evidence suggesting that recognising the land rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants must be at the core of plans now being considered for stopping biodiversity loss and rampant deforestation in tropical forest countries.

Sengwer indigenous people
Indigenous people from the Sengwer community in western Kenya. Photo credit: REUTERS/Katy Migiro

Indigenous, Afro-descendant and other local communities manage and protect at least 50 percent of the area the researchers studied, covering the most biodiverse regions of the world and the area most likely to be targeted by global conservation initiatives. According to the new findings, governments have recognised rights to only half of the lands claimed by communities, at a time of growing awareness of a clear link between deforestation and biodiversity loss and the release of potentially dangerous pathogens.

“Despite compelling evidence that Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants protect most of the world’s remaining biodiversity, they are under siege from all sides,” said RRI’s Andy White, co-author of the two technical papers released on Tuesday.

“Our work suggests the answer is to invest in the countries and communities that are ready to scale up land rights. Failure to do so puts at risk the health of the planet and all of its people,” he added.

Research published in ScienceNature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences support findings cited last year by the UN’s climate and biodiversity panels recognising the important role of Indigenous and local communities in conservation.

“Right now, and despite all the obstacles, the helplessness of our national governments, the pandemic and the violence that we suffer, Indigenous Peoples are the Earth’s first aid team,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, General Coordinator of COICA, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin. “We protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and if we are to survive, we must conserve at least 50 percent of our entire planet. But it will be virtually impossible to help protect our common future unless our land rights are recognised and unless we have access to the technical and financial support we need to invest in our own projects.” 

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“In order to help, we need help.”

A second RRI paper released on Tuesday, based on an analysis of 29 countries, identifies 10 countries that the authors say are ready for significant investments aimed at reforming tenure nationwide. In North and South America, the authors identified Colombia, Guyana, Mexico and Peru; in Africa, they flagged Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and LIberia, in Asia, they cited India, Indonesia and Nepal.

“Rather than pointing only at the problem,” White said, “we are proposing an affordable approach to investing that represents a paradigm shift in how conservation has been carried out in the past, and sometimes in the present. We provide a clear framework for international investments in rights-based conservation, which should begin with investing in scaling up rights in countries that are ready and in preparing the others.”

The draft goal of expanding protected areas to 30% of the planet was analysed by more than 100 economists and scientists in a report released in June. They found that such an initiative would have very little impact on the global economy and may even lead to an economic gain. However, they also noted that under some approaches to conservation, indigenous peoples and local communities could suffer disproportionate negative impacts.

“However,” the authors observed, “if governance arrangements permit and respect customary uses of biodiversity by such groups – as is recommended in the Global Biodiversity Framework – then such non-market opportunity costs are largely minimised. Indeed, under rights-based governance approaches, the presence of a conservation area… can be a benefit rather than a cost, for example by strengthening (Indigenous Peoples and local communities’) land-use rights.”

Under the different scenarios considered by the report, the area recognised as representing the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples and local communities would expand between 63% and 98%, depending on the scenario, said Anthony Waldron, lead author of the report and an expert on conservation finance, global species loss and sustainable agriculture. 

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“Any negotiation that involves territories claimed by local communities, will need to respond to what they want,” Waldron said. “And it will need to be based on a common understanding of the goals of conservation, free, prior and informed consent of local communities, and a shared understanding of how achievements will be measured.”

Kimaren Ole Riamit, an indigenous Maasai and Executive Director of the Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partner (ILEPA), notes there is a reason the areas of highest biodiversity in the world overlap with the territories of Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous Peoples understand the interdependent nature of ecosystems,” Riamit said. “The modern world’s approach to nature represents an artificial fragmentation of nature and it does not work if we are to sustain nature and if humanity is to survive. To save biodiversity will require partnerships with us and often led by us. Right now the power imbalance is significant and that will have to be addressed as a priority as we negotiate how much of the planet to conserve.”

Citing evidence showing that almost 40 percent of all lands registered as Protected Areas are communally owned indigenous territories, COICA leader Díaz Mirabal argues that 30 percent of terrestrial conservation has already been achieved since 2017. “This is largely thanks to the management practices of indigenous peoples,” he said, “and despite the lack of recognition and security of our land tenure and the conservation bureaucracy. Now we have to raise the ambition well beyond the 30% protection of the lands of the world, we must aspire to the protection of half the planet, and that protection must go hand in hand with the protection of all our rights.”

Indigenous Peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants, and some civil society groups argue that the proposal to protect 30 percent of the land and ocean by 2030 is not ambitious enough. RRI’s findings suggest it is possible to go much further, White said.

“It is completely possible and necessary to protect 50 percent of the planet by 2030, but to do so affordably and effectively, we must scale up land rights on territories that have yet to be recognised,” White said. ”If donors and private philanthropists don’t invest now to save the remaining forests, as well as the lives and cultures of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants, they’re revealing that they are stuck in the systemic racism of the past.”

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In opening the virtual press briefing on Tuesday, Raina Thiele, representing the Campaign for Nature, said RRI’s findings should influence the design of any national or global initiative to conserve biodiversity. 

“We can only achieve the goal of protecting at least 30% of land and oceans by 2030 with the leadership of Indigenous Peoples and of other local communities, including Afro-descendants, with full respect for their rights,” Thiele said.

“As protectors of 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity, local communities must be central to any solution for protecting biodiversity. The evidence shows that to succeed, we will need to scale up community land rights, but we will also need the wisdom and guidance of Indigenous Peoples. If they are to continue to protect our biodiverse world, they must not be displaced, or otherwise have their rights violated, in the name of conservation,” Thiele added.

In addition to identifying the 10 countries that are ready for large tenure reform investments at the national level, the RRI reported that 14 countries are ready for medium-scale investments to support rights recognition, recommending they be led by local rights-holder organisations or civil society partners. Five additional countries require additional support for building a policy and legal structure required to attract more substantive investments. 

“We have defined a framework that can be used to quickly evaluate the readiness for tenure reforms in additional countries,” White said. “And our goal in 2021 is to expand our work to cover all priority conservation countries in 2021.”

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