News: Indigenous rights key to conservation: IUCN listens to indigenous peoples as it sets new conservation policy and grapples with historic harms

1 October, 2021

Given the historic harmful legacy that some protected areas have had for indigenous peoples and local communities, there is a real need to re-think how the world’s protected and conserved areas are established and who governs and manages them. This was a key topic for discussion at this year’s World Conservation Congress.

The Congress, held by IUCN every four years, is the way the Union sets its own policy and through which it makes recommendations to other bodies. This year’s Congress was a tricky, hybrid affair which tried to combine virtual participation and in-person discussions, but for many present was the first opportunity to meet in person to discuss the climate and biodiversity crises since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

“We come to international forums and speak your language, because otherwise we would not be heard.”

Marie-Josee Artist, Indigenous Community Leader, Suriname

Although some indigenous organisations have been IUCN members for many years, this year’s Congress in Marseille, France, was the first time that indigenous peoples’ organisations attended under their own category of membership. Their contributions to both the formal and informal business of the Congress was high-profile and impressive.

Indigenous and community representation at the Congress

The formal business of the Congress revolves mainly around the proposal of, and negotiation of, ‘motions’ which are member-proposed statements either about the policy of the IUCN itself (which become ‘Resolutions’ when adopted), or statements urging action by others (becoming ‘Recommendations’).

The recommendations passed this year reflect substantial departures from previous years and highlight the importance of indigenous peoples making their voices heard in policy processes. There were many motions relevant for indigenous peoples and for communities holding customary rights to lands and resources, and many contact groups (in which motions are debated prior to being voted on) saw active participation.

One critical area was in policy related to setting new targets for increasing protected and conserved areas across the globe. These policies, referred to as ‘Area-based Targets’, are the subject of on-going negotiations between governments about what targets to set under the new global biodiversity framework, including what target to set for protected and conserved areas.

Given the impacts that some protected areas have had on indigenous peoples and communities – including widespread displacement and on-going impoverishment – and the fact that remaining biodiversity hotspots largely overlap with areas managed by indigenous peoples, any increase in protected and conserved areas will obviously be watched for any impact on the rights and interests of indigenous peoples and other customary rights holders.

For some, the idea of nearly doubling protected and conserved areas is a source of reasonable and real fear about how such a policy may unleash further harms, a fear that is particularly acute in countries where the rights of indigenous peoples and of communities are inadequately recognised and protected already.

Key Motions for Indigenous rights

The IUCN tackled Area-based Targets primarily through two motions:

Motion 101 on Area-based Targets generally, and
Motion 129 on an Area-based Target for the Amazon in particular.

Motion 129
Motion 129 involved detailed, late-night negotiations attended by indigenous organisations, including COICA (the coordinating body of indigenous peoples in the Amazon), who had originally proposed the Motion.

Key improvements made to the Motion included the addition of a reference to the historic legacy of dispossession in the Amazon from ‘fortress’ conservation projects, assertion of the need to safeguard the rights of peoples living in isolation, and – critically – recognition that any attempt to protect an increased are of the Amazon must be done under the leadership of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

“RECOGNISING the on-going legacy of dispossession of indigenous peoples and local communities through the imposition of some protected areas without their free, prior, and informed consent” Motion 129

And calling on all Members of IUCN to: “support the area-based conservation targets, in order to protect, conserve and sustainably manage at least 80% of the Amazon by 2025, in partnership with and recognising the leadership of indigenous peoples in the Amazon” Motion 129

Motion 101

Motion 101 was also the subject of hotly contested negotiations (made more complicated by the relationship with the concurrent negotiations for an Area-based Target taking place in the Convention on Biological Diversity).

Motion 101 calls for two different Area-based Targets to be referred to by IUCN:

to recognise that evolving science points to a need for ‘more than half’ of the planet to be protected, conserved and restored; and
a shorter-term target of 30% of lands and 30% of oceans to be conserved by 2030 - a target that directly links to the CBD discussions.
Again, indigenous organisations and others entered detailed negotiations in numerous contact groups to consider how these Area-based Targets might intersect with the rights and interests of indigenous peoples.

Excellent language on recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and safeguarding their interests, including through requiring free, prior, and informed consent for any protected or conserved status to be declared over their lands, was included.

Motion 101 is not perfect. It failed to recognise that any move towards increasing protected and conserved areas needs to begin with a recognition of historic harm – a step that was taken in Motion 129. It also divorces its recognition of the science about protection, conservation, and restoration from any mention of the roles of people – and particularly the roles of indigenous peoples – in delivering the ‘more than half’ target. Evolving science is increasingly pointing to an ecological need for restoration, protection and conservation, and it is also emphasizing that the systems that deliver such outcomes most effectively are often the systems of land ownership that get the least recognition and the least legal and technical support.

Despite these drawbacks however, its final form does reflect a negotiated outcome which did incorporate, involve and respond to the voices of indigenous peoples.

The increasing role of Indigenous organisations

The presentation of both Motions 129 and 101 to plenary, and the overwhelming support they received from IUCN members, reflected a Union that has been changed by the increasing role being taken on by indigenous organisations, networks and individuals.

The specific repetition of Motion 101’s language on the rights of indigenous peoples in Motion 040 on the Global Biodiversity Framework only underscores the importance that the Union – throughout its membership – chose to place on recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and roles in conservation and sustainable use.

Calls for all Members to “support the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and the implementation of all protection, conservation and restoration activities with the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and with appropriate recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, as set out under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and full respect for their diverse knowledge systems” Motion 101 and Motion 040.

These statements on Area-based Targets will now be taken forwards into the negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and should be considered as a floor, a bare minimum, for what will be agreed in the coming months in the global biodiversity negotiations.

Post date: 
Fri, 10/01/2021 - 01:00