Rethinking conservation for people and nature

Posted on August, 09 2020

On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Delfin Ganapin, WWF Governance Practice Leader, argues that saving life on Earth means formally recognising the rights and roles of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in international environmental agreements, and radically overhauling our conservation approach.

Nature bites

We have known for too long that nature is in serious trouble – but the COVID-19 crisis, with its catastrophic health and economic impacts, has shown us just how vulnerable we are to its decline, and just how urgently we need to repair our broken relationship with nature.

Nature not only sustains us, providing fresh air, clean water and food, it also powers industry and enterprise, accounting for around $44 trillion in economic value generation – over half of the world’s GDP.

And yet we are degrading natural systems faster than nature can replenish and restore them, and deforestation, land use change and agricultural expansion and intensification risk unleashing further devastating global pandemics.

In recovery, we cannot go back to business as usual. We must recognise that human, animal and environmental health are interdependent, and build a new world built on justice and equity. And at the centre of our efforts to build forward better must be those best-placed to safeguard the natural systems on which we all depend.

Recognising nature’s guardians

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) have sustainably managed nature for generations in their ‘territories of life’. Today, they manage or hold tenure over a quarter of the world’s land outside Antarctica, including about 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes on Earth, and their lands account for at least 24% of the total carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests. These lands must be safeguarded if we are to tackle the triple crises of nature loss, climate breakdown and unsustainable economies.

Yet while IPLCs can be equally or more successful at safeguarding biodiversity than governments or protected areas, they face critical socio-economic and political challenges. Human rights violations, killings of environmental defenders, land invasions, and lack of legal recognition of their lands undermine not only their ability to continue safeguarding nature but also their rights as peoples and as communities.

IPLCs’ achievements, concerns and voices, together with their ancestral knowledge and ability to live in balance with nature, are not appropriately recognised in many national and international negotiations and agreements on conservation and developmentdenying them a rightful say in the future of their ancestral territories.

Addressing this profound injustice is paramount. As governments continue negotiating what has been dubbed the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biodiversity, they must recognise the critical role that IPLCs can play in reversing nature loss, tackling the climate crisis, and delivering sustainable development.

Rights, equity and justice

A first step should be acknowledging outcomes from the recent Virtual Biodiversity Dialogues held in June and July this year and facilitated by WWF with a coalition of UN agencies and civil society organisations. Through them, leaders from UN and youth organisations, NGOs and foundations, cities and regional governments, the private sector, communities and Indigenous Peoples, have identified seven steps to ensure a healthy planet for all people.

One of these calls on governments to ensure that rights, equity and justice are at the heart of the post-2020 framework, including ‘universal recognition of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’; targets that ‘protect and empower environmental defenders, particularly Indigenous Peoples, local communities and women, to support and benefit from healthy natural ecosystems, free from threats, harassment, criminalisation, intimidation and violence’; ‘equitable governance of protected areas … and appropriate recognition, protection and securing of all the lands and water traditionally governed by Indigenous People and local communities for the conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity’; and the ‘full and effective participation of youth in decision-making at all levels.’

Rebuilding trust

WWF unreservedly supports all of these calls, and along with many other conservation organisations, recognises the knowledge and achievements of IPLCs – but this alone is not enough.

As we continue to call for an ambitious New Deal for Nature and People in 2021, we recognize we also need to strengthen our own capacity and that of our community partners to promote equity, structural transformation and environmental justice.

Where necessary, we also need to rebuild trust. Some conservation activities designed to protect nature have contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of IPLCs. WWF condemns such harmful attitudes and practices and intends to ensure full implementation of all safeguards, especially on Free and Prior Informed Consent processes. With IPLC-led approaches, we and other conservation organisations as well as government agencies and donors will have to walk the talk of inclusive conservation.  

Inclusive conservation

As champions of the SDGs, we also need to be strong advocates of inclusiveness and equity. In this time of crisis and change, we must have courage and be powerful advocates for equity and justice. We must galvanise a new conservation paradigm – one of inclusivity which empowers people, restores the vibrant cultural and natural diversity of our planet, and builds resilience to future crises.

This is not just about WWF supporting conservation by IPLCs but critically about collectively recognising their right to decide how to manage their lands and waters, as well as how, when, and if, to involve others.

We are committed to championing human rights, equity, inclusiveness and social justice in all our work. Through our People Protecting Landscapes and Seascapes initiative, to be led by IPLCs with assistance from conservation, social development and human rights organisations, we will strengthen our support for IPLCs as they seek to secure rights to their collective lands and territories, as well as recognition of traditional governance systems over them.

And we will strive to ensure that when world leaders meet next May in Kunming, China, to agree the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, IPLCs are no longer ignored, sidelined, and left out of the conversation but are empowered and supported to lead the renewal of our relationship with the natural world.

We will only succeed in protecting and restoring nature, and securing equity and social justice, if we recognise the reciprocal relationship between the two, and place it at the heart of all our efforts.