/ 22 September 2022

Role of indigenous people as stewards of nature under threat

Native Americans and their supports have been campaigning to have Columbus Day replaced with Indigenous Peoples' Day since the late 1970s.
Native Americans and their supports have been campaigning to have Columbus Day replaced with Indigenous Peoples' Day since the late 1970s.

This is a critical year for the natural environment. Negotiations by world leaders in Montreal this December will determine the fate of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a far-reaching agreement that will set the world’s environmental agenda for the next decade. The future of perhaps a million plant and animal species hangs in the balance, as do the lives and livelihoods of billions of human beings.

Biodiversity is not about simply counting trees, birds, fish or insects. These certainly matter, but so, too, does the broader balance of the ecosystems on which they, we, and many other species rely. Moreover, “we” must include indigenous peoples, who have a particularly important role to play in environmental talks.

I am one of them. My people, the Mbororo of Chad, are like many other groups that have ancient ties to ancestral lands around the world. We are proven stewards of the world’s precious yet dwindling natural inheritance. Deforestation on our lands is much lower than elsewhere. Vegetation is thicker, wildlife is more abundant and food chains are sturdier. 

Where we live, nature’s vitality has not yet been extinguished. As much as one-third of the world’s tropical forests, peatlands and mangroves – carbon-dense ecosystems that account for 80% of global biodiversity – are found on indigenous lands.

This is no accident. For indigenous peoples, the land is everything. It is the source of our food, shelter and medicine as well as the wellspring of our culture and history. Over countless generations, we have learned to live well on our land. We know how to protect it, how to restore it and how to serve as its engineers and nurturers rather than its destroyers.

Science has long confirmed indigenous peoples’ unique contributions to Earth’s well-being. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressed that indigenous knowledge is critical to managing global warming and its effects. 

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reached the same conclusion with respect to preserving biodiversity. In a follow-up report this year, the platform further emphasised the importance of indigenous people’s contributions to global conservation.

The world’s growing recognition of indigenous knowledge was also reflected at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year when several countries and private donors pledged $1.7 billion to support indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ conservation and climate-advocacy efforts. It was an unprecedented commitment to a far-flung but increasingly united population.

But while we welcome world leaders’ growing recognition of indigenous knowledge and practices, fulfilling our stewardship role requires more than approbation. To continue serving as the natural world’s most effective guardians, we need the right to own – and thus to remain on and continue to manage – our ancestral lands.

With indigenous peoples being relentlessly displaced – often violently – from territory that we have always called home, land-tenure reform and secure land rights have become absolutely crucial. Otherwise, outsider settlement, agricultural expansion, industrial extraction, desertification and disease will continue to sever our historic bonds to the lands we live on.

Governments must commit to managing land more sustainably. The 30×30 plan to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea by the end of this decade is a good idea, provided that it is pursued in close partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities. 

That means ensuring full inclusion, recognition of our land rights and our free, prior, and informed consent. We need to be fully represented at the table when new agreements are struck and when projects to protect and restore ecosystems are being designed.

To carry out this vital mission, we also need access to funding. The Community Land Rights and Conservation Finance Initiative, which focuses squarely on the intersection of land-tenure rights and community-led conservation, is a good start. It fills a key gap by channelling funds directly to indigenous and community-led initiatives. 

It aims to raise $10-billion by 2030, and to expand legally recognised indigenous territories by 400-million hectares. This is crucial to curbing deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss. The goal is to increase these communities’ legal land ownership to at least 50% of all tropical forests.

If the world commits to investing in indigenous peoples, we can take it from there. With sufficient funding on the ground – not just on paper and in speeches – we can do more than anyone else to protect nature and preserve the world’s biodiversity.

Even though finalising the Global Biodiversity Framework is crucial to prevent wholesale ecosystem collapse, the process has run into delays, disagreements, and reluctance by key parties. 

World leaders must rise to the occasion and secure an agreement that fully recognises indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and unique contributions. — © Project Syndicate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.