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Implications of the COP15 30x30 Biodiversity Approach for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities

During Part II of COP15, taking place in April next year, the international community will agree on the adoption of a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) in an attempt to offset the failure of the Aichi Targets. The GBF includes a target to protect 30% of global land and seascapes by 2030 —unless major tweaks are made before April, its implementation could have significant implications for indigenous peoples and local communities, who are not only battling the consequences of biodiversity loss but also are in the frontlines of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A striker holding a “No tribes, no nature, no future” sign in the Climate Strike in Bristol, UK on November 6th 2021. Photo by Julieta Longo.

New Pledges, Old Problems

Following the unsuccessful implementation of the 2011-2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted in the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), world leaders, national ministers, community representatives, civil society organisations, members of academia, and other stakeholders gathered once again this year —this time in Kunming, China— to determine the path humanity will take over the next decade to halt global biodiversity loss and boost recovery.

The 15th COP took place during a (sadly) historic moment for global biodiversity, as the rate at which nature is being destroyed is unprecedented. Vertebrate species populations have declined by 68% between 1970 and 2016. Up until 2019, 85% of wetlands had been lost, and a 20% fall in the abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes had been recorded. To make matters worse, climate change is accelerating the loss of coral reefs, of which half has already been lost since the 1870s. Human activity has put the Earth “on the cusp of the sixth mass extinction”. This moment in time is one of the concurring crises —not only unprecedented biodiversity loss, but also the climate crisis, rampant social inequality, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first part of COP15 was themed “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” and took place virtually from 11-15 October 2021. Due to the constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the final negotiations have been pushed back and scheduled to be held in person during Part II, from 25 April to 8 May 2022. During the second part, parties will agree on the adoption of a new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). In between both parts, meetings of the CBD’s subsidiary bodies and of the Open-Ended Working Group on the GBF will be held in Geneva from 12-28 January 2022.

The GBF under negotiation is being built around a “theory of change” set to “transform economic, social and financial models”. The goal is to achieve, by 2050, a vision of “humanity living in harmony with nature” in a way that ensures both the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use in order to meet people’s needs. Such transformation entails the stabilization of biodiversity loss trends by 2030, and the achievement of net improvements in the recovery of natural ecosystems by 2050. According to the GBF’s first draft, its implementation will take a rights-based and gender-responsive, participatory approach.

The framework has four long-term goals related to the net area including: 1) connectivity and integrity of natural ecosystems, 2) extinction rates; genetic diversity and genetic resources, 3) the value of nature’s contributions, and 4) financial resources for implementation. It also encompasses 21 targets for urgent action to be completed by 2030.

Target number 3 particularly has generated widespread debate. This target’s aim is to “Ensure that at least 30 per cent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes”. This commitment aims to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 —which has been dubbed the “30x30” approach. In comparison to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, this is an ambitious leap that aims to preserve 10% of the sea and at least 17% of land by 2020. Back in June 2021, G7 countries subscribed to the 30x30 initiative, while also committing to its implementation on a national level.

Not All That Glitters Is Gold

Despite having raised the bar in terms of spatial conservation, concerns have arisen regarding the implications of the 30x30 approach for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC), as 37% of the areas of particular importance for biodiversity protection —that should be added to the current global protected areas to achieve the GBF’s target— are indigenous territories.

The main concern is that a faulty interpretation of the target could spark a massive wave of creation of strictly protected areas, leading to IPLC being evicted from their homes and ancestral territories. If conceived and implemented through the perspective of ‘fortress conservation’ —a model according to which the best biodiversity protection outcomes are achieved through total human exclusion from protected areas— the target could be used to justify human rights abuses, forced displacement and land grabbing.

This fear cannot be considered unreasonable when there is a history of violence against IPLC, especially against environmental defenders. According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, 12% of assassinations of environmental defenders occurred globally in the context of conflicts around conservation. Moreover, eviction remains a tool to achieve the goals of conservation —not only does it entail the forced displacement of people from their land, but also their exclusion from the territories in which they pursue their livelihoods (Brockington and Igoe, 2006). The establishment of protected areas inevitably alters land use rights, whether by increasing the control of elite groups over resources, the introduction of new land uses, and the criminalization of native peoples because of their traditional land-use practices (West et al., 2006). Authoritarian protectionist policies —namely the militarisation of conservation— can lead to considerable social conflicts (Marler, 2013), such as the alleged torture, rape, and murder perpetrated by park ranges members of paramilitary forces across Asia and Africa.

It is worth noting, however, that Target 21 of the GBF explicitly mentions the need to “respect their [IPLC] rights over lands, territories, and resources”, while Target 20 states the commitment to “ensure that relevant knowledge, including the traditional knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities with their free, prior, and informed consent, guides decision-making for the effective management of biodiversity”, in alignment with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Even so, certain aspects regarding the operationalisation of these targets —in terms of allocation of funds to IPLC, the definition of roles and responsibilities, monitoring strategies— require further development.

In contrast, some IPLC groups view the 30x30 goal as an opportunity. That is the case of the North Amazon Alliance, which expressed its support for the target as a framework to place value on indigenous territories and recognize its contribution to biodiversity conservation. The GFB is also considered an important and necessary space for indigenous participation, and some groups have even lobbied for a 50% conservation target, as it would increase IPLC participation in the global conservation strategy. Similar to the 30% target, this initiative of protecting half of the Earth raised social and environmental justice concerns —if it were to be implemented, it would affect at least one billion people who currently live in places that would need to be protected.

The implications for IPLC are one aspect of the criticism of the 30x30 approach. It can also be argued that it is a too simplistic to take on biodiversity conservation, as it doesn’t address the underlying drivers of the issue, such as people’s unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Without deep behavioural change, the remaining 70% of the Earth would still be in danger. Likewise, if the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit climate change are not met, the 30x30 goal would not have a sufficient impact on the reduction of the global extinction rate.

Recognise, Respect, Repeat

To prevent the 30x30 target from generating undesirable outcomes for IPLC, more efforts need to be made than just including a few paragraphs and empty promises in the GBF draft. Specific spaces, resources, and strategies need to be deployed for IPLC to exercise their agency, thus placing them as leading actors in biodiversity conservation.

Before triggering a wave of protected area creation, land tenure has to be regulated for many IPLC groups. Securing their rights over their territories and resources is not only the way to recognize and formalise their historical stewardship, but it is also a way to prevent conflict when protected areas and IPLC territories overlap. Legal instruments must be put in place to ensure compliance with the protection of these rights, for instance, to avoid forced evictions.

Secondly, the types of protected areas that will be established have to be specified to prevent the adoption of the fortress conservation model. The importance of involving Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs) —mentioned in Target 3— in addition to natural protected areas has been discussed since their introduction in Aichi Target 11. An OECM has been defined by the CBD as “a geographically defined area other than a Protected Area (PA), which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio-economic, and other locally relevant values”. Unlike PAs, the main objective of OECMs is not necessarily biodiversity conservation —it can be, for example, the protection of a site with historical value— but they still deliver conservation effectively. That is the case with many IPLC lands; the recognition of those territories as OECMs would not only contribute to long-term conservation goals, but also to foreground the role of IPLC in the conservation agenda.

Thirdly, IPLC participation needs to go beyond free, prior, and informed consent. As discussed by Berkes (2007), participation often equals co-option and consultation, which is characteristic of a “top-down” approach. Instead, IPLC should be positioned as partners who play a key role in biodiversity conservation. Multi-stakeholder conservation models, in which IPLC build strategic networks with other actors such as the private sector, government agencies, and academia, have proven successful as the communities enhance their conservation capacities through innovation and knowledge transfer, fund-raising, training, empowerment, etc. gained through their interactions with other partners.

Thus, to avoid the GBF from following the path of the Aichi Targets, it is crucial that the active role of IPLC is recognized and enhanced. The 30x30 approach is ambitious in terms of the extension of protected land and seascapes, but it is worryingly lukewarm in terms of the empowerment of IPLC.



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