The best way to protect nature is also the fairest

N’DJAMENA – This is a critical year for the natural environment. Talks by world leaders in Montreal this December will determine the fate of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a sweeping agreement that will set the global environmental agenda for the next decade. The future of perhaps a million species of plants and animals hangs in the balance, as do the lives and livelihoods of billions of human beings.

Biodiversity is not just counting trees, birds, fish or insects. They are certainly important, but so is the wider balance of ecosystems on which they, us and many other species depend. In addition, the “we” must include indigenous peoples, who play a particularly important role in environmental conversations.

The future of perhaps a million species of plants and animals hangs in the balance, as do the lives and livelihoods of billions of human beings | Photo: Pixabay

I am one of them. My people, the Mbororo of Chad, are like many other groups that have ancestral ties to ancestral lands around the world. We are proven stewards of much of the world’s valuable but declining natural heritage. Deforestation on our land is much less than in other places. Vegetation is denser, wildlife more abundant, food chains stronger. Where we live, the vitality of nature has not yet died out. Up to a third of the world’s rainforests, peatlands and mangroves – carbon-rich ecosystems that make up 80% of the world’s biodiversity – are on indigenous lands.

This is not an accident. For indigenous people, the land is everything. It is the source of our food, shelter and medicine and the wellspring of our culture and history. For 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 guardians, not its destroyers.

Science has long confirmed the unique contribution of indigenous peoples to the well-being of the Earth. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted that local knowledge is critical to managing global warming and its impacts. The Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reached the same conclusion regarding biodiversity conservation. In a follow-up report this year, IPBES further highlighted the importance of indigenous peoples’ contributions to global conservation.

The growing global recognition of indigenous knowledge was also reflected at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year, when various countries and private donors pledged $1.7 billion to support climate protection and indigenous advocacy efforts and local communities. It was an unprecedented engagement with a remote but increasingly close-knit population.

But while we welcome the growing recognition by world leaders of indigenous knowledge and practices, fulfilling our stewardship role requires more than approval. To continue to serve as the most effective stewards of the natural world, we need the right to own, and therefore remain and continue to manage, our ancestral lands.

As indigenous peoples are ruthlessly, often violently, displaced from territory we have always called home, land tenure reform and the security of land rights have become absolutely crucial. Otherwise, alien settlement, agricultural expansion, industrial extraction, desertification, and disease will continue to sever our historic ties to the lands we live on.

Governments must commit to managing the earth 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, as long as it is implemented in close cooperation with indigenous peoples and local communities. This means ensuring full inclusion, recognition of our rights to the land and our free, prior and informed consent. We must be fully represented at the table when new agreements are made and when projects are designed to protect and restore ecosystems.

To fulfill this vital mission, we also need access to finance. The Community Land Tenure and Conservation Funding Initiative, which focuses squarely on the intersection of land tenure rights and community-led conservation, is a good start. CLARIFI fills a key gap by directing funds directly to local and community-led initiatives. It aims to raise $10 billion by 2030 and expand legally recognized indigenous territories by 400 million hectares. This is critical to curbing deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss. The goal is to increase the legal land ownership of these communities to at least 50% of all tropical forests.

If the world commits to investing in indigenous people, then we can move forward. With enough funds on the ground, not just on paper and in words, we can do more than anyone else to protect nature and preserve the world’s biodiversity.

Although finalizing the Global Biodiversity Framework is critical to avoiding widespread ecosystem collapse, the process has been met with delays, disagreements and reluctance from key parties. World leaders must rise to the occasion and secure an agreement that fully recognizes the rights and unique contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities.

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