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‘Global Indigenous Agenda’ for land rights, conservation launched at IUCN congress

Around 6,000 Indigenous leaders gathered in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, in August to demonstrate at the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of Jacy Santos for Luta Pela Vida.

  • In 2016, members of the IUCN, the global conservation authority, voted to change its membership structure and include Indigenous peoples’ organizations as a new constituency.
  • The agenda was released following a summit for Indigenous participants at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, and calls for greater recognition of the link between nature conservation and Indigenous land rights.
  • Other key issues covered in the agenda include respect for human rights in protected areas, guidelines on access to Indigenous lands for bioprospecting, and support for land defenders.
  • The IUCN’s director-general welcomed the agenda, but Indigenous representatives say that policymakers now need to take action in support of it.

MARSEILLE, France — Indigenous delegates to this year’s global conservation congress have launched a “Global Indigenous Agenda” for conservation, calling for approaches to the biodiversity crisis that center land rights for their communities and provide funding for self-determined ecosystem management.

The agenda, unveiled over the weekend, follows a decision in 2016 by members of the IUCN, the worldwide conservation authority, to create a new category for Indigenous peoples’ organizations. It also marks the first time those organizations have formally participated as members in the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which is held once every four years.

“[We] are proposing what should be the instrument for the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Ramiro Batzin, member of the IUCN’s council and director of Sotz’il, a Guatemala-based Indigenous organization.

The agenda lays out an ambitious vision for Indigenous-led conservation, leading with a call for “laws and policies that recognise, respect and secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their lands, territories and resources.” Solutions to the biodiversity and climate crises, it said, should include traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices, and any push to expand protected areas must “not undermine, diminish, or violate the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

“Indigenous territories, without financing, protection of governments, or support are some of the best conserved on the planet, with 80% of the world’s biodiversity,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, from the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) and a delegate to the conference, in an interview with Mongabay.

In a press release, the agenda was welcomed by Bruno Oberle, the IUCN’s director-general, who said, “our global goals to protect the earth and conserve biodiversity cannot succeed without the leadership, support and partnership of Indigenous peoples.”

The agenda comes amid calls for Indigenous rights to be respected in any global response to the planet’s growing environmental crisis, and as their advocates on the ground continue to face violent retaliation for defending their traditional lands and resources. In 2019, which was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, Indigenous people represented 40% of the death toll despite only comprising 5% of the world’s population.

To protect the environment, delegates said, the world must do a better job of empowering Indigenous leadership in conservation and protecting them from violence and abuse.

“The contributions made by the systems of use, management and conservation that Indigenous peoples have must be recognized,” Batzin said.


A women’s group in Uganda replanting degraded land near the Bugoma Forest in 2019. Thomas Lewton for Mongabay.

Were it to be implemented, the agenda would represent a shift from more traditional forms of modern conservation, which have prioritized state-led approaches, often in the form of protected areas like national parks. In a press conference summarizing the outcomes of an Indigenous Peoples Summit held over the weekend at the IUCN congress, Noelani Yamashita of Hawai‘i-based Ka Honu Momona referred to the “lips and hips” role that Indigenous representatives have played at international events in prior years, where they were asked to perform traditional dances and then sidelined from substantive policy discussions.

“We are living, breathing biocultural indicators of how the world is doing, and if you look to our populations you don’t see many of us here, and that’s because we do not have the resources in terms of capital to have our people present at forums like this,” Yamashita said.

The new inclusion of Indigenous groups as full members of the IUCN is a change from years past, but some advocates say there’s still far to go before the cultural shift is reflected in the global conservation agenda. Down the street from the IUCN congress, an independent event was held under the slogan of “decolonizing conservation,” with speakers criticizing militarized approaches to biodiversity management and a controversial plan to protect 30% of the planet’s land and sea.

“You can’t include [Indigenous people] in projects if you don’t first recognize that those are their lands and that we are just here to support them if they want to do conservation,” said Fiore Longo, a research and advocacy officer at Survival International, which co-hosted the event.

Melinda Janki, a former member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Environmental Law Steering Committee, told Mongabay that pushing for legal frameworks that grant full Indigenous control over their land in accordance with their culture should be a priority for the global conservation movement.

“Land is the basis of Indigenous peoples’ survival, way of life, and culture, and in the world that we live in, land titles are a piece of paper that protects you,” she said.

In March, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published research showing that deforestation rates were “significantly lower” in areas where Indigenous communities had obtained formal recognition of collective land rights.

For governments looking to maintain control over resources that lie in or near Indigenous lands, handing control of potentially lucrative territories to Indigenous groups is often politically unappealing. In a recent analysis of 31 countries carried out by the Rights and Resources Initiative, only half of the land occupied by Indigenous and other local communities had been formally recognized.

Indigenous delegates to the IUCN conference say the agenda they developed and released last weekend is a benchmark for the direction that international conservation efforts should be heading in, but that for it to be successful, it will have to be backed up by funding and commitment from powerful states and organizations.

“Our proposal is a platform for the full and effective participation of our people and our rights, to be built within the space of the IUCN and then converted into action, activities, and plans with all the dignity that our territory deserves,” Mirabal said.

Banner image: An Indigenous protestor at a demonstration over land rights in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, August 2021. Image courtesy of Jacy Santos for Luta Pela Vida.