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Advocates call for a new human rights-based approach to conservation

  • Delegates to COP15 began meeting this week to discuss a draft framework that will guide the world’s response to a worsening biodiversity crisis.
  • Advocates say that a new approach to conservation based in human rights and legal recognition of Indigenous and other community land tenure is needed.
  • Some have criticized the most recent draft of the world’s biodiversity plan for going easy on industry and failing to include language that would protect vulnerable people from dispossession and abuse.

This week delegates to the long-delayed global biodiversity summit began the opening round of negotiations over a new international framework meant to address the world’s biodiversity crisis. Originally intended to be an in-person event, pandemic concerns and global vaccine inequalities forced the meeting, known as COP15, to be held remotely, and it is now seen as a largely procedural step in advance of a larger face-to-face gathering slated for next spring in Kunming, China.

On the agenda is a planet in disarray, with accelerating species loss and habitat destruction spiraling out of control alongside a worsening climate crisis. Held under the banner of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a 1992 treaty signed by the entirety of the United Nations — with the notable exception of the U.S. — COP15 has been billed as a crucial opportunity for the world to pull back from the ecological abyss.

As the negotiations kick off, though, civil society groups are saying that to keep COP15 from becoming another footnote in a recent history littered with failure, the world has to shift to a new approach towards the defense of nature. The best way to protect the environment, they say, is to guard the human rights of those who depend on it.

“It’s crystal clear,” said David Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. “That Indigenous-led, rights-based conservation is the only way forward.”

On Oct. 11, a coalition of 166 civil society organizations and environmentalists released an open letter saying that “environmental policy-making still too often excludes or sidelines human rights.” Its signatories called for COP15 delegates and world leaders to take a rights-based approach to the biodiversity crisis rather than one that could force Indigenous and other vulnerable communities to pay the price for the world’s overconsumption of resources.

The letter follows a decision taken by the U.N. last week to recognize access to a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” as a human right, in a measure that was initially opposed by the U.K. and U.S. delegations. It also echoes a policy brief released by Boyd’s office in August that outlined what a rights-based approach to conservation might look like, and which condemned the history of evicting Indigenous people from protected areas and said the the new CBD framework had to be stronger on human rights.

“We’ve been arguing for some time that a human rights-based approach is essential and that it’s a no-brainer,” said Helen Tugendhat, program coordinator for environmental governance at Forest Peoples Programme, one of the letter’s signatories. “It’s been adopted by the U.N. system as a whole, it’s been endorsed by every state in the world, and applying it to a new intergovernmental agreement should be incredibly straightforward.”

Anishinaabe people protesting the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline project that threatens their access to clean water. Image by David Kenedy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Human rights gain traction after a history of abuses

While the move to prioritize human rights in conservation may seem uncontroversial, historically the two principles have often been at odds with one another. Some of the world’s most famous national parks were established through the forced relocation of people living inside their boundaries, with one study estimating that more than 250,000 people were kicked off their land to make way for protected areas between 1990 and 2014 alone. In some cases, militarized anti-poaching efforts intended to defend wildlife populations have led to severe abuses of impoverished farmers and subsistence hunters at the hands of rangers.

And Tugendhat said that some parties to the CBD haven’t been entirely receptive to the idea of tying environmental policy explicitly to human rights.

“We have been getting pushback from various ministries of the environment or ministries of national parks, often because they don’t know what a human rights-based approach means,” she said.

The push for the new CBD framework to center human rights comes amid controversy over a proposal to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans. Critics say that if states interpret the proposal as a mandate to create a wave of new strict protected areas, it could amount to a massive land grab.

“We’re not necessarily against protected areas, but they are not at all the tool to address the root causes of the biodiversity loss that is related to the climate crisis, which is related to inequalities and inequities,” said Gadir Lavadenz, coordinator of the CBD Alliance, a coalition of civil society groups participating in the COP15 negotiations.

While the language of the “30×30” target in the draft framework would permit the use of Indigenous-led models — called “Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures” (OECMs) — to reach the 30% goal, Boyd says that unless human rights are embedded in the COP15 framework in black-and-white, policymakers risk falling into bad habits that would wind up alienating the very people who are best suited to protecting the environment.

“I think it was Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing something, failing, and then doing the same thing again,” he said. “We need to do something differently, we have compelling scientific evidence that Indigenous-led conservation works as well or better than traditional state-led conservation approaches.”

A family from the Indigenous population in Chiapas, Mexico, that was under threat of eviction. Image by Emily Jacobi/Digital Democracy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Strict protected areas governed by the state and co-managed by large international organizations like WWF and WCS have long been the dominant conservation model. But on the ground, funding challenges, weak governance, and the inherent difficulties of monitoring vast landscapes has often led to poor outcomes. Advocates for a human rights-based approach to conservation say that shifting the dynamics of power by giving legal land titles and management authority to people living in those landscapes will ultimately produce better ecological results.

“What the previous approach has always missed is, why try to either move or constrain the people who are already there and bring in other people who then have to manage the area in a different way?” said Tugendhat. “That’s an incredibly expensive process, and when there isn’t enough money to balance national budgets, protected area budgets aren’t the ones that get prioritized. We should be investing in the people already customarily managing those areas instead.”

Under a human rights-based framework, communities on the ground would take a leading role in biodiversity protection, with outside conservation projects or initiatives structured as an equal partnership rather than an imposition.

For big conservation organizations, that would represent a dramatic shift from the more common practice of treating local inhabitants as biodiversity threats to be coaxed — or cajoled — into the background. They would also have far less managerial power in biodiversity hotspots, as funding streams would be redirected towards grassroots organizations and Indigenous communities rather than operational expenses for state-led conservation.

Boyd says that those organizations are reluctantly coming to recognize that old approaches to biodiversity loss won’t work anymore, and are warming to the idea of trying more equitable models. WWF, for example, was one of the organizations that signed the letter calling for COP15 delegates to adopt a human rights-based approach.

“I think we’ve seen rhetoric from these organizations in the past, but now I think they’re genuinely attempting to align their actions with their rhetoric, and really closing that gap is critically important,” he said.

Others aren’t so sure. In June, Boyd’s predecessor, John Knox, penned an open letter to WWF, saying that it was failing to implement the recommendations of an independent panel he sat on last year that was set up to assess the organization’s culpability in abuses that took place at national parks in Central Africa and South Asia.

“WWF is still resisting the pressing need to add the necessary internal expertise and authority to ensure the protection of human rights,” he wrote.

In an email to Mongabay, WWF said that it welcomed the independent panel’s recommendations and had taken steps to address them.

The group wrote that Knox’s letter and other feedback it had received during a public consultation was “helping guide and challenge us – and the conservation movement as whole – to always find new ways to further refine our efforts to deliver more rights-based and inclusive conservation approaches, even in the world’s most challenging social and political realities.”

Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest. Under a human rights-based framework, communities on the ground would take a leading role in biodiversity protection, with outside conservation projects or initiatives structured as an equal partnership rather than an imposition. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Advocates fret over “corporate capture” of the conservation agenda

For some activists, the close relationships between organizations like WWF and WCS with large corporations has tethered them to a top-down approach that avoids confronting the biggest threats to nature. Those links, they say, position them too closely with sectors of the global economy that are most responsible for biodiversity loss and human rights abuses.

“When you deal with money, you fall within the game of money,” Lavadenz said. “The big funders are the ones who drive your politics, that’s just a fact.”

Major corporations have played a vocal role in the run-up to COP15, including though the Business for Nature Coalition, which called on policymakers to take a bold approach to the negotiations this week, describing them as “our last and best chance of turning the tide of biodiversity loss.” By involving the private sector, supporters of the draft framework hope the world will have a better chance at hitting its targets.

Their presence at the table, though, has led some advocates to worry that negotiations are being “captured” by corporations, with their preference for offsets and voluntary reporting rather than a more aggressive plan to sanction industries that exploit or destroy biodiversity.

“If we really want to protect human rights and the environment, then profits of extractive industries and agribusiness will need to be cut back quite a bit, that’s just a reality,” said Nele Marien, forests and biodiversity coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.

The draft framework includes language calling on businesses to report on and reduce their biodiversity footprint, but Marien says the absence of any concrete penalties for offenders is out of step with the urgency of the crisis.

“The agreement should be properly regulated and enforceable as if it were the WTO, where as soon as you do something that touches the economic interests of someone else, you get fines,” she said.

Human rights advocates Mongabay spoke to said that instead of relying on corporations to voluntarily report on and gradually curtail their environmental impacts, the world has to give people who rely on ecosystems affected by their operations stronger tools to keep them in check. That would mean throwing its weight behind legal recognition of land tenure for Indigenous and other communities, increased support for environmental defenders, and strict conditions on climate or biodiversity funding.

“If we had a human rights-based approach where local people and communities had much stronger control over decisions in their own territories, history shows you’d be getting less exploitation taking place,” Tugendhat said.

Already, the position taken by states during negotiations over the CBD framework indicates that global divides over the appropriate response to the biodiversity crisis are deep and likely to prove contentious. Historically, even governments with a strong public commitment to human rights have been reluctant to grant decision-making powers over biodiversity and natural resources to Indigenous or other communities.

So far some countries, including the EU, Peru and Argentina, are said to have expressed support for stronger human rights language in the new framework. Others, most prominently Brazil, have been clear that an agreement which threatens business and profit margins will be a nonstarter for them. One source told Mongabay that the U.K. has also sent signals that it does not want additional human rights references to be included in the draft beyond what already exists.

Indigenous communities protesting for environmental rights in Brazil, 2019. So far some countries, including the EU, Peru and Argentina, are said to have expressed support for stronger human rights language in the new framework. Others, most prominently Brazil, haven’t. Image by Mídia NINJA via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations that began this week and which will culminate in Kunming next year, the final agreement’s true test will lie not in abstract policy compromises, but in its implementation. The last agreement, reached by CBD delegates in 2010, turned out to be a historic failure, as the world did not meet any of the 20 “Aichi biodiversity targets” in the decade that followed. Preventing another wasted opportunity, advocates say, will require better monitoring and some form of accountability — potentially a tall order in the absence of more unified political willpower.

“I think if we built a monitoring system that was robust enough, we would see funding flows shift when countries don’t behave,” Tugendhat said. “And I would like to see protected areas taken out of the world’s database if human rights abuses occur in them.”

Environmentalists say they aren’t holding their breath for the new CBD framework to deliver the transformative change and aggressive action that the planet’s biodiversity desperately needs. But if the language and spirit of the agreement is strong, they say, it could at least be a tool for holding states to their word and spurring action from the grassroots.

“I don’t think that the new [Global Biodiversity Framework] is going to be the hope for biodiversity, but if it has some key elements, including the right connection to the human rights spectrum and the rights of nature, it could lead to other processes,” Lavadenz said.

Banner image: Guatemala: A house of art and memories seeks to bring closure after 36-year-long armed conflict between the military and guerrilla groups killed or disappeared at least 200,000 people, mostly Indigenous. Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).