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Kigali call to action a step forward but not far enough, Indigenous and local leaders say

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  • The first Africa Protected Areas Congress in Rwanda culminated in the Kigali Call to Action, which foregrounded the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), women and youth, but did not fully address IPLC demands.
  • A proposed massive expansion of protected areas — covering 30% of land and marine areas by 2030 — is impossible without the support and inclusion of IPLCs, who bear the highest costs, advocates say.
  • The Kigali Call to Action acknowledged “ongoing injustices” experienced by IPLCs in the establishment and running of protected areas, and called for them “to be halted now and in the future.”
  • Some saw the APAC event as a missed opportunity to reckon with the failures of the conservation model as it has been implemented in Africa, and say it should have been a chance to chart out a future course that’s more inclusive and just.

When Milka Chepkorir Kuto took the stage on July 18 at the opening ceremony of the Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) in Kigali, Rwanda, she came with a sobering message on behalf of fellow Indigenous peoples and local communities, or IPLCs.

“We, IPLCs, have had many experiences of conservation gone wrong: human rights violations, forced evictions, dispossession, displacement, and violence,” said Kuto, an Indigenous Sengwer from Kenya.

Milka Chepkorir Kuto speaking at the opening of the APAC. Image courtesy of APAC/IUCN/AWF.
Milka Chepkorir Kuto speaking at the opening of the APAC. Image courtesy of APAC/IUCN/AWF.

“To say this is only in the past will be a lie,” she continued. Days earlier, members of the Mosopisyek of Benet Indigenous group had peacefully occupied a Uganda Wildlife Authority station to protest their eviction from Mount Elgon National Park.

On July 23, the APAC culminated in the Kigali Call to Action, which foregrounded the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities and women and youth. It also acknowledged the injustices suffered by them. But it didn’t go far enough in addressing their demands, some observers say.

The congress, the first pan-African meeting of conservation leaders and experts, marks a crucial moment in shaping the global conservation agenda. A centerpiece of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, currently under discussion, is the massive expansion of protected areas to cover 30% of land and marine areas by 2030, referred to as the “30 by 30” plan.

About 17% of terrestrial areas are currently defined as protected areas, or PAs. In Africa, the figure is closer to 14%. The G7, a group of heavily industrialized, wealthy nations, has signed on to the 30 by 30 goal, as has the European Union.

Citing the U.S.’s commitment to the 30 by 30 goal, Monica Medina, a U.S. State Department official, said Washington “encourages other countries to be as ambitious,” in a video address during the APAC event.

Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of African Wildlife Foundation speaking at the opening of the APAC. Image courtesy of APAC/AWF/IUCN.
Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of African Wildlife Foundation, speaking at the opening of the APAC. Image courtesy of APAC/AWF/IUCN.

But less than a third of African countries have publicly backed the target. Such a scaling-up requires identifying land, attracting funds, and ensuring buy-in from people, especially IPLCs.

At least 35% of the planet’s key biodiversity areas are on IPLC lands, and almost all of these territories are well-preserved, according to a 2021 report by global wildlife conservation authority the IUCN, a co-organizer of the APAC event. It showed that global biodiversity goals as “unattainable” without the inclusion of IPLCs.

But in Africa, in particular, there’s a long history of IPLCs being driven from their customary lands to make way for PAs under state control, animated by what some have called a Western ideal of conservation.

“The Kigali Call is a good document which fully reflects our inputs as IPLCs,” said Malidadi Langa, a member of the Southern Africa Community Leaders Network. Langa, a former civil servant from Malawi, delivered the closing statement on behalf of IPLCs at the congress.

“They might not have gotten 100% of what they wanted, but this is a good start, considering this is the first Africa Protected Area Congress,” said Fiesta Warinwa, director of the conservation program at the Kenya office of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

Not everybody echoed Langa and Warinwa’s endorsement of the Kigali outcome, however. Others saw a missed opportunity to reckon with the failures, past and present, of the conservation model.

“This call to action falls short of specific acknowledgment of the human rights violations currently sanctioned and/or funded by large conservation organizations and governments,” Solange Bandiaky-Badji, global coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and a speaker at the APAC event, told Mongabay.

A call for specific action points

In June, a group of IPLCs from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania drafted a joint declaration addressed to the APAC. One of its demands was striking: drop the concept of PAs as codified by the IUCN, the Switzerland-headquartered scientific body and co-organizer of the event.

“The concept and application of the IUCN categorization of ‘Protected Areas’ conflicts with the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities philosophy of conservation anchored on the relationship between people, land, and nature,” read the Nairobi declaration.

The Kigali Call to Action made no reference to the controversial 30 by 30 goal. What kinds of protections would help countries attain such a target are still an open question.

The last time such sweeping expansions were on the table was at another IUCN-organized event: the 2003 Durban World Parks Congress. In the decade following it, the number of PAs doubled. Some say the price paid for this rollout was too steep and are anxious that preserving Africa’s biodiversity not exact an intolerable toll from its people.

Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

“The increased pressures on land and resources resulting from population growth and diversified land-based investments make it impossible to achieve the 30 by 30 target without massive evictions of IPLC,” Bandiaky-Badji said. “Inclusion of IPLCs is not enough — we need a fundamental rethinking of the conservation models at all levels.”

Signatories to the Nairobi declaration demanded an immediate stop to evictions and asked for the creation of an IPLC-led commission to accelerate the recognition of tenure rights.  The Kigali Call to Action also acknowledged “ongoing injustices” experienced by IPLCs and called for them “to be halted now and in the future.” It also suggested setting up a grievance redressal mechanism for IPLCs, but didn’t specify what form this would take.

The drafters also called for creating a special fund to compensate people for damages from human-wildlife conflict. They urged governments to adopt the International Ranger Federation Code of Conduct. For residents who live near PAs and inside them, rangers can come to embody the unjust force of the state or PA managing authorities.

Protected and conserved areas in Africa are “grossly underfunded,” the Kigali text noted. The call for action underlines the need for “the global community to live up to their responsibility to finance the repair and recovery needed to redress the impacts from their development,” said David Obura, executive director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa.

The important thing is not just having the funds available, but also about how they’re disbursed, Langa said. He said one of the IPLC demands was direct funding of IPLC organizations through grants without outside NGOs or governments acting as intermediaries. The Kigali Call echoed the need for such grants.

Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

The challenge will still be to ensure the money reaches those who bear, and will continue to bear, the heaviest burden from the global push for expanded protections. “We must ensure accountability mechanisms are put in place to ensure that these communities — especially the women within these communities — are not left behind as they have been in the past,” Bandiaky-Badji said.

The APAC event also saw the unveiling of A Pan-African Conservation Trust (A-PACT), which is expected to raise $200 billion for all 8,600 PAs and conserved areas in Africa. It includes an endowment that will help PA directors meet operational costs. Another funding stream will help them attract their own funds, for example, by participating in carbon markets. The third component is financing from private investors.

“We call upon all African governments to actualize their commitments to safeguard nature and actively engage with all relevant stakeholders in the creation of A Pan-African Conservation Trust that honors the strong statements within the Kigali Call to Action,” Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of AWF, said in a statement.

While government representatives showed up in force for the APAC event, they haven’t officially committed to the call to action yet, and have no obligation to do so.

“It is not binding, therefore it’s hard to say [that] whatever the IPLCs have requested, it’s definitely going to happen,” Warinwa said.

Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

In general, how the Kigali commitments will translate into action is hazy. “The expectation is that it will be used as Africa’s position at the forthcoming CBD,” the Convention on Biological Diversity, Langa said.

The CBD, where the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework goals are to be finalized, will take place this December. However, with only five months to go, it remains to be seen how many African governments get behind the call.

IUCN director-general Bruno Oberle praised the creation of “an unprecedented and diverse coalition” through the APAC at the event’s closing ceremony.  But the dialogue is not closed yet. An African Protected and Conserved Areas Forum was launched at Kigali that will track progress on the call to action. A series of regional meetings are planned in the run-up to the second edition of the APAC scheduled to take place in the next five years.


Banner image: Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:

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