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COP15 deal needs a ‘holistic approach to conservation’: Q&A with Joan Carling and Ramiro Batzin

  • At the U.N. biodiversity talks, known as COP15, the target to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030 is seen by many negotiators as the cornerstone of a successful deal to protect nature, and a target that should include Indigenous lands rights.
  • But Indigenous leaders at the conference say that several other issues in the deal also concern their communities and should be emphasized for a strong deal, namely direct financing, sustainable agriculture and eliminating subsidies to industries driving biodiversity loss.
  • Mongabay speaks with two Indigenous negotiators at COP15, Ramiro Batzin and Joan Carling, to unpack all the issues affecting Indigenous communities in the biodiversity deal and to understand what’s stalling negotiators from agreeing to their proposals.

The U.N. biodiversity conference (COP15) negotiations in Montreal have been moving slowly and under much strain with a target to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030—known as 30 by 30—at the forefront. However, although this target is now seen as the cornerstone to finalize a successful global deal to protect nature, known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, Indigenous leaders, scientists and conservation organizations are sounding the alarm that other targets also need to be prioritized for a strong agreement on Dec. 19 that halts biodiversity loss.

These, they say, include increased conservation funding to Indigenous communities (target 19), eliminating subsidies to industrial activities harmful to nature (target 18), urging businesses to disclose impacts on biodiversity and human rights (target 15), promoting sustainable agriculture such as agroecology (target 10), benefit-sharing from the use of genetic resources (target 13) and protecting wild species depended on for sustenance (target 5, 9 and 6). The entire global biodiversity deal comprises four goals and 22 targets.

The Pataxó people
The Pataxó face both shrinking space for their subsistence livelihoods and an increase in conflicts as real estate and monoculture developments encroach on their territory. Image by André Mellagi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Indigenous peoples have a large stake in this deal as they face the greatest impacts of biodiversity loss, says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad. She highlights that Indigenous lands contain about 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity while making up 20% of the world’s territory.

“For us, biodiversity is not a subsidy, it is our home. We cannot accept losing our home,” she said at a press conference.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are also vigilant of how the deal will affect their rights and livelihoods, and the extractive industries and agribusiness activities operating on their traditional lands.

Indigenous leaders say that if strong language recognizing their land rights and protecting their access to resources isn’t included in the deal, there could be increased human rights violations, migrations, poverty and land evictions. Recent flashpoint cases of evictions to create protected areas include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal and India. The integration of Indigenous rights-based language is one of many topics currently debated in closed-door negotiation rooms.

In order to unpack all the issues affecting Indigenous communities in the biodiversity deal and understand what’s preventing negotiators from agreeing on the language used, Mongabay spoke with Indigenous delegates Ramiro Batzin, of the Maya Kaqchikel people in Mexico, and Joan Carling, of the Kankaney People in the Philippines.

U.N. biodiversity conference, COP15, in Montreal. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
U.N. biodiversity conference, COP15, in Montreal. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Batzin is co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), a platform of about 100 representatives of Indigenous organizations from around the world which develops Indigenous proposals relating to biodiversity issues. Carling is the global director at Indigenous Peoples Rights International and has been involved at COP15 on a political level.

The interview with Batzin was translated from Spanish and both interviews were edited for clarity.

Read more: Amid struggling COP15 talks, Indigenous leaders from Canada offer some solutions



Mongabay: What are some of the key stumbling blocks you’re finding that are preventing negotiators from recognizing Indigenous land rights in this international agreement?

Joan Carling: I think the stumbling block is that there’s still a refusal by many states to legally recognize our rights, our lands, territories and resources [within their own countries]. So even in the context of conservation that is being discussed now, in spite of the fact that it’s scientifically proven that the territories of Indigenous peoples are better managed and have better biodiversity compared to those by states, there’s still a refusal to allow us to do that with the security of [having land rights to] our territories.

[This is] because some of the states are also looking into what are the other uses of our territories and its resources. For example, transitional mining as a response to climate change [the mining of high-tech metals that clean energy technology relies on], uses nickel and lithium that is found in our territories.

Ramiro Batzin: One of the limitations for us as negotiators is accessing the working groups. As Indigenous peoples, like civil society, we have very limited participation in the working groups because we only have three minutes to put forward our proposals after [everyone else]. The other limitation is that there are working groups where Indigenous peoples and civil society are not allowed to enter, so we are not negotiating on equal terms.

The Indigenous caucus, known as the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, speaks with Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
The Indigenous caucus, known as the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, speaks with Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, at COP15. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: How then are Indigenous delegates facilitating the recognition of their rights at the conference?

Ramiro Batzin: We are having bilateral meetings with the delegates representing their countries to make them see the need to address these issues and for Indigenous proposals to be included in both the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and other relevant texts.

We have also developed actions to meet with regional groups, in our case with GRULAC (Latin American and Caribbean Regional Group), with African, Asian, and European countries. We present our proposals to them so that they can be the ones to present them on our behalf.

This is another constraint because in the negotiation rooms the states are the ones who present our proposals. So, when we make a proposal, we have to have the backing of a state that supports it, and that creates a significant limitation.

Joan Carling: What we’re saying here is that our land rights are already recognized under international law with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] and also with the ILO Convention 169 for Indigenous and tribal peoples.

So, we are not asking for anything new. We are just asking them to abide and implement their commitments under international human rights law, of which land rights, including the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples, is explicitly referred to.

We want to make sure that they apply it to the issue of biodiversity conservation, that it’s not just another commitment up in the air, but to apply it in real terms in actions related to biodiversity.

But we’re talking to states, for example, members of the European Union (EU). The EU bloc has been supportive, including countries from Latin America, like Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil. But that’s not enough. We need more countries and unfortunately, we’re not gaining much traction from Africa and Asia.

Susana Muhamad, Colombia's Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, speaking at the high-level roundtable on biodiversity and climate change. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, speaking at the high-level roundtable on biodiversity and climate change. Image by UN Biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: A delegate representing Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas mentioned that it’s already difficult enough for countries to agree on the 30 by 30 initiative and that by trying to include Indigenous rights in the final text it’s going to be even more difficult. He mentioned that this is because of additional methodologies, indicators and measurements Indigenous land rights may require in the text and the implementation mechanism. Do you have any comments on this statement?

Joan Carling: Like I said, if we operate in the Western view where you need all of those kinds of technical skills, then it’s again another alien imposition for us. We can simplify it. We can honor the work of scientists, but we don’t need to burden communities. We have our own monitoring systems. Communities know where and when animals are in their reproductive cycle to know when not to hunt them. They know where the wild species are located, and they know if the species are dying. So that system of knowledge and documentation that the Indigenous peoples know should be part of the discussion and should be part of this whole monitoring system.

Let’s work together on using the expertise of each.

Mongabay:  Are there any specific targets within the text which you have concerns with?

Ramiro Batzin: The first concern we have is the territorial issue. Within the 22 targets that are being discussed at the moment, one of the main goals that we Indigenous peoples are following up on is target three, which proposes an increase to 30% of conservation areas by 2030 [30 by 30].

The targets that we also are concerned about have to do with traditional knowledge, which is fundamental to be able to develop a post-2020 framework as well as issues like financing and genetic resources which are also priority topics that we Indigenous peoples are already clear about, such as the recognition of our full and effective participation.

Community leaders of the A’i Cofán Indigenous community of Sinangoe
Community leaders of the A’i Cofán Indigenous community of Sinangoe, from left: Nixon Andy, coordinator of the Indigenous Guard; Alexandra Narváez, community leader; Victor Quenamá, community president; and Wider Guaramag, community secretary. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Joan Carling: Referring to target 3 in the post-2020 biodiversity framework [the 30 by 30 target], we fear that if the focus is only on national parks, then it would be a big problem for us because national policies relating to protected areas are very exclusionary. That’s why we call it fortress conservation. And that would mean more evictions, more prohibition to our sustainable livelihoods, a prohibition to our own food systems.

It will also undermine our traditional knowledge because then we cannot even make use of it and teach the younger generations if we’re not allowed into these conservation areas. Although there’s a discussion on the OECMs, the Other Effective Conservation Measures, what we want is to include that there should also be Indigenous conservation systems in our territories.

For us, conservation also means sustainable use of the resources because we need them and that also allows the different flora and fauna to flourish and that limits, for example, invasive species. The way we do conservation is through sustainable management.

Mongabay: And this touches on other targets? Like targets on agriculture, knowledge-sharing, and the use and trade of wild species?

Joan Carling: Yes. What we’re saying is that we need to look at this in a holistic approach. We cannot say we want to conserve tigers without looking at the ecosystem that supports the tigers because everything is interdependent. We cannot isolate elements. It has to be a holistic approach of conservation that also takes into account the interdependence of the different elements of nature, including humans.

A Lubuk Beringin villager, Rahimah, 70, harvests palm nut.
A Lubuk Beringin villager in Indonesia, Rahimah, 70, harvests palm nut or areca nut on her agroforestry farm in Lubuk Beringin village, Jambi province, Indonesia. Image by Tri Saputro/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
A salak processed menu.
Local foods grown in an agroforestry system in a Sibetan village in Bali, Indonesia. This menu was produced with a variety of local snakefruit, coconut, sugar palm, mangosteen, white mango, langsat, gowok and melinjo. Image from a virtual tour video.

Ramiro Batzin: The issue of traditional knowledge is specifically included in target 20, but we propose that the issue of traditional knowledge is a cross-cutting issue throughout the 22 targets. In the texts we are saying that traditional food security systems should be recognized.

It is fundamental to recognize that Indigenous peoples have agricultural systems, fishing systems, and foraging systems that have been the basis for their survival and depend on biodiversity. It needs to be recognized within these targets (3 on the creation of protected areas and 9 on the sustainable management of wild species to provide social and economic benefits to people dependent on biodiversity).

This is not only for the food security or food sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, but also that of the population in general.

Mongabay: It seems other targets which have been gaining a lot of attention with Indigenous delegates have been targets 18 and 19, which relate to phasing out of harmful subsidies and increasing financial resources to Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Joan Carling: The common demand of Indigenous peoples is to have direct access to financial support for their conservation management work, their livelihoods and their innovations. For example, $1.7 billion dollar Glasgow forest pledge [from last year’s U.N. climate conference] for forest conservation and decreasing carbon emissions is supposed to go to Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

But the data coming from the donors says that while they dispersed almost 19% of the funds, only 7% [of this total] went to IPLCs. But even for that 7%, how was that calculated? How do we verify if that has truly reached Indigenous communities? And that the bulk of that is not going to intermediaries? It’s not trickling down where it should be and that has to be corrected.

We need to have a discussion on how best to simplify procedures for communities while ensuring that there is accountability and transparency in the way funds are being used to spend money. We need to have a different way of accounting that focuses on what you need to deliver. The way funds are being used in this resource mobilization is an outsider’s system that is imposed on us and there is no consideration for our own system. But how about our system, where is it being considered?

Indigenous Embera in boat crossing a river in Gamboa, Panama. Photo credit: Ricardo Canino. Licensed via Adobe Photo Stock
Indigenous Embera in boat crossing a river in Gamboa, Panama. Photo credit: Ricardo Canino. Licensed via Adobe Photo Stock

Ramiro Batzin: Actually, on Dec. 13, we presented a global proposal that we Indigenous peoples have been working on, on how the financial mechanisms should work, compensation payments, how to review these mechanisms and the incentives that are in place. This is because the incentives today are using purely biological indicators and are not considering bio-cultural indicators.

It is important that these financial systems really recognize the cosmovisions (of Indigenous peoples) and promote integral development, what we call Buen Vivir (living well) or lekil kuxlejal (in Mayan Tsotsil-tseltal), which is our model way of life.

Mongabay: Scientific studies have shown that about 50% of the land on Earth needs to be protected in order to halt biodiversity loss. Do you think Indigenous delegates are ready to increase their ambitions to protect 50% of the Earth? And if so, under what conditions?

Ramiro Batzin: At the global level, [industrially developing] countries are facing serious situations in terms of lack of funding, lack of political support and lack of their economic development which means that the creation of protected areas is currently not one of the preferred ways of conserving biodiversity. These systems [funding, political support and economic development] need to be strengthened.

But on the other hand, we, Indigenous peoples argue that our Indigenous territories are already conserving biodiversity. We now know [through studies] that Indigenous peoples and their territories are a successful alternative for conserving biodiversity.

In Guatemala, for example, if the state were to recognize Indigenous communal lands, it would move towards having almost 70% of its territory under conservation. And that is where we Indigenous peoples say that it is fundamental to recognize territories as conservation models. If Indigenous territories are recognized, we are taking a big step forward toward achieving the post-2020 framework.

Read more: Indigenous groups unveil plan to protect 80% of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador

Joan Carling: The data has shown that our territories already cover almost 80% of forests and 60% of other ecosystems. We are committed to continuing and even enhancing that as long as we are also given the needed support because we also need livelihood support.

In certain communities, people are pressured to make use of their resources because they have nothing to eat. They don’t have money to pay for their children’s education or to pay bills in the hospital if somebody gets sick. Those services are not also given to us. The schools are not there, the clinics and hospitals are not there. There has to be a correction. We protect all this biodiversity that supports humanity, but we don’t get the basic social services. We are discriminated against and that’s the reality we face, so that also has to be addressed and that will also enable us to do much more in terms of biodiversity conservation.

Fifth Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples
The Indigenous peoples gathered at the Fifth Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples have developed an action plan to protect the Amazon. Photo by COICA.

Mongabay: Are there any other important issues for Indigenous peoples at COP15 which aren’t getting the necessary attention?

Ramiro Batzin: The issue of the participation of Indigenous women and Indigenous youth are key issues that we need to have addressed. And the issue of benefit-sharing is a pending issue that we have to discuss. The systems of financial mechanisms are not being seen in their right dimension and Indigenous peoples are not being seen as potential partners in the conservation of biodiversity.

Joan Carling: We need to be selfless when we deal with these broader issues and that’s exactly the problem here in the negotiations because we’re not going above the individual interests of countries.

Solidarity, cooperation, collaboration, and interdependence, are values that keep us going as people. And these should be the values that guide negotiations because we are talking of humanity, the whole of humanity, the survival of one country depends on the survival of all. But nobody’s talking about it like that.

To be fair, there’s more openness now talking about the contributions and roles of Indigenous people but there is still hesitance on how far they will go to respect and protect our rights. The acknowledgment is there, but there’s still hesitance on finally, working with us, giving us the right to decide on how our land sources are going to be used. Our lands and resources and the recognition of them is at the core of the conflict.

Mongabay: If Indigenous rights aren’t sufficiently included in the targets as you’d like, how do Indigenous communities plan on continuing their conservation work on the ground?

Joan Carling: It will be tough, right? But we’ve already proven that we will persist because it’s life and death for us. Even if there is no agreement here, Indigenous peoples will continue to defend their lands and resources because that is life for us, that is our dignity and that is our culture, and that is also the future of the next generation.

Ramiro Batzin: With the post-2020 global framework or without it, we will continue to work and conserve the biodiversity found on our planet. What the global framework would do is to strengthen and reinforce already existing systems [such as UNDRIP or national legislation], to put safeguards in place so what we Indigenous peoples are conserving does not continue to be damaged. This is something important to analyze. We Indigenous peoples propose and ask to be in the global framework because that would create a safeguard so that extractive industries, capital and states that are damaging our territories cannot enter them.


Banner image: Left: Joan Carling, global director at Indigenous Peoples Rights International. Right: Ramiro Batzin co-chair of International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB). Images by IIFB and Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Design by Joshua Dacucos.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Elizabeth Mrema, the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Jennifer Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the Indigenous Caucus participating in COP15 talks, about the progress, hopes and hard work ahead. Listen here:

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