- Indigenous peoples are recognized as the world’s top conservationists and protectors of biodiversity, and have a strong presence at the COP-15 meetings on biodiversity now in progress in Montreal.
- Many of Canada’s First Nations have lived in relationship with caribou for 10,000 years, for instance, but the herds are faltering as delegates debate hundreds of kilometers to the south.
- “Regardless of what is decided in Montreal, Indigenous peoples will continue to nurture and fight for the wellbeing of the flora and fauna on our lands, though we are hopeful that the world will join us,” the Indigenous authors of a new op-ed argue.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
We are peoples of place — our relationship with our lands and waters have sustained us for millennia. What happens to one species or ecosystem has immeasurable impacts on our way of life. For example, the Innu peoples of Nitassinan, also known as the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula, have lived and depended on our sacred relationship with caribou for nearly 10,000 years.
The caribou’s future is in doubt, however, along with that of wild species on almost every continent. Only a few decades ago, the George River Caribou herd in Northern Quebec, Canada, numbered nearly 1 million; today, the herd is down to about 8,000.
Several hundred kilometers to the south, negotiators from around the globe have gathered in Montreal for the UN conference known as COP-15 to seek answers to the extinction crisis that challenges all of humanity. Even as wild species dwindle, one out of every five people on our planet depend on them for food—including 70% of the world’s poor.
More than 41,000 species —28% of all assessed species—are threatened with extinction, species ranging from several species of caribou in the boreal forests in Canada to the Philippine eagle, the national bird, which is native to the territories of several Indigenous peoples in the Philippines.
The lands and waters managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities are home to an estimated 80% of our planet’s remaining biodiversity. Many, like the caribou, face many threats as industrial development encroaches and the climate changes.
We are in Montreal to join Indigenous leaders who represent Indigenous peoples from almost every continent, and we are determined to be heard. Just as with the climate change negotiations in November, however, the question is whether the world is listening. Are the UN’s member states prepared to recognize us as nations, as peoples, with the right to decide our futures and that of our lands and waters?
Researchers have closely examined our territories, lands that we own, manage and love in community, and they have cataloged what is obvious the moment you step into these places. Where Indigenous peoples have secure tenure, there is less deforestation and less forest degradation, and better biodiversity protection, compared to protected areas maintained by governments or private interests. Scientists have also documented how our land stewardship fosters biodiversity.
Policy makers, however, struggle to integrate our knowledge into their proposals for conserving nature, even as they acknowledge its power and know it is essential right now. The rights of Indigenous peoples globally are not recognized for more than half of the lands we protect and manage.
Passed from generation to generation, our knowledge allows us to adjust and adapt, as we face new experiences and develop new understanding. We can help people and the land heal from ecological crises and colonization. We can help restore the planet, and we can help save us all.
Our relationship with our territories and waters is fundamental for addressing the extinction risk threatening wild species globally, a point recognized and clearly stated in UN reports on biodiversity and climate change.
In Canada, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are carving out a path that holds promise as a global model. Indigenous peoples are leading the creation of new protected areas — often in partnership by public governments —that embrace the importance of Indigenous laws and values to the management of our relationship with ecosystems and their resources. But in too many countries, Indigenous peoples who resist invasions of their lands face violence, criminalization and displacement.
So, negotiators in Montreal must push for language to protect our collective rights and titles as Indigenous peoples in the proposed biodiversity agreement. They must ensure our tenure is secure and allow us the right to either accept or refuse new UN-sanctioned protected areas and other conservation initiatives, based on free, prior and informed consent and other principles and rights contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The proposed biodiversity framework must support Indigenous and traditional territories, recognizing that the traditional ways Indigenous peoples’ ways of care for territory have been in place and effectively conserving biodiversity for millennia even before the concepts of conservation and protected areas were born.
As negotiators grapple with developing effective means of implementation of the framework, they must recognize that direct support and finance to Indigenous peoples is the best and most efficient way to make sure that resources go to conservation and sustainable use of species. A dedicated mechanism and ensuring direct access to biodiversity finance by Indigenous peoples must be ensured.
We understand the motives of the powerful economic and political actors who have failed to stop the deforestation that fuels climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemic risk.
For hundreds of years, Indigenous Peoples have resisted greedy claims on our territories for timber, gold, soy, palm oil and beef, and now, so-called “renewable” energy projects like the Belo Monte hydropower dam in Brazil, and the geothermal plants planned for the Island of Flores in Indonesia.
Regardless of what is decided in Montreal, Indigenous peoples will continue to nurture and fight for the wellbeing of the flora and fauna on our lands, though we are hopeful that the world will join us.
We do battle as if our lives depended on it; for many of us, it does.
Valérie Courtois is the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a member of the Innu community of Mashteutiatsh, located on the shore of Peikuakamit in the heart of what is now known as Québec. She is a registered professional forester. Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, from the Kankana-ey Igorot People of Mountain Province in the Philippines, is a lawyer by profession and is the Global Policy and Advocacy Lead for Nia Tero.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear co-author Jennifer Tauli Corpuz expand on her thinking about Indigenous leadership for biodiversity conservation during the lead up to COP-15, listen here:
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