Indigenous peoples seek leadership and respect in the battle for biodiversity

Indigenous peoples seek leadership and respect in the battle for biodiversity

Montreal Canada – Indigenous communities are demanding a leadership role in protecting global biodiversity, as a United Nations conference on safeguarding critical ecosystems highlights the importance of Indigenous stewardship of lands and waters.

Calls to put Indigenous rights and decision-making at the heart of biodiversity initiatives have intensified as representatives from nearly 200 countries gather in Canada this month for talks aimed at developing a plan to combat the rapid decline of animals, plants and other organisms.

One million species are currently threatened with extinction, experts have warned, with various factors – including climate change and development projects – leading to the destruction of land, forests, oceans and other habitats.

A widely cited 2008 World Bank report (PDF) estimated that traditional indigenous territories make up 22% of the world’s land and hold 80% of its biodiversity – a reality that underscores the urgency of indigenous leadership. Studies (PDF) have also shown that biodiversity is higher on lands managed by Indigenous peoples.

“Indigenous peoples are the primary custodians of wildlife – and they know best what to do to protect [it]said Dinamam Tuxa, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

Speaking at a Friday morning press conference in Montreal on the sidelines of the UN biodiversity conference, known as COP15, Tuxa said indigenous voices must be at the heart of any COP15 engagement. biodiversity to ensure funding and other resources reach communities at the forefront of the fight.

But “we are not part of that decision-making process and they speak on our behalf in relation to biodiversity that does not belong to them,” he said. “There is no climate and biodiversity future without indigenous peoples.

Action ’30×30′

The COP15 talks, which bring together delegates from the 196 countries that have ratified the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other stakeholders, aim to arrive at a framework to help guide countries on the best way to protect biodiversity by the end of the decade.

One of the elements of the proposed post-2020 global biodiversity framework is to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and seas through “systems of protected areas and other effective conservation measures”. by area” – known as the 30×30 initiative.

But while the target was welcomed by some as a good step forward, it has also raised concerns, with Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard, who is in Canada for COP15, saying that “in its current form , it presents a serious risk to the rights of indigenous peoples”.

“Current practice in protected areas often follows a pattern known as ‘fortress conservation’ which requires the complete removal of human presence from the area, usually by force, so that the territory can be opened up to tourists, conservation researchers and, in some cases, big game hunters,” Callamard said in a statement this week.

She instead urged countries to ensure that any biodiversity agreement centers on the rights of indigenous peoples, including the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples to projects that will affect their communities and territories, as noted. in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ronald Brazeau, director of natural resources at Lac-Simon, a First Nations reserve in the province of Quebec, said consent is often lacking – and a one-size-fits-all model is imposed on Indigenous communities around the world, ignoring the needs premises and solutions. “We have the solution, we have something to say,” Brazeau said at Friday’s press conference.

“We live off the land. We have learned to adapt to this territory, from generation to generation.

Government approach

In Canada, “the vast majority of conservation proposals and stewardship initiatives are led or co-led by Indigenous peoples,” explained Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh in Quebec. .

“Conservation really has to be about not just getting numbers and lines on a map, but also taking this opportunity to rebuild the relationship between, here in Canada, what we call the Crown [the state]and these Indigenous nations and their governments,” Courtois told Al Jazeera in an interview.

Victoria Watson, a law reform specialist with the environmental group Ecojustice, who is of mixed Haudenosaunee and Scottish ancestry, also told Al Jazeera that ‘true Indigenous leadership’ must be at the center of any plan to protect and restore the biodiversity in Canada.

This means ensuring that all agreements emerging from COP15, as well as any national biodiversity legislation, include accountability mechanisms and legislative safeguards that commit governments “to respecting indigenous rights in a strong and aligned with self-determination,” Watson said. .

These agreements and laws must also be “co-developed with indigenous peoples”, she said. “Indigenous peoples’ laws, knowledge systems, rights and worldviews must shape the laws that enable the protection and restoration of biodiversity.”

Indigenous leaders at a press conference in Montreal, Canada discuss biodiversity
Indigenous leaders (from left to right) Orpha Yoshua, Dinamam Tuxa, Ta’Kaiya Blaney and Ronald Brazeau speak at a press conference in Montreal, December 9, 2022 [Courtesy Toma Iczkovits/Greenpeace]

During a speech at the opening ceremony of COP15 on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would provide $256 million (C$350 million) to help developing countries pursue conservation biodiversity and to implement the future framework.

Trudeau has also committed up to $586 million (C$800 million) to support four Indigenous-led conservation projects in Canada, covering nearly one million square kilometers (386 million square miles).

“We know that the protection of 30% of our territory requires us to form a large number of partnerships; first and foremost, partnerships with indigenous peoples who have protected these territories since time immemorial,” he said in French during a press conference this week.

But young indigenous activists briefly interrupted Trudeau’s speech at the opening ceremony, accusing him of disrespecting Indigenous peoples and laws. Although he has supported international climate efforts, Trudeau has been widely criticized for supporting major development projects at home, such as oil pipelines on Canada’s west coast and to the United States.

Many of these projects have drawn fierce opposition from indigenous communities who have said authorities have never obtained their consent to move forward. Some indigenous-led blockades and demonstrations were severely suppressed by the police.

“It was our way of showing, as West Coast Aboriginal people, that [Trudeau] does not respect our laws, that he does not respect the laws of the land and that we can no longer accept empty promises from Canadian politicians about our future,” said Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a youth activist from the nation Tla-Amin who interrupted the Prime Minister’s speech, about the COP15 demonstration.

“Empty promises, false solutions and fictitious targets…that only pass the burden on to future generations are unacceptable,” she also said at the press conference.

Indigenous activists protest Justin Trudeau during the COP15 opening ceremony
Indigenous activists demonstrate during Trudeau’s speech at COP15 on December 6 [Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

‘To take a position’

Meanwhile, while indigenous groups are calling on authorities around the world to recognize their leadership on biodiversity issues, many communities are not waiting for official recognition to take action and protect their territories.

One such effort is the Seal River Watershed Initiative, a First Nations-led campaign to designate a pristine watershed in northern Manitoba, Canada, as an Indigenous Protected Area. “The narrative has always been someone coming to tell us what to do. Someone coming to move us; someone else telling us you can’t harvest your own food,” said Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the initiative and a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation.

In the 1950s, Canadian authorities forcibly displaced the Indigenous community from their traditional territory, uprooting the people from the lands on which they had lived and hunted caribou for generations.

“As we can see from the past, from the terrible stories we live through, [that narrative] has not worked for our communities and our peoples. We know that now and we are taking a stand,” Thorassie said during a roundtable discussion on indigenous and local leadership in biodiversity at McGill University on Tuesday.

Thorassie said efforts to protect the 50,000 square kilometer (19,300 square mile) watershed are “for our future, for our cultures, for our languages” and aim to ensure Indigenous peoples have “a place to be. authentically ourselves”, while contributing to the larger fight to protect the planet.

“We understand that on a global scale, this place we’re talking about has two billion tons of carbon,” she said. “It’s literally a set of lungs for this Earth that we desperately need to live, to survive.”

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