The world won’t succeed in halting biodiversity loss without Indigenous participation and leadership, according to leaders attending a major United Nations conference in Montreal.
Jennifer Corpuz, an Indigenous lawyer from the Philippines, said Indigenous people around the world have long been the best guardians of nature, The Canadian Press reports.
“If the parties here don’t work with Indigenous peoples, we won’t get where we need to go because Indigenous governance and guardianship has been more effective than protected areas,” she said in an interview Saturday.
Corpuz said it’s crucial that any final agreement negotiated at the COP 15 biodiversity summit include acknowledgment of Indigenous rights, recognition of traditional territory in conservation targets, and direct access to funding to protect biodiversity.
“Our lives are at stake as Indigenous peoples, and the health of the planet,” said Corpuz, a member of the negotiating team for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity taking part in talks at the conference.
She said the working text of the international biodiversity framework did include language on Indigenous rights.
Corpuz, who is Kankana-ey Igorot from the mountainous northern region of the Philippines, told CBC that Indigenous nations have a presence at the COP but not decision-making status.
We always have to have this sponsor to speak for us. It’s as if we are children,” she said. “We can only participate at the discretion of the co-lead,” meaning Indigenous representatives need permission to enter negotiating rooms and take a set at the table.
CP says a major sticking point in the negotiations is the desire of Indigenous people to have their traditional lands and waters recognized under a draft target that calls for protecting 30% of the world’s land and marine habitats by 2030.
She said many Indigenous groups have had bad experiences with conservation efforts, which have often been “exclusionary” and resulted in people being evicted from their lands or killed for trying to stay.
She said many want to ensure no protected areas are created on their lands without their permission and leadership. Some want the flexibility of having their lands included in the 30% without them being deemed conservation areas.
“Indigenous territories have been in existence for thousands of years, they’ve been effective, so why not just recognize them?” Corpuz said.
As COP 15 was getting under way last week, the Guardian reported that the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network in Australia had received a US$1.8-million Earthshot prize for its work to protect the Great Barrier Reef. And an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail argued that Indigenous-led conservation initiatives could be what it takes to make Canada a global biodiversity leader.
“Indigenous peoples are offering a broader, deeper model of conservation—one that is as good for people as it is for the land,” wrote Ethel Blondin-Andrew, the first Indigenous woman to serve as a federal Cabinet minister, and Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. “Indigenous-led approaches to stewardship reflect knowledge that is often missing from Western society. Instead of viewing land as a resource to be exploited, Indigenous peoples recognize that people and the land are interdependent: if we take care of the land, the land takes care of us. It’s a relationship.”
The two authors added that “Indigenous-led conservation is about more than a simple designation. It supports cultural revitalization, as Indigenous knowledge of the land is embedded in our languages. It involves connecting youth and Elders so that insights about our lands and waters, such as patterns for caribou migration and ice formation, are shared. And by bringing people onto the land, it recognizes that healing and mental health are interwoven with stewardship.”
Ronald Brazeau, interim director of natural resources for the Lac-Simon Algonquin community in Quebec, told CP that Indigenous groups all over the world have different interests and realities.
But he said what they have in common can be summed up in one word: “land.” On Friday, he joined with other leaders from Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia in calling for more Indigenous input into conservation efforts.
He said his community in western Quebec is witnessing the effects of biodiversity loss and climate change, adding he doesn’t feel governments are going far enough on conservation.
Quebec allows logging in some protected areas, he said, and often disagrees with Indigenous people over which land qualifies for protection.
“We want a piece of land where we could do our activities without industry going in there because once they go in there, they’re going to tear down everything,” he said, adding that he feels the conservation target should be higher than 30%.
Canada has created three Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, which are co-managed by local Indigenous people. Another 27 First Nations have submitted proposals that have received support from the federal Nature Fund, according to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced up to $800 million over seven years to support four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives in northern Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
Indigenous people have been highly visible throughout the conference, with event after event highlighting their successes in protecting their land.
In a news conference on Friday, leaders from Chad and Pakistan pointed out that Indigenous people often do this work for free. They called for funding they can access directly.
An Indigenous space outside the venue, in Old Montreal, is also providing an area for people to gather along with traditional cultural displays and a host of panels and programming.
Corpuz said that while Indigenous people are happy to have so many places to speak, they still need better visibility and participation in the spaces where decisions are made.
While Indigenous groups are present at the negotiating table, “the space to speak is now very limited and it’s very, very technical issues,” she said.
Brazeau said he knows many Indigenous people who haven’t come to the conference because they don’t feel it will lead to results, and he himself is skeptical of the process. But for the sake of future generations, he’s willing to participate.
“If we don’t stand up for our futures, who’s going to do it?” he asked.
The main body of this report by The Canadian Press was first published December 10, 2022.