‘Biodiversity goals impossible without indigenous peoples’

Indigenous peoples have been shown to be the safekeepers of the lion’s share of Earth’s biodiversity, yet conservation efforts are often carried out at the expense of their traditions. As governments met over the last two and a half weeks in Geneva to try to broker a deal to protect nature, several of their leaders were present to make sure the agreement respected their rights.

Geneva Solutions spoke with Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, a Kankanaey Igorot from Northern Philippines and Áslat Holmberg, a Sami from Finland and vice president of the Sami Council, about their demands. The two are representatives of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, a collective that has been participating in the biodiversity convention’s meetings since 1996.

When conservation goes wrong

Saving the one million animal and plant species that are currently threatened with extinction means that countries have to ramp up their conservation efforts. But randomly carving out chunks of forests from a map can have unintended consequences, with local populations getting evicted from their lands as has been the case in Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan forests, or being beat up and murdered as it was revealed to have happened in WWF-funded parks in Africa and Asia.

“It's impossible to achieve the aims of this convention without indigenous peoples and our territories. We are conserving biodiversity in our own territories, in accordance with our customs,” said Holmberg.

One of the biodiversity goals that governments gathered in Geneva discussed is to protect at least 30 per cent of all land and sea areas by 2030. Despite only making up five per cent of the global population, indigenous peoples control around 20 per cent of the Earth’s land and host roughly 80 per cent of its biodiversity. But only a fraction of this area is recognised by governments as legally belonging to them.

“One of our demands is the need for indigenous territories and indigenous rights, including free, prior and informed consent to be reflected in the text,” said Tauli Corpuz.

Governments have already agreed to mention indigenous and local communities’ rights, but the references to their lands and the need for their permission is still up for debate. The campaigners are also worried about a proposal for the agreement to condition any obligations to respect their rights to national legislation and national circumstances.

“That has the potential to unravel everything. It's sort of like a get out of jail free card for countries so they say that if they don't recognise indigenous peoples at the national level, then they don't need to do anything. That's particularly dangerous for Asia and Africa,” Tauli Corpuz warned.

Beyond delimiting areas for conservation, governments also enact laws to protect certain species. These can, for example, regulate how and to what extent natural resources can be used. Holmberg is closely looking at how the deal will frame the sustainable use of resources. As a Sami salmon fisherman, he has personal experience with traditionals customs ending as collateral of conservation laws.

“Our traditional fishing practices have been criminalised in the name of conserving the fish stocks,” he said.

In a landmark case, a Finnish court sided in 2019 with Sami fishermen, who had intentionally violated the law and gone fishing in their home Tana River without a licence, claiming that it was their cultural right.

“We are aiming to ensure that there are safeguards that conservation efforts should not criminalise our customs,” Holmberg said.

In some countries indigenous peoples do not only risk their freedom but also their lives. Tauli Corpuz is from the Philippines, one of the first countries on killings of activists, some of them targeted for having defended their territory against encroachment.

“We’re hoping that the Convention on Biological Diversity does the right thing, and recognises territorial management practices of indigenous peoples and that it reduces all of this criminalisation and killings of indigenous activists,” she said.

This particular issue is personal for Tauli Corpuz. Her mother, former UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights Victoria Tauli Corpuz, was listed by the government as a terrorist for her activism in 2018 while exercising as a UN expert.

The Earth’s genetic heritage

A proposal championed by indigenous groups that got a lot of traction during negotiations is that of a mechanism to share the benefits from genetic resources, or as it is known in the jargon, digital sequence information (DSI). 

A highly diverging topic, it raises questions, for instance, about who should get the benefits, both monetary and non-monetary, from a company using a plant to synthesise a drug. It has typically opposed developed countries and developing countries, who host a large part of the world’s biodiversity with enormous potential for technological and medical innovation.

“Those benefits should primarily be shared with indigenous peoples, if there are sequences that can be specifically traced back to indigenous peoples,” said Tauli Corpuz.

The 54-member-strong Africa Group has laid a red line and has said that it will only agree to a global biodiversity framework if it includes DSI. In an effort to find a compromise, a group of developed and developing states thrashed out a proposal that was deemed balanced by most, but differences of opinions were clearly still too strong as the topic hogged a large part of the meeting in Geneva and resulted in a text filled with brackets around unagreed language.

Discussions will resume in June in Nairobi as countries try to reach a draft agreement to be finalised at the biodiversity summit Cop15 in Kunming, China in September. While the upcoming session might provide another chance for African indigenous groups to participate, Tauli Corpuz and Holmberg are both worried about the additional costs in travel and accommodation that it entails.

The leaders had started to approach delegations in Geneva to ask for support but had mostly received negative responses on the argument that solidarity funding was going to the war in Ukraine.