Cop15 strikes historic deal to protect 30 per cent of Earth – at whose expense?

Wildlife groups have been accused of funding conservation efforts that have led to the eviction of Bayaka and Baka Pygmies from their ancestral lands in the Congo River Basin in Africa. (Keystone/Mauritius Images/Novarc Images / Nicolás Marino)

At the Cop15 biodiversity summit, 195 countries agreed to safeguard 30 per cent of global land and sea by 2030. While some observers have hailed the announcement as historic, others fear that it could push up to 300 million people out of these areas.

Is placing a third of the planet under a protection dome the answer to the destruction of nature, or rather a humanitarian nightmare? Negotiations are wrapping up at the UN summit on biodiversity in Montreal. At around 4 am (10 am in Switzerland) on Monday, countries reached a historic agreement to declare 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and seas as “protected areas” by 2030 – more than double than current targets.

The announcement however is a cause for concern, particularly for Indigenous communities who fear that their rights will be violated . The UK-based NGO Survival International, which is highly critical of traditional conservation models, describes it as “the biggest land grab in history”.

One in 30 people deprived of land?

“Up to 300 million people could lose their land and their livelihoods,” said Martin Léna, advocacy officer for Survival International's France office. The regions richest in biodiversity are often located in Indigenous territories, and they are likely to be the first ones affected by any new conservation measures.

“Protected areas are often designated without consent from local communities and often leads to their eviction,” Léna added, citing human rights abuses in national parks in Africa and Asia as examples.

National parks, a colonial legacy

This model of human-exclusive conservation is known as “fortress conservation” and has its origins in the creation of Yosemite National Park, in the United States, a world first 150 years ago. In order to preserve wilderness, Native Americans were driven off their land, where they had lived for thousands of years.

“This colonial model was exported to Africa and elsewhere, where it is still dominant,” said Gretchen Walters, professor of development practice at the University of Lausanne.

“It is based on a Western vision of conservation, which sees humans as separate from nature. But indigenous people often live with nature.”

Read also: ‘Biodiversity goals impossible without indigenous peoples’

Despite representing only 5 per cent of the world's population, Indigenous peoples manage 25 per cent of the world's territories and protect 80 per cent of its biodiversity. “The ecosystems found in these regions have been managed by these communities for thousands of years. To exclude them from their lands threatens not only their culture, but also the biodiversity found there,” said Walters.

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, for example, have been using controlled burning to manage their territory for more than 40,000 years, which has fostered a certain type of biodiversity, Walters noted. The conservation professor has been working on projects with Indigenous communities in Africa and Europe for the past 20 years.

A risk of abuse

The idea that preserving nature requires the exclusion of all human presence is well entrenched and is a growing trend that Survival International has been documenting for several years.

Léna said: “Since the years 2000 to 2010, protected areas in Africa and Asia have been strongly militarised with extreme violence against indigenous peoples who try to access their lands for food, to gather medicinal plants, or to visit their sacred sites.”

In 2020, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) was investigated by the United Nations for allegations of abuses committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo by park rangers supported by the wildlife organisation, including murder, torture and sexual abuse, against the Baka Pygmies living in the area.

According to a 2016 study by NGOs and the University of Helsinki, of the 34 protected areas that are located in the Congo Basin, at least 18 have been reported for human rights violations, and at least 24 have resulted in physical and economic displacement of the local population.

In Tanzania, 150,000 Maasai may soon be evicted from their land to make way for a trophy hunting tourism project.

What kind of conservation?

Can such abuses be expected in the territories targeted by Cop15? “If a country imposes a protected area on a territory without consulting the local communities who live there, that's a problem,” said Walters. “It all depends on the type of protected area that is chosen.

“National parks, for example, are very restrictive, because no one has the right to live there – and are thus to be avoided. But there are other, more flexible tools that would recognise the contribution of local communities in protecting the environment.”

The researcher refers to Other Effective Conservation Measures by Area (OECM), or sites outside protected areas that are helping preserve biodiversity without excluding any human presence or activity. Examples include community-managed pastures, watersheds and military zones.

Not enough room in the North

One of the burning questions was whether each country would be required to protect 30 per cent of its land and sea, or whether it would be a global target. This point of contention, which caused heated talks until the final countdown, finally led to an agreement on a global target rather than one at a national level that every country would have to live up to.

Countries in the industrialised North argued that they were running out of room, and preferred to focus conservation efforts on less developed countries like Brazil. In Switzerland, only seven to 13 per cent of the territory is protected, depending on the criteria.

For Walters, the argument is unacceptable. She said: “It's easy to impose elsewhere what you don't want to change at home. But this goal is achievable in Europe and in Switzerland. Many local communities are already contributing to the preservation of biodiversity, and their efforts are rarely recognised.”

The Swiss bourgeoisies [Editor’s note: collectives of inhabitants in some communes of Switzerland] have for example been setting their own rules for hundreds of years, especially for the management of pastures and forests. In some cantons, these local community groups manage up to 70 per cent of the land, Walters said. “It's very similar to the indigenous community system. The OECM tool would allow these areas of ecological interest to be included in the 30 per cent target.”

A shield from extractivism?

Another topic of debate in Montreal was whether economic activities should be allowed in these areas, such as mining, which is the source of conflicts with local communities.

The European Commission's biodiversity envoy, Ladislav Miko, said at Cop15 that banning extractive industries in these areas was “not realistic”.

For Léna, this is no surprise: “This is exactly what Indigenous peoples fear. These protected areas have nothing to do with environmental protection and everything to do with profit.”

Walters agreed: “Unfortunately, this is a phenomenon that we are already noticing in several countries, where mining is allowed in Unesco listed sites. A national park does not necessarily mean that the region will be protected from exploitation of its resources.”

Words not enough

Recognition of indigenous peoples' rights is gaining ground at major international summits such as the IPCC and Cop15, where delegates are talking about “rights-based conservation”. Are concerns then no longer valid?

“The rhetoric may include more and more indigenous issues, such as ‘participation’ or ‘inclusion’, but it does not guarantee respect for their territorial rights,” Léna said.

Walters echoed his remarks: “There is always a risk. The important thing is to see how this international agreement will be implemented on the ground in each country. It is quite possible that there is no legal framework that favours co-management with the communities.

For the Lausanne-based researcher, recognising the capacity of local communities to manage their own land – while respecting their fundamental rights, such as the right to free, prior and informed consent on any projects that may affect their land – would be a major step forward for global biodiversity.

What about the other 70 per cent?

Some fear that this focus on preserving one third of the world’s land and sea will distract attention from the remaining territory, leaving it to be destroyed.

Léna said: “Turning 30 per cent of the planet into protected areas will not protect the environment, and their effectiveness is disputed; we need to get to the root of the problem, which is the over-exploitation of resources for profit and over-consumption.”

Walters stressed: “These areas are not a quick fix that takes away our responsibility. We need to profoundly transform our lifestyles, and treat climate and biodiversity together.”

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