Indigenous Peoples Are Crucial to Protecting Global Biodiversity but Are Excluded From Decision Making


Indigenous people show how to nurture, defend, and protect biodiversity while living off the land. Their efforts are crucial to the Convention on Biological Diversity signed by 150 countries in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to implement the principles of Agenda 21 (the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests) and the current push to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and water by 2030. However, a coalition of Indigenous groups are calling for an increase of the target to 50%, and they have not been invited to participate in the United Nations’ (UN) Biodiversity Conference scheduled for Kunming, China in October 2021. What is global biodiversity and how are Indigenous peoples crucial to protecting Earth’s habitat?

Biodiversity has been described as the “library of life”; it reflects ecosystem diversity, species diversity, genetic diversity. Many ecosystems are vulnerable and require protection from overuse, and imbalances between “sharing and protecting activities”. Increasing the interconnection among these elements strengthens the resiliency of biodiversity in the world.

Current news stories are highlighting the contributions of Indigenous peoples in “leading the way” in nature conservation; this includes protecting the web of humans, animals, insects and plants on Earth, in the context of global warming, overharvesting of forests, overconsumption of land for food, and overfishing. As regions of high biodiversity, some UN Biosphere Reserves offer good examples of protected territories, where scientists have engaged in partnerships with Indigenous communities in land management and biodiversity conservation; one example is the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. In Canada, biosphere reserves continue to work on how to build meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples as partners in biodiversity protection and to practice truth and reconciliation.

Research studies have shown “that overall, Indigenous-managed lands and existing protected areas host similar levels of vertebrate biodiversity in Brazil, Canada, and Australia.” There is a strong relationship between building partnerships with Indigenous communities to enhance their land tenure and protecting land for “biodiversity conservation using a mix of conventional protected areas and Indigenous-managed lands.”

Protecting biodiversity goes together with sustainable development and meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be impossible without Indigenous ecological understanding. Indigenous peoples make up “less than 5% of the population but manage more than one-quarter of the world’s land surface.”  As noted by UNESCO, Indigenous people need to be extricated from the singular category of land manager or resource user and from associated perceptions of what those roles entail, and instead, be recognized as essential partners in protecting biodiversity.

We, as humans, are running out of time to combat the destructive impacts of climate change. It is unconscionable that Indigenous people are being excluded from crucial UN talks about biodiversity. It makes no sense that while the contributions of Indigenous people to the protection of global biodiversity are recognized internationally, that Indigenous groups would be excluded from global policy discussions meant to protect planet Earth.

By Leela Viswanathan

(Image credit: Johannes Pleno, Unsplash)