Nature loss, climate breakdown, global pandemic — who now can save life on Earth?

Local fishermen, in traditional Fijian dress, singing traditional songs and going out by boat to mark the creation of a new Marine Protected Area © Brent Stirton

Delfin Ganapin, WWF Governance Practice Leader, and Lin Li, WWF Global Policy and Advocacy Director, argue that securing the rights and recognising the roles and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities are critical in creating a just, green, resilient future.

Born of our destructive incursion upon nature, COVID-19 has shown us just how vulnerable we are to nature’s decline. It has also laid bare global injustices and failures of governance now exacerbating the impacts of both the pandemic and nature loss on the most vulnerable in society.

While the World Economic Forum 2021 Global Risk Report once more highlights that many of the most serious risks facing us are environmental, it also warns of the risk of an unbalanced recovery from COVID-19 due to long-standing gender, race, age, and income inequalities.

In recovery, we must forge not only a green future but also a just and equitable one. And in doing so, it is vital that we recognise the interdependence of environmental and human health, well-being and justice, and the need to adopt holistic approaches in building resilience.

The enjoyment of rights to food, water, sanitation, and life itself, all depend on a safe, clean, healthy environment. And yet despite being enshrined in the constitutions and laws of most countries, the right to a healthy environment is not yet recognised globally, despite wide support for it to be so.

Similarly, many Indigenous peoples and local communities who own more than half of all land under customary rights, only have secure legal rights to about 10%, and remain disempowered and disenfranchised.

While the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and related commitments to protect 30% of the planet by 2030 show promise, securing an inclusive, nature-positive world by 2030 will be impossible unless we put inclusivity and rights-based approaches at the centre of our efforts to heal the natural world and empower those best-placed to safeguard many of the natural systems on which we depend.

Nature’s best guardians

Safeguarding these lands will help tackle nature loss. Yet while traditional management, based on strong cultural ties to nature, is often equally or more successful at protecting biodiversity than externally and centrally controlled protected area management, Indigenous peoples and local communities do not receive due support and face critical socio-economic and political challenges. Human rights violations, land invasions, and lack of legal recognition of their lands undermine not only their ability to continue safeguarding nature but also their rights as peoples and as communities. In 2019, 212 land and environmental defenders were killed — the highest number yet in a single year. Tackling growing threats and addressing injustice and inequality requires formally recognising and securing customary rights that empower Indigenous peoples and local communities.

While conservation can help promote rights, the implementation of a rights-based and inclusive approach globally, has been inconsistent. Some conservation activities, forgetful of the principle that nature and people are one, have contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Addressing this profound injustice is paramount.

Getting to nature positive

© Luis Barreto / WWF-UK

As governments continue this year to negotiate a new global biodiversity agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity, they must fully recognise the critical contribution that Indigenous peoples and local communities can play in reversing nature loss, tackling the climate crisis, and delivering sustainable development.

Through last year’s Virtual Biodiversity Dialogues, leaders from the private sector, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, and others, called on governments to ensure that rights, equity and justice are at the heart of the new agreement, including targets for ‘the protection and empowerment of Indigenous peoples and local communities, recognising their role as stewards of nature and environmental defenders’, and ‘zero tolerance for violence, harassment, criminalisation and intimidation directed towards defenders’.

Similarly, tribal leaders supporting the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature in the US, argue that tribal nations, as ‘original stewards of lands and waters’ and ‘effective managers and protectors of biodiversity since time immemorial’, together with their ‘free, prior, and informed consent’, are key to its success.

WWF’s recent discussion paper, The Kunming Plan for Nature and People 2021–2030, offers proposals for a transformative global biodiversity agreement to reverse nature loss and secure a nature-positive world by 2030 through conservation, recognition of rights, and halving the footprint of production and consumption.

While the current draft agreement is neither ambitious nor comprehensive enough to tackle the global nature crisis, it is possible to reverse biodiversity loss and secure a nature-positive world this decade — but only if we act with urgency and bring the whole of society with us.

Central to this effort must be the inclusion and integration of Indigenous peoples and local communities, together with their indigenous and traditional knowledge and practices that serve as basis for living in harmony with nature, or we risk another lost decade for nature.

Justice and equity

Recognition of the vital role Indigenous peoples and local communities play in safeguarding nature promises widespread benefits for all humanity. This is not just about supporting their conservation efforts but about collectively recognising their right to decide how to manage their lands and waters, as well as how, when, and if, to involve others.

At WWF, alongside others, we are determined to follow their lead, working together to ensure their voices are heard, and their rights respected, and to consistently advocate that governments, as duty-bearers, uphold human rights.

Together, we can protect and restore nature, and secure equity and social justice — but only if we recognise the reciprocal relationship between the two, and place it at the heart of all our efforts. Together, we strive for a nature positive, net-zero, equitable future for all humanity.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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