With a million species threatened with extinction, dozen of countries are pushing to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030. Their goal is to work out a global deal for negotiations to take place in China later this year to preserve intact natural areas such as ancient forests and wetlands that promote biodiversity, store carbon and filter water.
But many people who have successfully protected nature for generations will not opt for the agreement: indigenous communities and others who have space for animals, plants and their habitats, not by fencing in nature, but by making a small livelihood earn with it. According to research, the key to their success is not to extract too much.
In the Brazilian Amazon region, the indigenous people put their bodies at risk to protect their homelands threatened by loggers and ranchers. In Canada, a First Nations group created a huge park to block mining. In Papua New Guinea, fishing communities have established no-fishing zones. And in Guatemala, people who live in an extensive nature reserve harvest high-quality wood in small quantities. In fact, some of these logs could end up as new bike lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“If you only want to save the insects and animals and not the indigenous people, there is a great contradiction,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, who heads an umbrella organization, the coordinator of the indigenous organizations of the Amazon basin. “We are an ecosystem.”
According to several scientific studies, nature is healthier in more than a quarter of the countries in the world that indigenous people rule or own. Researchers have found that indigenous-administered areas in Brazil, Canada, and Australia are at least as biodiverse as areas that have been set aside for protection by the federal government and other governments.
This is in stark contrast to the history of conservation, which is concerned about evicting people from their land. With a mixture of hope and concern, many indigenous leaders view this newest global destination known as 30×30, led by the UK, Costa Rica and France. Some want a higher goal – more than 50 percent, according to the organization of Mr Díaz Mirabal – while others fear that they could be pushed aside again in the name of conservation.
Defend land, protect vital forests
In the Brazilian Amazon, Awapu Uru Eu Wau Wau puts his life on the line to protect the wealth of his ancestral lands: jaguars, endangered brown woolly monkeys and natural springs from which 17 important rivers flow. His people, the indigenous Uru Eu Wau Wau, have a legal right to the land, but must constantly defend it from armed intruders.
Just beyond their 7,000 square miles of territory, ranchers and soybean planters have demolished much of the forest. Your land is one of the last protected forests and savannahs in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Illegal loggers often intervene.
So Mr. Uru Eu Wau Wau, who uses the name of his community as a surname, is patrolling the forest with poison arrows. Others in his community are watching drones, GPS devices, and video cameras. He is preparing his daughter and son, 11 and 13 years old, to defend it in the years to come.
“Nobody knows what will happen to us and I will not live forever,” said Uru Eu Wau Wau. “We have to leave it to our children to get on with things.”
The risks are high. Mr Uru Eu Wau Wau’s cousin, Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, was murdered last April. In 2019, the last year for which data are available, at least 46 people were murdered across Latin America. Many were local.
The community’s efforts have brought great benefits to 7.75 billion people worldwide: The Amazon, which makes up half of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest, helps regulate the Earth’s climate and promotes priceless genetic diversity. Research shows that indigenous property rights are critical to reducing illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
A breakdown of nature
Nature is under attack as humans devour land to grow food, harvest wood, and dig for minerals while overfishing the oceans. To make matters worse, the burning of fossil fuels warms the planet and makes it difficult for animals and plants to survive.
Some scholars say these are the same historical forces that have extracted natural resources at the expense of indigenous people for hundreds of years. “What we are seeing now with biodiversity collapse and climate change is the final stage of the effects of colonialism,” said Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University.
It is now widely recognized that reversing biodiversity loss is urgently needed not only for food security and a stable climate, but also for reducing the risk of new wildlife diseases such as coronavirus being transmitted.
Enter 30×30. The goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the earth’s land and water, which has long been promoted by conservationists, has been taken up by a coalition of countries. It will be part of the diplomatic negotiations that will take place this fall in Kunming, China, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The United States is the only country other than the Vatican that has not acceded to the convention, despite President Biden ordering a plan to protect 30 percent of American waters and territories.
Indigenous communities are not recognized as parties to the international agreement. You can come to the discussions as an observer, but you cannot vote on the result. In practice, however, success is impossible without their support.
They are already protecting much of the country’s land and water, as pointed out by David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Agency for Biodiversity. “People live in these places,” he said. “They have to be engaged and their rights respected.”
A coalition of indigenous groups and local communities has called for the agreement to protect at least half of the planet. Scientific research backs this up, finding that saving a third of the planet simply isn’t enough to preserve biodiversity and store enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet to slow global warming.
Create a new kind of park
Half a century ago, when boreal forest meets tundra in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Łutsël K’é ‘Dene, one of the region’s indigenous groups, resisted Canada’s efforts to establish a national park in and around their homeland.
“At the time, Canada’s national park policies were very negative for the way of life of the indigenous people,” said Steven Nitah, a former tribal chief. “They used to create national parks – fortress parks, as I call them – and they kicked people out.”
In the 1990s, however, the Łutsël K’é ‘Dene faced a new threat: diamonds were found nearby. They feared that their land would be gutted by mining companies. So they went back to the Canadian government to rethink the idea of a national park – one that would enshrine their rights to manage the land, hunt, and fish.
“We used this to protect this heart of our homeland from industrial activity,” said Nitah, who served as his people’s negotiator with the Canadian government.
The park opened in 2019. His name, Thaidene Nëné, means “land of the ancestors”.
Research shows that collaboration between conservationists, indigenous nations and governments is a key to protecting biodiversity.
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Without local support, the creation of protected areas can be useless. Often they cannot preserve animals and plants and become so-called “paper parks”.
Live from nature
Researchers have found that biodiversity conservation often works best when local communities are involved.
For example, on the islands in Papua New Guinea, where fish is a staple food, stocks have declined in recent decades. The fishermen ventured further from the shore and spent more time at sea, but came back with smaller catches. That’s why they’ve teamed up with local and international nonprofit groups to try something new. They changed their nets to let smaller fish escape. They reduced the use of a poison that brings fish to the surface. Most critically, they closed some waters to fishing.
Meksen Darius, the head of one of the clans that used these measures, said people were open to the idea because they hoped it would improve their livelihoods.
“The volume, types of fish and other marine life have multiplied,” said retired attorney Darius.
Recent research from around the world shows that marine protected areas increase fish stocks and ultimately allow fishing communities to catch more fish on the edges of reserves.
For Iliana Monterroso, environmental scientist at the Center for International Forest Research in Lima, Peru, it is important that people who live in areas of high biodiversity have the right to manage these areas. She cited the example of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, an area of two million hectares in Guatemala where local communities have managed the forest for 30 years.
Under fixed-term contracts with the national government, they began harvesting limited quantities of wood and allspice, selling ornamental palms, and running tourism agencies. You had an investment to protect. “The forest became the basis of life,” said Dr. Monterroso. “You’ve seen tangible benefits.”
Jaguars, spider monkeys and 535 species of butterflies thrive there. So does the white-lipped peccary, a shy pig that quickly disappears when the hunt is under pressure. There are fewer forest fires in community-managed forests and there is almost no rate of deforestation, according to researchers.
Erwin Maas is one of the hundreds of Guatemalans who also live there. He and his neighbors run a joint venture in the village of Uaxactún. Mahogany is abundant, but they can only hold so much. Often there are one or two trees per hectare per year, said Mr Maas. Seed producing trees are left alone.
“Our goal is to feed ourselves on a small amount and always take care of the forest,” he said.
Nic Wirtz contributed to the reporting.