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Ameyali Ramos on recognizing indigenous contributions to protecting global biodiversity

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The fifteenth meeting of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) was meant to take place in August in Kunming, China, but will now take place in Montréal, Canada, in December this year. It is a crucial meeting, aimed at finalizing a ten-year plan for biodiversity protection — often referred to as post-2020 framework — and thus setting the framework for further conservation efforts in the future.

Current forms of biodiversity conservation, however, have faced criticism in recent years. Various studies have shown the negative effects conservations projects like national parks can have on local and indigenous communities living in or closed to such projects — despite the fact that indigenous people steward 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land.

There are, however, examples of different approaches towards conservation, like in the areas governed and protected by these communities themselves. Carola Rackete, herself active in the field, spoke with Ameyali Ramos from the ICCA Consortium about their experiences and expectations for the conference in Montréal.

Ameyali Ramos is the International Policy Coordinator for the ICCA Consortium and participates on its behalf in the Conference of Parties (COP) meeting of the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD).

Ameyali, you’ve participated on behalf of the ICCA in the CBD meetings in the last years, and you will also be at the upcoming COP15 in Montréal. How are indigenous groups part of the CBD process?

There are numerous ways that indigenous peoples can participate in the CBD process. At the international level, indigenous organizations can apply to be observer organizations. They can participate through one of the four major stakeholder groups: the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), the CBD Alliance, the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, or the CBD Women’s Network.

At the national level, indigenous peoples can liaise directly with their government representatives, be part of their government delegations, and/or participate in national planning meetings. Indigenous peoples can also participate in regional meetings organized by the major stakeholder groups.

The ICCA Consortium and its members have observer status in the CBD and participate through the major groups. We also have a very active network of members who are engaged in the CBD process and related domestic, legal and policy processes at the national and subnational level. I am part of the international policy team that supports our member engagement in these processes and liaise with members to ensure their priorities and voices are heard at the CBD.

While indigenous people are quite involved in the CBD processes, they still face certain challenges when participating in the CBD. Which improvements for participation are needed?

A lot of the issues and challenges we face have to do with capacity building and understanding of the very complicated instrument that the CBD is. Ideally, we would invest in capacity peer-learning, peer-exchange programmes where a younger generation of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) engages in the process.

The very challenging part of the CBD process is that it requires a huge amount of time, and often the groups we represent are very busy working on their lands and territories. Engaging in the very abstract international policy process is complicated. It requires resources, time, finances, and access to substantive and technical advice. Unfortunately, often it’s not possible for IPLCs to engage in a very meaningful way in the process.

In the past, nature conservation has often clashed with land rights of indigenous and local communities. What needs to happen before the COP15 in Montréal to reach a positive outcome for those groups?

One of the most positive outcomes that could come from the post-2020 framework is an appropriate recognition of the outsized role that IPLCs play in nature conservation. During the negotiations in Geneva in April this year, we saw growing interest in and visibility of the important role IPLCs play. But we need the targets of the post-2020 framework to include clear language that ensures that communities are adequately supported politically, legally, technically, and financially.

Another very positive outcome of the negotiations would be an explicit recognition of human rights and associated rights (tenure, access, etc.) and the necessary safeguards and accountability mechanisms. We saw some progress in Geneva, but a lot of the text continues to be in brackets — which means there is no clear agreement yet and a lot is still up for discussion. I think there is opportunity for very specific language recommendations to make it into the final text, but it requires a lot of lobbying with friendly parties and other allies.

A lot of the public debate is focussed on Target 3 of the planned post-2020 framework, increasing protection of up to 30 percent of land and ocean surface by 2030. This proposal is often called “30x30”, and was first introduced by the WWF and academics from the Global North. What is ICCA Consortium’s position on it?

Even within our membership, we have diverse opinions on Target 3. At the Consortium, we like to emphasize that the 30x30 target is just one of the 21 targets in the framework, and a sole focus on Target 3 is insufficient to address the global environmental crisis we are facing. Unless we clearly address the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss, Target 3 will be completely irrelevant.

We have to advance systemic and transformative change throughout the entire framework. We also have to transform the political and power relationships that underpin both the global crises and the mainstream conservation industry.

Our focus should really be to move to 100-percent sustainable management of all lands and resources. Just focusing on safeguarding 30 percent in conservation areas will be totally insufficient to address the environmental challenges we face.

The ICCA Consortium is a non-profit, membership-based association dedicated to promoting appropriate recognition and support for territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities (abbreviated as “ICCAs” or, more simply, “territories of life”). The network is composed of nearly 200 member organizations (indigenous peoples’ and community-based organisations, federations, and movements as well as their supporting civil society organizations and networks) and more than 450 honorary members (dedicated individuals with particular expertise and experience) in more than 90 countries. In 2021, ICCA published a report on case studies and successful self-governance of 17 territories in different parts of the world.

Some communities fear that Target 3 could result in a massive land-grab by the conservation industry.

In the Consortium, our reflection on Target 3 is that it has the potential to further the recognition and support of the collective rights, roles, and responsibilities of IPLCs and, at the same time, the potential to exacerbate threats, abuses, and injustices. Whether the risks will be avoided and opportunities enabled hinges on how and in line with whose rights, visions, and governance systems the expansion and further recognition of area based conservation is pursued.

Regardless of the final language text, the implementation of Target 3 should appropriately recognize the rights and self-determined priorities of IPLCs, including through increased political, legal, and technical and financial support. As it is currently drafted, Target 3 includes both protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs). OECMs are a relatively new designation and there is little understanding of how this designation will be incorporated into national legislations. But at least based on definition 14/8 in the CBD, they may offer an opportunity for IPLCs.

More importantly, however, it is essential that the conservation community recognize that positive conservation outcomes can be seen in IPLCs lands and territories. Conservation happens every day, even beyond the colonial categories of protected areas and OECMs. Our recent report on Territories of Life showcases a few of the many extraordinary examples of successful IPLC conservation.

Rather than focusing on creating new protected areas, we should focus on supporting these extraordinary examples of successful and sustainable territories of life.

Are these similar to the OECMs, the other forms of area-based conservation you mentioned?

Protected areas are sites that are dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity. OECMs are areas that deliver the long-term conservation of biodiversity, without being designated or otherwise recognized as protected areas.

For OECMs, conservation does not need to be a primary objective of the governance or management of the area. In 2018, the CBD agreed on a definition of OECMs, and only as recently as last year were there any methodologies put in place for identifying them. So far, there are 833 OECMs registered in the world, more than half of which are in Morocco. None of these are managed by indigenous or local communities. There is relatively information on whether OECMs will be useful or meaningful for IPLCs.

We explored some of the potential challenges and opportunities in an LBO Brief on Indigenous Peoples, local communities and area-based conservation targets. Much of that national-led legislation around OECMs will take place in the coming years, and it’s important for indigenous peoples to be part of these discussion.

Because you fear that these measures will continue earlier policies that were often harmful for indigenous people and local communities?

Both protected areas and OCEMS are very colonial categories that were developed by academics and the mainstream conservation industry. These two categories do not capture the richness of the contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities to nature stewardship.

Currently, Target 3 only has these two categories of nature conservation — protected areas and OECMs — and does not yet offer a way to recognize conservation beyond these two colonial categories. That’s what we’re pushing for: a way to recognize indigenous peoples and their lands on their own terms, in their own rights, with their own words.

Have you advanced towards this goal in the negotiations earlier this year?

I think one big win we had in Geneva was that in Target 3 there is now language on equitable governance, which is an important step forward to ensure that it does not continue the abuses and injustices that have happened in the past. But there’s still not very clear language on rights or free, prior, and informed consent or the role of indigenous territories and areas. Those are all huge red flags and causes of concerns for us.

Then again, the text is only one part of the issue. Another is implementation.

What we saw from the previous 2010 Aichi targets is that the target language itself was okay, but when we got to implementation on the ground, we saw a total breakdown of what the text actually intended. What we saw during the last decade and what we continue to see in the conservation industry is that when it comes to implementation, there isn’t really an appropriate systemic way to support and empower indigenous peoples and local communities. We see a huge amount of human rights abuses, we see a huge amount of big international NGOs taking the leading role in conservation — even if it is the communities doing the actual work on the ground.

Why does this happen?

Often people on the ground aren’t empowered to take the lead and make decisions based on their own interests, their own governance, and their own needs. What really needs to change is to empower indigenous peoples, to give them the rights that they need to be able to uphold their priorities and supply them with the appropriate technical and financial resources to carry out this work.

Also, when we get to implementation, each country interprets things differently and often the contribution of indigenous people is totally disregarded. The issue of implementation is bigger than the target language — it has to do with a systemic change that’s needed in the conservation industry.

How can we shift the balance of power between indigenous people and the big international NGOs that dominate the conservation field?

I think there is growing recognition even within these big international NGOS — BINGOs — themselves, that they need to change the way they work.

Having said that, it is essential that civil society holds these big NGOs to account and applies the same level of scrutiny and expectations of transparency and accountability through the conservation supply chain that we do for any big multinational corporation. If a business like Shell or any other big corporation wanted to do conservation work, there would be environmental safeguards and a very clear list of accountability and transparency mechanisms to hold them accountable. We should apply those to the big NGOs, as well.

It doesn’t take a lot. We know how to do it already with big companies, and it should be applied at the same level to big NGOs. Unfortunately, these big NGOs still dominate the conservation industry and act like monopolies, but they should absolutely not be the middlemen or conduits for support for custodians in their territories of life or for indigenous peoples or local communities themselves. It should be a priority in the post-2020 framework and in other spaces to empower a diversity of institutions and initiatives at the local level.

A lot of funders don’t want to support human rights abuses or land grabs in creating protected areas. How can they identify projects they should support?

We need a total shift in the mindset of the way funders and indigenous peoples and local communities relate. There’s a growing movement, especially in the social justice funding sphere, about the need to have trust-based funding relationships. There are all of these intermediaries standing in between those who actually do conservation on the ground and those who hold the money, and often those intermediaries don’t have the necessary relationships of support with people on the ground. Yet they take a huge amount of the financial resources and very little funding actually makes it to those who are doing the actual conservation work.

These are structural problems, and it isn’t as easy as finding the right indicators or qualities to supporting a good project. We need to shift the way money flows and the power relationships between those who do the work and those who fund it.

It’s also really important that we move away from project-based mindsets that a lot of the funders have. The work is more about accompanying and supporting communities and each other over the long term, and about supporting communities with their own self-strengthening process and self-determined priorities and plans.

Finally, it would be really interesting to bring a more social justice perspective to the environment and conservation. That link is still very tenuous, it’s just starting to come about. Edge Funders, a coalition of donors and advisors, is doing some really interesting, proactive work on rethinking funding in light of social justice issues. I think a lot of the environmental and conservation funders could learn a lot from them in terms of how things are funded.

What about private donations?

At the moment, private and philanthropic contributions are unfortunately captured through big intermediaries like the WWF, TNC, Conservation International, and others. They capture all of those small donations and then fund projects from there. I think one fundamental shift that could happen is for indigenous peoples and local communities to create their own platform of money capturing. But this takes a lot of investment, and it’ll take a lot of coordination between indigenous groups.

The alternative short-term option is to fund intermediaries that work differently. There are a number of organizations in Africa, Maliasili for instance, that do really interesting conservation work directly with communities and have these trust-based relationships. At the Consortium, we are working with our members to identify intermediaries that do have trust-based relationships with our members on the ground, who are interested in investing in the long run, and making sure that funders can fund those organizations instead of the big NGOs.

Beyond the current discussion on protecting 30 percent of the earth’s surface, what needs to happen on the other 70 percent to enable both human and non-human life to thrive again?

We need a whole reimagining of what conservation means. We’re getting to a point where each one of us as indigenous peoples of the planet really need to take an active role in protecting, stewarding, and nurturing it.

We need to stop perverse subsidies and incentives, stop the drivers of biodiversity loss like agribusiness or mining, stop funding things that we know are causing harm to the planet. We need to stop market-based initiatives that say you can continue to pollute as long as pay. The whole commodification of nature fundamentally has to shift and with that the capitalist economy.

We need to think as individuals and what role we can play. Often people say individuals can’t make a difference. I disagree, because many of the big movements that we’ve seen happen in the last 50 years were fuelled by individuals. I think that the individual can start to contribute to a global momentum for change. We’re all empowered to do so, and we just have to be very clear in what it is we’re doing now.