- About 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found on lands cared for by Indigenous communities.
- First Nations in Canada, for instance, are leading the most ambitious plans for protecting lands in the country currently, in the establishment of Indigenous Protected Areas.
- “Conservation groups and funders can make collaborations with Indigenous peoples more fruitful by taking direction from Indigenous leadership when working on their territories,” the authors of a new op-ed say.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Summer in the Northern Hemisphere has brought record-shattering heat waves and unchecked wildfires that shroud urban centers in smoke. These climate impacts endanger human health, and they also intensify the stress on wildlife populations sliding ever faster toward extinction. The challenges we face are daunting, and solutions elusive, but fortunately Indigenous peoples are pointing toward a better future.
It’s not an accident that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found on lands cared for — and loved by — Indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities draw on millennia of knowledge to sustain their territories and people, and the models they are developing are helping address the intertwined crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity on behalf of all our children and grandchildren.
The key to realizing this brighter future is to recognize that decision-making on Indigenous lands must be led by Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous peoples are asserting this leadership, and partners within the conservation sector have a critical role to play in respecting and supporting it.
Already in Canada, Indigenous nations are initiating the biggest, most ambitious plans for conserving lands and waters in the country, creating new conservation and stewardship systems vital to protecting our planet. Scores of nations have proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas that together span hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. Many of these areas store massive amounts of carbon in soils and wetlands. In northern Manitoba, for instance, four Indigenous governments have proposed protecting 50,000 km2 of the Seal River Watershed. The watershed holds 1.7 billion tons of carbon—equivalent to eight years’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
Many Indigenous stewardship programs are underway. More than 120 First Nations Guardians programs currently manage lands, waters, and resources, and conduct research on climate impacts and species at risk. Indigenous Guardians within Canada have learned from counterparts in Australia and are helping to inspire programs in other countries.
Indigenous-led conservation is at the forefront of a global movement. From the United Nations in New York to the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal and beyond, government leaders, foundations, scientists, and conservation organizations are shining a spotlight on the central role Indigenous peoples play in sustaining biodiversity and responding to climate change.
This acknowledgement represents progress and hope, but more is needed.
It is now time to enter a new phase within the conservation movement — one where Indigenous knowledge and expertise isn’t just celebrated but Indigenous peoples have the resources and space to lead. And instead of environmental groups acting as intermediaries or directing conservation efforts within Indigenous territories, Indigenous peoples must determine the future of their homelands for themselves.
How do we get there? It’s a journey, and we’ve been on it ourselves.
The International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC) launched two decades ago as a broad coalition of major environmental groups, foundations, scientists, and Indigenous leaders focused on conserving the vast boreal forest ecosystem in Canada. IBCC began as a conventional environmental campaign, but quickly realized the most significant action to protect the boreal forest was supporting the leadership of the Indigenous nations who call it home.
Over time more and more of IBCC’s conservation work included direct investments in and relationships with Indigenous leaders, governments, and organizations. That eventually led to the formation of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which has become a standalone nonprofit organization. ILI is one of the few Indigenous-led and -directed conservation organizations in Canada.
But we are determined to do even more. ILI is stepping forward to take over the lead role, absorbing IBCC’s assets and staff and establishing its own direct relations with IBCC’s philanthropic and institutional investors. This marks one of the first times a longstanding, successful environmental organization has subsumed its operations into an Indigenous organization.
That’s why we recently traveled to the Ilnu community of Mashteuiatsh in Québec, and at a community feast, a representative of IBCC handed a beautifully crafted canoe paddle to a representative of ILI as a symbol of the transfer of power, assets, and decision making into Indigenous hands. As more groups take similar steps and as more of the conservation movement expands to welcome and support Indigenous leadership, we can look forward to enjoying the benefits of healthier lands, healthier people, and a healthier planet.
On our long journey to this extraordinary juncture, our Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues have engaged in extensive dialogue; we have been sharing, listening, learning, deliberating, and then putting our knowledge into action. We hope some of the lessons we gained can inspire similar efforts within the conservation sector. Here are some fundamental observations and principles that could help along the way.
First, conservation groups and funders can make collaborations with Indigenous peoples more fruitful by taking direction from Indigenous leadership when working on their territories. This includes stepping back to make space for Indigenous leaders to speak about their territories for themselves to governments, partners, in media, and in conversation with funders.
Second, it’s important to understand that conservation and careful stewardship of lands, waters, and natural resources in Indigenous territories is nested within and inextricably linked with the many aspects and facets of Indigenous nationhood. Respecting Indigenous nationhood is larger than conservation, but it will yield conservation. It is important for conservation groups to recognize that the power and influence they hold, whether they realize it or not, is often the result of long-standing colonialism and society’s systemic racism. A critical step towards reforming that system is for social change leaders to fully recognize and embrace Indigenous rights.
Third and most significant, when environmental groups raise funds for Indigenous-led conservation, the vast majority of that funding should go directly to Indigenous nations and organizations. It is critical that power and privilege be shared and reconfigured to ensure decolonization. Conservation groups have direct and powerful relationships with funders, governments, and influential experts. Mediating and trying to control relations between Indigenous leaders and other powerful ally groups is inequitable and will perpetuate colonialism.
Ushering in a new era, based on a more respectful approach, will take time, but the time to start is now. As more groups take similar steps and as the conservation movement expands to welcome more Indigenous leadership, we can look forward to enjoying the benefits of healthier lands, healthier people, and a healthier planet.
Valérie Courtois is the executive director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. Steve Kallick is the director for international conservation and human rights at the Resources Legacy Fund.
Banner image: The Dehcho First Nations led the creation of the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area, spanning 14,249 square kilometers of boreal forest and clean waters in the NWT. Image courtesy of Amos Scott.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance, about the effort to establish a 12-million-acre Indigenous Protected Area in northern Manitoba, listen here:
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