The race against climate change has never felt so urgent. After two years of Covid-related delays, the final United Nations Convention for Biological Diversity is due to take place later this year in Kunming, China. Also known as COP15, the summit offers a crucial last opportunity for nations worldwide to agree on the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. Key deals will be negotiated in a desperate bid to avert our doomsday trajectory of ecological collapse.

The ’30×30′ Irony

Of central concern is the proposed target of making 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and seas into protected areas by 2030. The ‘30×30’ global conservation campaign is an idea that has been lobbied by some environmentalists for decades. Preserving concentrated areas of wildlife is an attractive concept given that the Amazon loses 27 football fields of forest every minute from deforestation. An isolated oasis of endangered species would protect diverse ecosystems, providing important socio-ecological functions such as heat reduction and flood mitigation.

While ‘fortress conservation’ models have been implemented since the formation of Yosemite, the world’s first national park 150 years ago, they remain a subject of much controversy. Rooted in the myth that nature is a ‘pristine wilderness’ when humans are absent, the practice of fortress conservation raises a plethora of human-rights-related issues. For example, there are growing fears that the 30×30 campaign won’t recognise the land rights of countless indigenous peoples. 

Sophie Grig at Survival International explains that: ‘up to 300 million people could be directly displaced and dispossessed. Many will be indigenous, who have protected their lands for millennia.’ The irony of the 30×30 proposal is that it is being heavily pushed by countries in the global North, particularly the UK which, as a nation, is culpable for having one of the highest rates of biodiversity loss. There is a deep-seated colonial sentiment in demanding that indigenous communities be evicted from their homeland. Without being properly investigated, this could lead to far greater and longer-lasting environmental damage.

A Question of Survival

A large proportion of indigenous tribes still practise hunter-gatherer ways of life, whereby the means of survival are predominately attained from wild plants and animals. However, as protected areas begin to encroach on native peoples’ land there is an apparent clash in ideologies. Laws against ‘trespassing’, enacted primarily to prevent poachers, have created violent conflicts between park officials and local communities. Accessing conserved lands for hunting or ritual purposes has been strictly prohibited all over the world, dispossessing myriads of indigenous peoples not only of their territory but also of their cultural autonomy.

As indigenous lands are continually diminished in size, local communities face an endless fight to preserve their traditions, customs and cultures. The severity of the situation was highlighted in a breakthrough 2019 BuzzFeed investigation that revealed the esteemed wildlife charity WWF was complicit in the murder, rape and torture of indigenous people. Funding received from national governments and international organisations, such as WWF, helps militarise fortress conservation projects, arming eco-guards with heavy artillery and ultimately perpetuating a contemporary humanitarian crisis.  

The scale of the issue cannot be overstated, with an alarming number of reports emerging in recent years exposing scores of human rights violations in conserved lands. In Central Africa’s largest protected area, for example, five extrajudicial killings, nine rapes and at least 63 other acts of physical abuse or torture have been documented. According to Joe Eisen, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK: ‘these human rights abuses are not just the isolated actions of rogue park rangers but are rather part of a system in which displacement, torture, gender-based violence and extrajudicial killings are used to control indigenous peoples.’ Understanding this complex geopolitical catastrophe requires in-depth investigative reporting, but even this has proven deadly given the recent suspected murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira in the Amazon’s Javari Valley. 

The Inferiority Defense

To some extent, the destruction of indigenous ways of life could be put down to ignorance. At the core of fortress conservation is a Eurocentric perception of native tribes as still existing in the ‘dark ages’. Inferior to the prowess of western science, their lands should be transformed into protected areas for the good of the planet. However, what this argument fails to account for is that many indigenous communities have lived sustainably on their lands for generations. Recent research has shown that areas often depicted as empty and ‘wild’ — such as the Amazon, African plains and the jungles of India — have in fact been intensively managed for thousands of years.

In contrast to the exploitative farming practices of industrialised society, indigenous communities have helped promote diverse ecosystems across the globe through methods of agroforestry, intercropping and polycultures. It should come as no real surprise that about 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity is found in indigenous lands, despite them comprising less than 5 per cent of the global population. With this statistic in mind, it is clear that when it comes to defending Nature indigenous peoples are the best at it. This puts into question the true agenda of the 30×30 campaign, with many fearing that economic and political motives are being masked behind a veil of climate justice.

Speaking at the ‘Our Land! Our Nature’ congress, Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, of the Yukpa people in Colombia, argued that: ‘what’s happening with 30×30 is that governments want to distract global opinion by proposing solutions that don’t relate to the real problem at all. If you want to stop climate change, you need to attack causes that are leading to it.’ The emphasis on the 30×30 campaign has neglected the fact that overexploitation and rampant consumerism are the primary drivers of ecological collapse. Until these issues are adequately addressed, any form of conservation will be incapable of protecting biodiversity because it leaves in place the systemic drivers of climate change, namely the capitalist notions of progress and development.

These are far greater challenges that must be collectively overcome through cooperation, empowerment and resistance. Indigenous communities are on the frontline of this fight and can be supported by following the work of organisations such as Survival International, Amazon Watch, Minority Rights Group International, IWGIA, Forest Peoples Programme, and Land Rights Now.

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