People & Culture

How Indigenous Peoples are leading the way on global biodiversity protection

Indigenous knowledge allowed ecosystems to thrive for millennia — and now it’s finally being recognized as integral in solving the world’s biodiversity crisis. What part did it play in COP15?

  • Jan 16, 2023
  • 2,404 words
  • 10 minutes
Indigenous Peoples are the people on the ground leading the way in biodiversity conservation. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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On a grey December day, a few blocks from Montreal’s Palais de Congrès where world leaders were gathered to hammer out a new global framework to protect biodiversity, dozens of people crammed into a large shaputuan — Innu gathering tent — across from the city’s old port. While it was chilly inside, and each gust of wind seemed like it might lift up the wood and canvas structure and blow it away, spirits were high as Indigenous leaders from Canada and around the world shared stories of their conservation wins.

Organized by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, the space provided an opportunity for local and international delegates to hear about how Indigenous Peoples — from the rainforests of the Amazon to British Columbia — are already leading the way on biodiversity protection in their communities.

Miles Richardson, former president of the Council of Haida Nation, shared how the Haida asserted management over forests in their territory, deciding on 14 areas that would remain untouched, and informing Canada and B.C. of their decision in a bold reversal of the colonial legislative process.

“Industry fought us, but we won,” said Richardson. “All 14 areas today are legislated by Haida first, then B.C., then Canada.”

Abused and dismissed by the Peruvian government and industry, the Wampis people of the northwestern Amazon established the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation in 2015, protecting 98 per cent of their territory, or about 1.3 million square kilometres of rainforest. “Our territory is the heritage of our ancestors,” said Teofilo Kukush Pati of the Amazonia Wampis people.

Chief Doug Neasloss from the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation in B.C. said the federal government let herring be fished out in their territory. “Our community said, we’re a government, let’s not wait,” and declared a Marine Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, which Neasloss hopes will be the first of many.

On the east coast, Trish Nash of the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources in Cape Breton said their five communities heard about Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areass in 2020 and declared one in Kluskap Cave in 2021, covering 5,000 hectares. “The government said we couldn’t, but we don’t need their permission,” she added.

Valerie Courtois, an Innu woman, sits and speaks into a microphone. She wears a serious expression on her face and a beaded medallion depicting a caribou
Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative explains that, with its recent investments to the Indigenous Guardians Network, Canada is offering a model for respecting Indigenous-led stewardship. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Back inside the restricted-security zone of the talks, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative announced the launch of the First Nations National Guardians Network, alongside federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and 11 members of the Guardians Network. The government committed $5.8 million to the network, in addition to $100 million previously committed for various guardian initiatives.

The Indigenous Guardians program looks to support hundreds of jobs nationally for Indigenous community members to fulfill roles similar to park wardens, game wardens, and environmental monitors, allowing Indigenous communities to protect their territories and monitor things like species health.

“Indigenous peoples are proven stewards of biodiversity, and Indigenous Guardians are on the ground caring for land and water we all depend on,” Indigenous Leadership Initiative director Valérie Courtois said in a statement. “With these investments, Canada is offering a model for respecting and supporting the Indigenous-led stewardship—a model we hope spreads around the world.”

Wooden beams climb to the top of a tent wrapped in tarp. This is a a shaputuan, an Innu gathering tent. There is a speaker's podium a sound system and a screen set up.
The Indigenous Pavillion took place in a large shaputuan, an Innu gathering tent. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Knowledge of local biodiversity is deeply enmeshed in Indigenous languages and cultures. Simply put, knowledge equals survival. In the rainforest of northeastern Australia, for example, the Dyirbal people were surrounded by abundant fruits and vegetables, some of which were edible, others poisonous. Their language became so adapted to the local biodiversity, they developed a grammatical marker to indicate if a plant was edible.

Consider that: simply by knowing a word, you’d know if you could eat a plant. That was hard-won knowledge, gained through experimentation, and passed down over thousands of years. 

And yet, until very recently, Indigenous knowledge has not been held in the same esteem as Western scientific knowledge, and the efforts of Indigenous peoples to protect and enhance the environments that sustain them have gone largely unrecognized.

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) began under the auspices of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, alongside other environmental conventions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Included in the original text of the convention was Article 8(j), which laid out the obligations of states to “respect, preserve and maintain” Indigenous knowledge, innovations, and practices.

Over the history of negotiations, this has compelled the CBD to consider matters of Indigenous knowledge and rights in a more in-depth way, eventually leading to the establishment of a working group on Article 8(j) in 2000. By then, Indigenous groups had already formalized their participation in the convention via the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB).

So, among the more than 12,000 delegates from around the world that converged on Montreal for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) were dozens of Indigenous leaders hoping to enshrine further protections for their rights and knowledge in the new global framework. They were also seeking to ensure that they would be allowed to continue the practices that have allowed biodiversity to thrive under their stewardship.

Consider that: simply by knowing a word, you’d know if you could eat a plant.

One of the main goals of the negotiations was to increase the proportion of protected areas globally — but Indigenous groups have long been concerned about how that’s done. So-called “fortress conservation” seeks to privatize land and evict those living on it, based on colonial ideas of divisions between people and nature. This model has been pushed by governments over the past century, but increasingly, evidence shows that empowering Indigenous Peoples to protect their lands leads to better conservation outcomes, at much lower costs.

This has led to a renewed push within Canada and abroad to created Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, in which Indigenous Peoples are both partners and guardians empowered with the responsibility to protect nature.

Indigenous groups were also seeking to protect so-called customary sustainable uses of nature – essentially, the kind of harvesting of plants and animals that have sustained Indigenous communities since time immemorial.

Aslak Holmberg, President of the Saami Council, shared how the Finnish government began restricting fishing started in 2017. While Finnish authorities are legally obliged to discuss these decisions with the Sámi Parliament, they have refused to do so. He was then unable to get the proper licenses because he was studying away from home, “So I was fishing illegally at the time.”

Aslak Holmberg, who is Sámi, speaks on a panel with flags in the background.
Aslak Holberg , President of the Saami Council, says that Indigenous Peoples from around the world have been evicted from their homes simply for living in areas of high biodiversity. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Holmberg added that Indigenous Peoples around the world have also been criminalized or evicted from their homes simply for living in areas of high biodiversity. In some cases, Indigenous land defenders face threats against their lives, particularly in Latin America. In 2016, Berta Caceres, a leader of the Lenca people in Honduras, was killed by a group linked to the Honduran government after working to oppose a hydroelectric development that threatened her people’s access to food, water, and medicine. Global Witness reports that in 2021 alone, 200 land defenders were murdered across the globe, with over three-quarters of those individuals killed in Latin America. Francisco Caquilpan Lincuante, a Mapuche leader from Chile, said that multinational companies have invaded his territory, which is rich in natural resources. “Mapuches are called terrorists at home,” he said, adding that his own colleague was killed in 2014.

While the CBD has not become as politicized as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is an unspoken understanding that many of the same corporate interests that are fuelling the climate crisis share just as much responsibility for the biodiversity crisis: fossil fuel companies, mining companies, logging interests, commercial fisheries, and so on.

In one overflowing conference room, Mikisew Cree First Nation’s Melody Lepine talked about the impacts of tar sands development on biodiversity in her territory. In an effort to protect some of the species in their area, the Mikisew Cree spearheaded the creation of the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park in 2019, which is now 315,000 hectares. However, it wasn’t enough, as tar sands developments continue to threaten species like caribou, bison, and whooping cranes. Lepine said that biodiversity conservation fell through jurisdictional gaps, while Indigenous knowledge was sidelined. “But there’s always hope,” she added. “Government and industry don’t have answers, so it’s on us to come up with solutions.”

Government and industry don’t have answers, so it’s on us to come up with solutions.

Melody Lepine

Another key concern for Indigenous communities is genetic digital sequence information — information extracted from genetic sequences, such as the RNA and DNA sequences from medicinal plants. This brings up a key question: who controls that data?

Indigenous Peoples have often shared information and access to medicines, only to find them patented and commercialized. As Rodrigo de la Cruz of Kichua/Kaambi, Ecuador, brought up in a side event, the profits have not been going to Indigenous Peoples.

Despite pleas by John Cheechoo of the Assembly of First Nations, on behalf of the IIFB, to include the right to free, prior, and informed consent as a condition for genetic information to be deposited in databases, it was not ultimately included in the final framework.

Lastly, there were concerns over funding. As Minnie Degawan, Kankanaey-Igorot from the Philippines, noted, funders and governments often wanted scalable sources of carbon credits, while Indigenous communities were often seeking to keep things as they are. These are not always reconcilable goals.

Further complicating matters is the fact that in some cases, Indigenous knowledge itself needs protection. Case in point:  the last fluent speaker of Dyirbal died in 2011, taking with them an encyclopaedia of knowledge.

As Dr. Mohamed Handaine of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee remarked in the Nature and Culture Summit side-event, Indigenous languages are being lost at a rate of one every two weeks. “Each is a record of a civilization,” he said. “Every language loss is a loss for biodiversity.”

Indigenous youth hold a yellow banner reading “Indigenous Genocide = Ecocide; To Save Biodiversity Stop Invading Our lands.” In the background you can see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau standing on the stage.
A group of First Nations youth stand up during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's speech at the opening ceremony, holding him to account on his government's subsidization of the fossil fuel industry (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Three First Nations women stand in the crowd. Two of them have their hands in the air, while one is holding a drum. Behind them is a screen with the suit of a certain Canadian Prime Minister
Youth from the Tla'amin First Nation in British Columbia stand in protest (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Initially, three days were allocated for the negotiation of the Global Framework on Biodiversity — an overly ambitious schedule, it would turn out. Early on, there were concerns that the entire two weeks set up to discuss a number of other matters under the scope of the CBD might not be enough, as some deep tensions emerged — with Russia at one point threatening to remove the entire target on gender equality over their objection to a framework that explicitly prioritized action on gender concerns.

During the opening ceremonies, things got off to an awkward start for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was interrupted by a group of First Nations youth carrying a banner saying “Indigenous Genocide = Ecocide; To Save Biodiversity Stop Invading Our lands,” highlighting the contradiction of a government that has committed millions of dollars to biodiversity conservation while still subsidizing oil production and pipeline construction.

But in the end, the two weeks proved sufficient to come out with a final agreement — the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework — that included 23 targets. The centerpiece of the agreement is Target 3, which includes a promise to ensure 30 per cent of all land and water are protected by 2030.

Target 22 called for states to respect Indigenous “cultures and their rights over lands, territories, resources and traditional knowledge” and “ensure the full protection of environmental human rights defenders,” responding to many of the major concerns of Indigenous groups.

Speaking on behalf of the IIFB at the closing plenary, Lakpa Sherpa of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact said the IIFB “celebrates the timely recognition of Indigenous Peoples and local community contributions, roles, rights and responsibilities to Mother Earth” in the final declaration. “We have spoken and you have heard us: let us now put those words into action.”

Interestingly, another two targets were focused on businesses, with one calling for the phase-out of subsidies harmful to biodiversity, such as those granted to fossil fuel companies, which were seen as an obvious hinderance to protecting species at risk. The other called on companies to disclose activities impacting biodiversity.

Lakpa Sherpa sits on a panel, with the Canadian flag behind him.
“We have spoken and you have heard us: let us now put those words into action,” says Lakpa Sherpa of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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Going even further than the UN agreement, Canada used the opportunity to announce that it would be ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies, a longstanding demand of environmental and Indigenous groups.

Crucially, governments also agreed to include a monitoring framework that would evaluate, among other things, human rights defenders killed and Indigenous land tenure, key demands from Indigenous leaders worried that the agreement would be seen as a pretext to usurp Indigenous land rights.

Speaking after the negotiations had ended, Saami Council President Holmberg called the GBF “historic, as it represents a paradigm shift in conservation, towards a way that is more inclusive of the rights of Indigenous peoples.” He said it recognized their contributions, customary practices, and territorial rights as necessary elements of conservation, saying that most of their priorities were included in the final framework.

Ramson Karmushu of the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation in Northern Kenya said that he was happy with the outcome of the GBF — with a caveat. “With what we have today as the final GBF, I hope there will be an implementation strategy and that there are actions to make it a life document. That is my biggest worry.”

A caribou float at a protest taking place in Montreal during COP15 (Photo: Ben Powless)
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A group of protesters carrying signs march down a Montreal street
A protest marches steadily down the streets of Montreal. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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In another gathering at a nearby hotel, Grand Council of the Crees Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said the Crees had managed to secure 23 per cent of the territory’s 400,000 square kilometres in a protected area, with a goal of increasing that to 50 per cent by 2050. She said the Cree Nation Government had four current “Eeyou Istchee Lands Keepers” part of the Guardians Network and were hoping to create another 19 positions.

Courtois said that she hoped the Guardians — who she called the “moccasins and mukluks on the ground” — could serve as an example for the rest of the world. “What gives me hope isn’t what’s happening in those walls,” she said, referring to the talks taking place in the nearby conference centre, “but what’s happening on the ground.”

While government negotiators at the Palais de Congrès in the nearby conference centre were about to receive credit for helping to resolve the biodiversity crisis, it was a crucial reminder that much of that the work on the ground would be carried out by Indigenous Peoples back home.


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