Respect for autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous and local peoples, not arbitrary protection targets, a key to protecting global biodiversity

December 1, 2022

By: Zoe Todd

In June 2022, officials confirmed that the 15th Committee of All Parties (COP15) for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is meeting to finalize the latest iteration of the Convention this December in Montreal, Canada. 

It is anticipated that ongoing pressure will be exerted at COP15 to encourage global governments to commit to the so-called ‘30X30’ plan to protect 30% of  the earth’s lands and waters by 2030, through an aggressive protected areas approach, touted as a solution to the catastrophic impacts of environmental destruction wrought over the last 600 years of white supremacist colonial capitalism. The 30X30 movement is often credited as a byproduct of the ‘Half Earth’ proposal, initially presented by the late conservation biologist E.O.Wilson. While immensely popular in international eco-governance circles, both the 30X30 and Half Earth plans have been criticized by marginalized communities and justice activists for these proposals’ ties to conservation movements with a track record of displacing, dispossessing, and oppressing marginalized peoples in the Global South in the name of ‘conserving’ a kind of euro-colonial nature-separate-from-humans. 

In the last 100-plus years, Indigenous and other local, autonomous peoples around the globe have refused the colonial harms that ensued from being evicted from their homelands in the name of traditional colonial protected areas and ‘conservation’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’, leading to efforts to assert ‘community-based conservation’ in the global south, and the emergence of co-management and, more recently, ‘Indigenous-led conservation’’, in Canada. The latter two approaches champion efforts to centre Indigenous peoples as ‘rights holders’ in land and water management in Canada, and encourage a shift towards building protected areas approaches that honour Indigenous-led solutions. In Canada, the latest iteration of this work is framed as the concept of ‘Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas’ (IPCAs), which “are lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems” (ICE 2018: 35). According to the architects of the IPCA approach, these areas may be governed under a spectrum of approaches that range from fully affirming the sovereignty of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (FNIM) as sole rights-holders of a territory, to so-called ‘partnership’ approaches including hybrid, crown-Indigenous, or NGO/industry-Indigenous partnership models (ICE 2018: 45).

Canada is an enthusiastic supporter of the global ‘30X30’ plan, which is being championed by a host of nation-states and major international environmental NGOs who command massive lobbying influence.  Canada has committed, through its Pathway to Target 1 Challenge, to ensure that “at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10% of marine and coastal areas of Canada are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based measures” (Conservation 2020). In order to meet its commitments to the 30X30 plan, Canada is relying very heavily on IPCAs to achieve its national targets, and will also use a mix of protected areas, and ‘other effective area-based measures’. Through a mix of funding schemes, including the launch of the  $1.35 billion Nature Legacy Initiative in 2019 (topped up with $2.3 Billion in 2021), the federal government has funded 52 IPCA projects since 2018. To explicitly support Indigenous-led conservation projects, Canada pledged $175 million for ‘Challenge Projects’ in 2019, and a further $340 million in funding was announced in 2021 to help develop Indigenous-led conservation projects in the coming years to meet its Pathway to Target 1 goals. This work relies heavily on, and actively promotes, partnerships with industry and environmental NGOs. This $500 million in targeted funding for Indigenous-led conservation seems impressive until one notes that the federal government has simultaneously invested billions in ongoing resource extractive industries in Canada, and is working closely with industry to criminalize Indigenous land defenders fighting resource extractive projects across the country. 

Canada’s assertions of sovereignty over lands and waters in Canada, and thus Canada’s assertions of authority to be the ultimate arbiter of conservation approaches, originated with the legal fictions of the Doctrine of Discovery, and now codified in Canadian law. Meanwhile, a growing body of research demonstrates that Indigenous-led conservation, grounded in Indigenous self-determination, has a positive impact on the survivance of various species. 

But Canada’s approach does not adequately support Indigenous self-determination. For one, there is a problem when states like Canada pressure First Nations, Inuit, and Métis to enter into ‘partnership’ approaches to meet global biodiversity goals that heavily emphasize and centre environmental NGOs and other non-Indigenous bodies to fund and support ongoing conservation that the state is unwilling to fully fund. Further, Canadian governmental bodies continue to issue conservation guidelines and reports that conspicuously sidestep the use of the word ‘sovereignty’ in relation to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Aboriginal harvesting rights and title in Canada. Co-management can indeed work well, but it works best when Indigenous sovereignty is fully upheld and recognized, and requires that countries like Canada fully divest from the legal fiction of the Doctrine of Discovery and its concomitant legal offspring that continue to embolden Canada to overstep the rights, laws, protocols, and self-determination of Indigenous nations. As Suzan Shown Harjo argued in a recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the late Vine Deloria Jr’s seminal text God Is Red at Harvard this October, ‘why would we accept half the loaf when we can have the whole loaf?’. Indeed, Indigenous peoples and local peoples displaced and dispossessed both locally and globally by neo-colonial capitalism, imperialism, and extractivism deserve to assert the ‘whole loaf’ of sovereignty over lands, waters, and atmospheres that colonial capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, and extractivism have destroyed over the last 600 years of colonial expansion.  

At a time when public-private partnerships (PPPs) are receiving well-deserved scrutiny in Canada and internationally, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities and nations across the country deserve conservation approaches and policies that fully acknowledge FNIM sovereignty, and which do not pressure communities to divest autonomy in the name of securing artificially competitive (limited) funding and support from NGOs or municipal, provincial, and federal agencies. Further, FNIM deserve approaches that do not pressure communities to meet conservation targets set by a host of industrial actors, environmental NGOs and other nation-states keen to sidestep their role in destroying biodiverse regions globally. Indeed, the fact that Canada has built itself on lands and waters procured through dispossession and displacement of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis behooves the state to fully compensate FNIM for the loss of more-than-human life that Canada has incurred across every stretch of this country. 

On a global scale, the 30X30 plan relies very heavily on protected areas, the vast majority within the Global South, to achieve the 30% conservation target. In both cases, Canada and globally, pressure is being placed on Indigenous and local peoples to use our limited land bases, which we have protected against colonial genocidal incursions over centuries, often at great loss of life and safety, to correct environmental destruction from massive trillion dollar industries and inequitable land distribution ushered in by imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. However, as the Forest Peoples’ Program points out, it is not guaranteed that this ‘protected area’ work will recognize sovereign Indigenous land tenure equally across all protected areas globally. Thus, while commitments to protect 30% of the earth through protected areas seem laudable on paper, human rights activists, scientists, community leaders, and scholars living and working in the Global South are articulating the potential for the 30X30 plan to become, in effect, a massive land grab, on par with the thefts Europe carried out throughout the colonial period. This comes on the heels of explosive revelations of human rights abuses by major Big Environmental NGOs in the Global South in the 2010s. Flagging concerns about the role that Big Environmental NGOs (BINGOs) like the WWF, Nature Conservancy, and others who are intimately entangled with capitalist expansion, are playing in pushing the 30X30 scheme, conservation management studies scholar Dr. Aby Sène points out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy

“Transnational conservation is dominated by mostly five international NGOs from the global north, with combined assets equal to the gross national product of many African countries and having strong ties to extractive industries and finance institutions. A quick look at the leadership teams of the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and African Parks shows panels full of CEOs, billionaires, and investment bankers from financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Merrill, and Blackstone” (Dr. Aby Sène, 2022)

Carnivore ecologist and conservation writer Dr. Mordecai Ogada, co-author of the 2016 book The Big Conservation Lie, summarized in a recent podcast the unjust pressure placed on African land users, who have cared for lands and more-than-human beings for millennia, to bear the burden of conservation interventions created by the Global North’s 600-plus-years of colonial capitalist exploitation of peoples and lands throughout the Global South, which he frames as ‘the second scramble for Africa’, thusly: 

“​​And this is where the great fraud I think is, because it’s basically a recipe for colonialism. It’s just that the colonialism that happened in the 19th century was honest. They didn’t pretend to love us. They didn’t pretend to be doing it for us. They came to do it for them. But now they couch it in all sorts of nice sounding things.” (Dr. Mordecai Ogada, 2022)

For their part, some proponents of the IPCA approach in Canada are enthusiastically supporting the entanglement of IPCA approaches here with the global 30X30 plan and partnerships with the “big environmental NGOS’ or “BINGOs”. The Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a non-profit body partnered with environmental non-profits including the Pew Charitable Trust and Ducks Unlimited through the Boreal Conservation Initiative, and funded by the Canadian government, lauds Canada for ‘catching up to Indigenous ambitions for sustaining lands and waters’ by committing to the 30X30 targets. However, our ambitions for sustaining lands and waters in Canada must always consider how we may be made inadvertently complicit in land grabs and other violations of Indigenous rights and sovereignty in the Global South committed by nation-states, NGOs, industrial actors, and other imperialist agents enacting reputational ecological ‘snow washing’ of their violations outside Canada through conservation partnerships with FNIM here. 

There are aspects of the IPCA approach that are very promising, and, if truly grounded in a fulsome and unambiguous acknowledgment of FNIM sovereignty in this country, can be used to help promote frameworks that honour and action calls for Land Back and financial restitution to Indigenous nations from the Federal government and other colonial bodies for the immense wealth accrued by the state over centuries of land theft. Indigenous conservation approaches in Canada must always be cognizant of the colonial interests of international NGOs and industries implicated in simultaneous neocolonial ecological destruction and conservation-based land grabs in the Global South. The late Secwepemc leader George Manuel promoted the concept of the 4th World, inspired by conversations with Tanzanian High Commissioner Mbuto Milando when the latter visited Canada in the 1970s. Milando stated that: “When Native peoples come into their own, on the basis of their own cultures and traditions, that will be the Fourth World”. This concept encourages Indigenous and local peoples whose lands are occupied by nation-states across the planet to build international solidarities beyond colonial borders and colonial capture. It is unfair for various levels of Canadian governments, who hold easily hundreds of billions or more in moneys owed to FNIM, to withhold funding and restitution in such a way that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are being forced to rely on colonial industrial and environmental NGO partnerships and support to make up the funding shortfalls in national conservation work. Moving beyond the current neocolonial paradigms, we are being called to envision more fulsome assertions of our governance across the lands Canada is currently destroying through its ongoing reliance on fossil fuel, mining, agriculture, industrial fisheries, forestry, urban and real estate development, and manufacturing activities that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities within Canada and violate the human and environmental rights of diverse communities throughout the Global South.

It is becoming clearer every day that in Canada, settler governments, industry, and western environmental non-profits must divest from colonial assertions of authority, including those even ‘friendlier’ sounding partnership approaches that centre NGOs, non-Indigenous academics, industry stakeholders, and other non-Indigenous partners. All of these are still colonial assertions of authority ultimately derive from the legal fiction of the Doctrine of Discovery and other colonial sleights-of-hand, and which claim control over Indigenous livelihoods, lands, waters, peoples, and relations. Instead, there is a need to fundamentally change the role that colonial parties play in various land and water-based regulatory relationships. 

On the eve of Canada hosting COP15 in unceded Mohawk territories in Montreal, conservation leaders, politicians, activists and others in Canada must divest from the 30X30 plan. This is a call to instead build conservation approaches grounded in full and unambiguous First Nations, Inuit, and Métis sovereignty in Canada, coupled with true return of lands and moneys owed. Rejecting the 30X30 approach enacts solidarity with peoples in the Global South who are articulating the harms that the 30X30 and Half-Earth proposals, and ongoing neocolonial big environmental NGO (BINGO) conservation land grabs, are causing to local and Indigenous peoples throughout the Global South. This is an important assertion of George Manuel’s vision of ‘Fourth World’ solidarity. Indigenous peoples in Canada can and will mobilize conservation approaches grounded in our legal orders that respect local FNIM sovereignty here and hold nation states, industrial actors, NGOs and other parties in the Global North accountable for the harms they are doing to peoples, lands, waters, atmospheres, and more-than-human beings at local and global scales. This is how we will truly decolonize the relationships that nation states, non-profits, industry, and other colonial actors hold with us as Indigenous peoples both nationally and internationally.


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