COP15 is finally underway in Montreal, Canada after more than two years of delays.
During the opening ceremony, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for a global agreement to protect 30 per cent of the world's land and water by 2030. It could be one of the key deals made at the UN biodiversity conference.
But although it’s promoted by governments and big international conservation NGOs as a solution to the climate and biodiversity crises, the '30x30' plan is seeing growing opposition from a number of organisations and experts.
So why is it so controversial?
30 x 30 could be the ‘biggest land grab in history’
According to Survival International, an organisation campaigning for Indigenous rights, 30 x 30 will be the biggest land grab in history.
The fear is that the plan won’t recognise or strengthen the rights of Indigenous people and local communities, as delegates gather in Montreal.
Sophie Grig, Senior Researcher for Survival International's conservation campaign explains.
“Up to 300 million people could be directly displaced and dispossessed. Many will be Indigenous people, who have protected their lands for millennia,” she says.
“Those who have done the least to damage the environment, stand to lose the most. Because they rely on their lands for survival - eviction from these will be completely devastating for them.
“Time and again Indigenous people tell us that without their lands they simply will not survive. If implemented, 30x30 will devastate lives on an unimaginable scale,” she adds.
People are being evicted in the name of conservation
Already in many Protected Areas around the world local people, who have called the land home for generations, are no longer allowed to live on and use the natural environment to feed their families, gather medicinal plants or visit sacred sites.
But research has shown that, beyond doubt, Indigenous people are nature’s best guardians. It is no coincidence that 80 per cent of Earth’s biodiversity is found in their territories, which make up about 20 per cent of the world’s land.
‘Fortress Conservation’ is one example of a conservation model that excludes Indigenous communities. It began with the formation of Yosemite, the world’s first national park, in North America over 150 years ago.
To preserve the ‘pristine wilderness’ humans needed to be expelled so the native Americans, who had lived in and cared for the region for thousands of years, were evicted.
This conservation model continues today, in many developing countries.
The latest plans by the Tanzanian government involve evicting 70,000 Maasai from their homeland, to make way for elite tourism and trophy hunting. As with most cases involving Indigenous populations, they are neither consulted nor included in decision making processes and are not compensated for any losses.
Only 3 per cent of the world’s land remains ecologically intact, and biodiversity loss continues at an alarming rate.
As a result, governments around the world are increasingly putting aside vast areas of land, in the name of conservation.
Protected Areas do not guarantee increased biodiversity
In 2010, member states of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) committed to placing 17 per cent of the world’s land within protected areas by 2020. Yet during that decade global biodiversity actually declined significantly.
In addition, almost 80 per cent of known threatened species and more than half of all ecosystems on land and sea remained without adequate protection by 2019.
There have also been systemic human rights abuses.
Rainforest Foundation UK protects the world’s rainforests by supporting and empowering the Indigenous people and local communities which live in them.
But its research into 34 Protected Areas in the Congo Basin showed that without the presence of Indigenous communities, animal populations dwindled, and extractive activities increased. This was despite large investments having been channelled into them.
It also uncovered widespread disregard for local communities’ rights and livelihoods and conflict between forest peoples and conservationists in this region.
According to Joe Eisen, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK, human rights abuses are commonplace in the Congo Basin.
“Our research has shown 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 and other local communities who live in, and depend on, areas of high conservation value,” he says.
“A doubling of protected areas by 2030 risks multiplying these impacts whilst diverting attention from the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss - our own over-consumption. Current proposals state that the target could in theory be met through community-led conservation approaches, but offer few assurances they will."
He concludes that recognising their human rights is not only a question of social justice but also of effective protection of nature.
Protected Areas are often managed by major international conservation organisations, who employ armed guards to evict the local population and prevent their return. These actions have long-term consequences and destroy Indigenous livelihoods and cultures.
According to Amnesty International, Uganda’s Indigenous Benet people are still suffering, many years after forcibly being evicted from their lands to create a national park, and are deprived of “basic essential services such as clean drinking water and electricity, healthcare and education”.
We need community-based conservation models
There is no scientific evidence suggesting biodiversity will increase if 30 per cent of land is protected, while the other 70 per cent sees no changes and continues to be overexploited and polluted.
There are calls for the development of a community-based conservation model, which empowers Indigenous people, rather than removing them from their ancestral lands.
According to Dr Grace Iara Souza, who has a PhD in Political Ecology and is a fellow at the King's Brazil Institute, King’s College London, there is a huge gap between ecological conservation policies and implementation on the ground.
“Often protected areas remain ‘paper parks’ for many years,” she says.
“Although created, they are neglected and lack formal management and, without local people and Indigenous communities to ensure their preservation, are invaded for timber and mineral extraction, and also hunting."
Without addressing these problems, she adds, the intended effect of Protected Areas will be limited. It will also be detrimental to nature and those who risk their lives to protect it.
“Any conservation initiative that does not include Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in its design, implementation, and management should be called into question,” says Souza.