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The Time Is Now to Build a Common Vision and Purpose for Decolonizing Conservation


Thousands of Indigenous Peoples, academics, civil society networks, international organizations, and governments are gathering at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues this month to focus on the theme of “Indigenous Peoples, Human Health, Planetary and Territorial Health, and Climate Change: A Rights-Based Approach.”

I started working at the Permanent Forum some twenty years ago. Already back then, many warned us of the predicament we face today—the compounding crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pandemics resulting from wildlife-to-human transmission of viruses.

Those alarm bells have now become emergency sirens. As we face more droughts, floods, fires, and warming, the global discourse has now shifted towards “nature-positive solutions,” with increased recognition of the role played by Indigenous Peoples in the conservation of nature, as well as a push for direct funding to Indigenous Peoples on the ground. But have we made a deeply meaningful shift that can be truly transformative and lasting?

Sushil Raj visits Buyungule, a Batwa Village in the Democratic Republic of Congo near Kahuzi Biega National Park, to understand village member priorities and receive input in the design of park programming related to their community. Photo credit: Didier Mulumeoderhwa/WCS DRC.

For decades, Indigenous communities have urged us to heed their calls to address a warming planet. When thawing permafrost degraded polar bear habitat, residents of Canada’s Nunavut region confronted these animals in their towns foraging for food. Meanwhile, Pacific Islander communities threatened by rising ocean waters were forced into planning an evacuation strategy by purchasing land elsewhere.

They were telling us that our relationship with nature was broken and were reminding us that solutions must be found not by exploiting nature but by adopting a deeper understanding of our world as comprised of vibrant and interconnected ecosystems. The failure to embrace Indigenous wisdom and knowledge over and over again has demanded new conversations about the longstanding histories of racism, inequities, violence, and death faced by Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, and marginalized minorities across the world.

While those conversations were not new, they have been accelerated. As recently as last month, the Vatican emphasized the importance of abandoning “the colonizing mentality and to walk with [Indigenous Peoples] side by side, in mutual respect and dialogue.”

In this churn, we have also seen the conservation sector face its own reckoning. The origins of the modern conservation movement are often associated with racist doctrines, displacement, and forced assimilation, with ongoing impacts that Indigenous Peoples and many local communities continue to experience today.

This legacy demands continuous critical self-reflection, introspection, and substantive progress in addition to the conservation sector’s constant evolution if we are to ensure that the protection of nature and people go hand-in-hand.

Sushil Raj visits Tchahoboka Batwa camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with the Chief Kaneto, learn more about the condition of families, and understand critical areas of focus. Photo credit: Didier Mulumeoderhwa/WCS DRC.

We must also go further to educate ourselves on the many ways Indigenous communities are frequently the protectors of nature. A recent report determined that at least 32 percent of global land and associated inland waters are owned or governed by Indigenous peoples. These areas are likely to have low levels of human modification and play a significant role in reducing the impact of climate change.

When governments and conservation partners work respectfully with Indigenous communities, they can reinforce this healthy relationship with nature. In Papua New Guinea, nine traditional communities signed conservation agreements with local government and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) that prohibit industrial-scale logging and destructive agriculture on much of their territory. Though the constitution already protected their land and resource rights, WCS helped ensure those rights were enforced.

That said, if the global conservation community wishes to arrive at a truly transformative moment in which respect for Indigenous Peoples aligns in a sustained manner with climate, biodiversity, and pandemic-prevention goals, we must adopt more holistic thinking in four important areas. The Permanent Forum provides an excellent setting to move on them.

2nd Anniversary of the Signing of the Buffalo Treaty by 13 nations from 8 reservations in the US and Canada. The treaty established an intertribal alliance to restore bison to 6.3 million acres of land between the United States and Canada—an area the size of Massachusetts. Photo credit: ©WCS

First, as countries work to reduce social inequality, they must also protect and respect the land rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, especially for nature conservation. This requires examining past histories that created elitist stratifications that divided societies by caste and ethnicity and drove inequalities in societies before, during, and after European colonialization.

Second, we must move away from a zero-sum worldview—in which the benefits to the few prevent benefits to the many—to a recognition that biodiversity and cultural diversity have to be looked at together. The world views of Indigenous Peoples and many local communities should influence how we see our obligations to future generations.

Third, we need to come together as international nongovernmental organizations, Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, and local community organizations to reverse the mass extinction of species, maintain and rebuild healthy ecosystems, address the climate crisis, and work to prevent future pandemics.

Finally, we must look internally within our own institutions, paying special attention to issues of discrimination and unjust power imbalances. We must examine our policies and values; change how, where, and who we hire; and, crucially, ensure that our institutional cultures are open to introspection and improvement.

Through such actions, we can co-develop an integrated and holistic worldview that not only decolonizes conservation but builds equitable and just futures that connect and sustain all life on our precious and fragile earth. The urgency of our times should compel us in this transformative direction.

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