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Why Indigenous rights matter

© Cristina Mittermeier

Editor’s note: The attention given to Indigenous peoples in global policy processes such as the Paris Agreement reflects a growing acknowledgment of their knowledge, their rights and their crucial roles in helping to protect some of the world’s most important places for biodiversity.

But while the importance of Indigenous rights is considered a given by conservation and development groups, it has been slow to gain wider awareness outside of policy circles. Many people in Western societies who care about protecting nature might be surprised to know that well-intentioned environmental policies hammered out in Rio, New York or Brussels can have unduly harmful effects on the world’s estimated 370 million Indigenous people.

In this interview, Minnie Degawan, the director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, sheds some light on the challenges that Indigenous peoples face with respect to nature conservation.

Question: In an increasingly globalized world where national boundaries are less important, why do Indigenous groups deserve special treatment or recognition?

Answer: Let’s be clear: Indigenous peoples do not ask for special rights or treatment. Rather, they seek recognition of their contributions in sustainably managing their territories for generations — a recognition of the fact that they have been subjected and continue to be subjected to the worst forms of oppression through land dispossession. This then destroys the basis of their knowledge systems, which can be sources of knowledge for dealing with challenges related to climate change.

Indigenous peoples are victims of climate change, and yet they have knowledge developed from years of interacting with the environment that could benefit humanity; they want to partner with others in finding solutions, but it has to be a just partnership.

Q: What is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Indigenous peoples throughout the world?

A: Indigenous peoples face a number of challenges. I’d say the biggest might be the loss of their lands, either because of natural causes such as sea-level rise or because of encroachment due to aggressive development. Globally, Indigenous peoples call for the recognition and respect of their land rights over their territories because their lands define them — without the land, they cease to be Indigenous. Their knowledge systems, cultures and governance systems are all rooted on their lands. This is why expanding protected areas can be problematic — really, the only possible areas where protected areas can be established are in Indigenous territories, so there is that threat of land dispossession. When Indigenous peoples say they want access to policymakers and resources, it is all geared at gaining legal recognition for their rights.

Climate change is another major challenge for Indigenous peoples. In fact, they often feel that they are being doubly victimized — they have contributed little to the causes of climate change and yet they bear the brunt of the impacts.

Even efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change tend to victimize Indigenous peoples, as is the case in the building of alternative energy sources. For instance, the building of windmills in Indigenous territories without their consent results in the communities being deprived of land which they can use to produce food, as was the case of a proposed project in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, where the communities rejected the plan. Projects like these are especially damaging if the electricity to be generated does not benefit the community.

Q: Why is it better for forested or largely undeveloped natural areas to be controlled by Indigenous people?

A: The argument being posed by Indigenous peoples is that since they have managed these areas for generations, they are in a better position than outsiders to continue to do so. Additionally, because of the relationship of Indigenous peoples and the land, its conservation is better ensured if they have rights over it. If they know they will not be evicted, they will endeavor to make it more productive for their children.

And we have evidence that this approach works: Studies have shown that forested areas managed by local communities see less deforestation than protected forests.

Q: What hopes do you have for global policy processes (such as the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals) to positively impact Indigenous peoples in the future?

A: International agreements and treaties become relevant to Indigenous peoples if the Indigenous groups know about them and can have a say in their implementation.

Often, Indigenous communities have no knowledge of these agreements, and some do not desire to participate in international processes, finding it too detached from their realities. In many cases, Indigenous peoples would know about such processes only when they are negatively impacted. For instance, in the desire to establish more protected areas, Indigenous peoples are impacted because it is their lands that will be targeted. So unless there is a systematic effort to disseminate this information to the communities, Indigenous peoples will not be able to benefit from them.

Q: How does your organization promote Indigenous rights?

A: Conservation International recognizes the contributions of Indigenous communities to conservation efforts and works in partnership with communities. We were one of the first organizations to develop a policy for partnering with Indigenous peoples, and we build respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights in all of our work.

One of the ways we do this is through an Indigenous fellowship program that provides a unique opportunity for emerging Indigenous leaders to strengthen their leadership potential. It enables them to do research that is respectful of the traditions of their communities yet equips them with the tools to navigate the complex world of international policy making processes, such as through direct participation in international meetings.

Minnie Degawan is the director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, whose  Indigenous Leaders Conservation Fellowship is now accepting applications. Learn more and apply here. Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director. 

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