Are Indigenous protected areas the key to COP15’s ’30 by 30′ goal?

COP15 negotiations are bringing new attention to official Indigenous-led protected areas.

By Jack Graham, Thomson Reuters Foundation - December 20, 2022
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In Nunavut, residents depend on subsistence hunting and fishing. Indigenous protected and conserved areas can help sustain those traditions while conserving biodiversity. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

MONTREAL — At the northernmost point of Canada’s mainland, in the territory of Nunavut, the Inuit community of Taloyoak has hunted caribou, Arctic char and other wildlife passing through the area’s islands for generations.

It’s even said this “country food” can help community members heal from disease, said Jimmy Ullikatalik, manager of the Spence Bay Hunters and Trappers Association, which represents the Taloyoak on environmental issues.

But now the area is threatened by mining for minerals and an increase in shipping routes, Ullikatalik said, which could damage the community’s traditional food supplies by disrupting caribou herds and contaminating the water.

“We want to keep our wildlife clean,” he said in an interview in Montreal during the U.N. COP15 biodiversity talks.

“We cannot eat oil, we cannot eat minerals — we can only eat country food.”

Ullikatalik is leading efforts to get the area, called Aviqtuuq, recognized as an “Indigenous protected and conserved area,” meaning the government would fund the community to manage its long-term conservation.

At the COP15 summit, Indigenous groups say this model could accelerate progress on the headline goal to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030.

Backed by more than 110 countries, the draft “30 by 30” pledge aims to curb the destruction of nature that threatens up to 1 million plant, insect and animal species with extinction, according to a 2019 report produced by an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity.

Last week, Canada pledged C$800 million ($589 million) over seven years for up to four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives that could collectively protect nearly 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of the nation’s land.

More than 50 Indigenous communities are working to create such areas around the country with the support of the government, according to official numbers, but only a small number have been fully established as IPCAs so far.

In the Taloyoak community, the government has given Ullikatalik’s organization three years of funding to start setting up a conservation program, including hiring Inuit staff as stewards and starting to build a management plan.

“If we have a protected area, we have self-control over the land,” said Ullikatalik. “We want to be recognized to be able to lead more of this conservation.”

Around the world, agricultural and mining expansion are devouring land and reducing forests, decimating biodiversity and undermining climate action, with trees responsible for absorbing about a third of planet-warming emissions produced worldwide.

Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, a representative of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), said Indigenous-led conservation can help communities resist pressure from extractive industries.

Globally, however, Corpuz said the model of state-supported Indigenous protection is the “exception” — mainly because it only works when Indigenous peoples have protected rights.

“In the majority of places, especially in Africa and Asia where Indigenous people are not recognized, the approach of the states is just to evict people whenever they establish protected areas,” she said.

From 1990 to 2014, the creation and expansion of protected areas led to the eviction of more than 250,000 people in 15 countries, according to data compiled by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which works on forests and local development.

Australian wildfires

Although the COP15 negotiations are bringing new attention to official Indigenous-led protected areas, Australia has been using them since the late 1990s.

Nearly half of the country’s system of national reserves are “Indigenous protected areas” (IPAs), with 81 dedicated areas covering 85 million hectares (210 million acres) — an area 50 percent larger than France.

In Australia’s far north, the remote Warddeken Indigenous people protect an IPA that covers 1.4 million hectares and is a hotspot for biodiversity and famous for its rock art dating back tens of thousands of years.

The land — known as “stone country” — had been mostly deserted since the mid-20th century, as Indigenous people were encouraged by the government to settle in nearby townships.

When they left, they took their traditional wildfire management techniques with them, including controlled burning of certain areas of the savanna woodland, which helped manage wildfires by reducing the amount of fuel available.

Within a few decades, more frequent and destructive wildfires were threatening the entire ecosystem.

“There was a history of Australia not recognizing that fire needed to be a management tool,” said Cara Penton, an ecologist at Warddeken Land Management, a nonprofit that supports Indigenous peoples’ management of the area.

“You would effectively have mega-wildfires that were just decimating quite a lot of country,” she said.

The Indigenous community started working with scientists to develop a fire management method, which was expanded by selling carbon credits for the carbon dioxide emissions avoided by stopping fires.

That then led to the creation of the nonprofit to help them manage the land.

The funding model “became the foundation for that (area), and then government kind of recognised it,” said Indigenous ranger and Warddeken director Conrad Maralngurra, who attended COP15 with Penton and fellow director Rosemary Nabulwad.

The establishment of an IPA in 2009 allowed Warddeken to gain regular funding to support Indigenous rangers — there are now 240 — and help pay for their work, alongside income from the carbon credits and donor funding, Penton said.

Importantly, it has also allowed them to come back to the land, where they monitor and protect the area’s biodiversity as well as documenting ancient Indigenous art to preserve the stories of their ancestors, Maralngurra said.

“And the greatest thing: we’ve got school now. Our school used to run one day (a week), but now it’s full time,” he said.

“Our kids can learn on country and in the classroom.”

Beyond ’30 by 30′

Warddeken and other Indigenous protected areas in Australia have had a significant economic and social impact, said Chrissy Grant, a regional coordinator at the IIFB.

Young people are “lining up to join the junior rangers,” said Grant, who ran the country’s subcommittee on IPAs for seven years from 2007.

She said she heard of one young man whose job as a ranger allowed him to buy a cheap car and take his mother into town for fresh food, pointing out that many of the country’s Indigenous communities struggle with chronic diseases due to lack of access to healthy diets.

While Grant said giving Indigenous communities control over conservation could become a “global model”, she warned against narrowly focusing on the 30% target for protection areas.

“If we can reach further, it is only going to benefit everybody and the environment,” she said.

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This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Today and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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