COP15: Historic pact on biodiversity or betrayal of indigenous peoples?December 7th: The opening ceremony of the second phase of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Montreal, Canada. [Credit: Ren Pengfei/Xinhua/Alamy Live News]

The COP27 climate summit, held last month in Egypt, was rightly lauded for the breakthrough agreement won by developing countries, led by Pakistan, for a ‘loss and damage’ fund to compensate for climate change-induced damage to the environment.

However, the key longstanding target of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 centigrade (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels was widely seen as having been abandoned. Similarly, the COP26 declaration on fossil fuels was watered down again, failing to push the consensus beyond the tepid ‘phase-down’ formulation forced on last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, under pressure from India. Many observers were also quick to point out the limitations of the loss and damage fund.

Many campaigners regarded COP27 as having been co-opted by the fossil fuel and industrial farming lobbies. Oil and gas company lobbyists outnumbered all the delegates from the 10 countries most affected by climate change (four of which are Commonwealth member states: Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh and Pakistan). There were also twice as many delegates from agribusiness, such as the huge Brazilian meat firm JBS and the US food conglomerate Cargill, than at COP26. These lobbyists were ‘sowing public doubt through media campaigns and undermining scientific consensus’, Greenpeace told DeSmog.

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With criticism of COP27 still ringing in the Canadian organisers’ ears, a conference described as ‘another United Nations circus’ opened in Montreal last week. The biodiversity conference, or COP15 in UN parlance, sought to conclude a worldwide deal to protect wildlife and ecosystems by designating 30% of land and sea as protected areas by 2030 (from 17% and 10% respectively now). The concept dubbed ‘30×30’ began as the Global Deal for Nature, proposed in the journal Science Advances in 2019, and grew into an intergovernmental alliance of more than 100 countries, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.

The rate of species extinction and loss of forests, which are home to most terrestrial biodiversity, is a threat just as grave as climate change. Wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimates that more than 42,100 species are threatened with extinction, with 249 species of animals in India critically endangered, 266 in Australia, and 201 in South Africa. ‘We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,’ said Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

However, many human rights organisations were quick to condemn the erosion of land rights underlying the 30×30 concept, warning in 2020 that millions of indigenous people could be displaced from ancestral lands – and with little to gain from a conservation perspective. Their arguments were boosted by a BuzzFeed article on WWF that laid out how the ‘beloved animal charity with the cuddly panda logo funds vicious paramilitary forces to fight poaching’, including in Commonwealth states such as Cameroon and India.

In the run-up to COP15, Survival International and Amnesty International, Minority Rights Group International and the Rainforest Foundation called 30×30 a ‘disaster for people and bad for the planet’ with no basis in science. The 30×30 plan was a ‘big green lie’, according to Sophie Grig, of Survival International. ‘You don’t protect an ecosystem by fencing it off.’

Speaking to Eye on the Commonwealth, she said: ‘It will be the biggest land grab in history – about 300 million indigenous and other local people will be thrown off their land, displaced, unable to access the forests and the lands that they need to survive. And there’s no evidence that it’s going to solve the biodiversity crisis – study after study shows that recognising the rights of indigenous peoples to their land is actually more effective at protecting biodiversity than protected areas.’

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She cites the example of the Jenu Kuruba, indigenous people, or Adivasis, in India. Some 20,000 of them have been illegally evicted from the Nagarhole national park in Karnataka, with the support of the powerful US Wildlife Conservation Society, in an effort to safeguard tigers. Yet there is a far higher density of tigers in Nagarhole than in two neighbouring tiger reserves, from which all the people have been evicted, Survival says. ‘Neither the people nor the forest will survive; we’ll all perish,’ said Choudamma, a Jenu Kuruba woman evicted in 2010 and trying to return to her village in the forest.

Grig said: ‘[30×30] is being driven by governments, companies and conservation organisations. It’s a decision that’s going to be made behind closed doors in Montreal. We know what works is recognising the rights of indigenous peoples to their land – 80% of the most biodiverse lands on Earth are in the hands of indigenous people.’ (A UN report last year that looked at more than 300 studies found that deforestation rates were up to 50% lower in their territories than elsewhere.)

As well as preserving the environment more effectively, Rights-Based Conservation, a 2020 report from Rights and Resources Initiative, found that granting land-tenure rights also cost significantly less than evictions and park management, at just $3-$11 per hectare, depending on the country.

But attitudes are shifting. Speaking at the opening of COP15, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, committed $580m of funding over seven years for indigenous-led conservation projects in his country in an area the size of Egypt, proposing a ‘new model’ that was also a ‘story of reconciliation’ with indigenous peoples.

And, despite walkouts by some representatives over funding and objections from African states including Uganda and Cameroon, an historic agreement was finally thrashed out in the small hours of Monday morning. Steven Guilbeault, the Canadian environment minister, called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) a ‘major win for our planet and all of humanity’.

‘Always too little progress – yet is there any alternative?’

The COP15 communiqué outlines 23 targets that its proponents say are more attuned to the needs of indigenous peoples, including the sustainable use of natural resources, properly valuing biodiversity (such as trees’ role in helping prevent the sort of floods that devastated Pakistan in September over their worth as firewood), traditional knowledge and protecting genetic resources (so, for example, pharmaceutical companies do not exploit traditional knowledge without fair compensation), and putting $700bn a year into closing the finance gap between the global north and south. ‘Real progress has been made in Montreal. The 30×30 target is good, and has massive implications for the UK,’ said Craig Bennett, head of the UK’s Wildlife Trusts.

But although the GBF’s first target includes the proviso ‘while respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities’, critics of the agreement lamented the adoption of the 30% target and the global north shifting responsibility for environmental destruction and conservation on to the global south. A Survival International statement acknowledged that the GBF foregrounded indigenous rights to an unprecedented degree and had rowed back on references to ‘strictly protected’ territory. However, it criticised the targets as being too weak to be effective and said: ‘This framework has definitely failed biodiversity, it has failed justice and could still fail indigenous peoples.’

‘Nature Positive’ was the COP15 buzzword when the summit opened but had disappeared from texts by the end – a sign perhaps that efforts to create a ‘Paris moment’ and coin a phrase for biodiversity akin as ‘net zero’ is to climate change had fallen flat. Greenpeace called the term ‘dangerous’ greenwashing.

These biodiversity conferences have a poor record in achieving real change: no targets had been reached of the 20 goals to save wildlife and ecosystems set at COP10 in Aichi, Japan, 12 years ago, the UN admitted. One anonymous delegate at COP15, writing before the agreement had been reached, ruefully bemoaned the lack of ‘political urgency’ or ‘desire for transformative change’, quoting the young Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah, blah, blah’ criticism of government negotiations on the climate.

COP15 was like every UN climate-change conference: each is rightly declared to be crucial to the future of the planet but seems to disappoint most of those attending. Always too little progress – yet is there any alternative?

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.

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