Author(s): Holly Jonas, Colleen Corrigan, June Rubis, Leila Vaziri Zanjani
Excerpt of the executive summary
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the close links between human and planetary health and laid bare the global crisis of inequality. At the same time, there is a groundswell of evidence that Indigenous peoples and local communities are critical to sustaining the diversity of life on Earth (e.g., IPBES, 2019; FAO and FILAC, 2021; FPP et al., 2020). As nation-states prepare for major summits of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Framework Convention on Climate Change in late 2021, a key question is whether they will take this opportunity to do something truly transformational to address the broader planetary crises from which the pandemic arose and to ensure a safe, healthy and sustainable planet for all.
Indigenous peoples and local communities are estimated to hold at least 50 per cent of the world’s land under customary systems, but their rights have only been formally recognised in a small fraction of the claimed lands (RRI, 2015). In Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous and tribal peoples manage between 330 and 380 million hectares of forest (Fa et al., 2020). Those forests store more than one-eighth of all the carbon in the world’s tropical forests and house a large portion of the world’s endangered animal and plant species. Almost half (45 per cent) of the large ‘wilderness’ areas in the Amazon Basin are in Indigenous territories and several studies have found that Indigenous peoples’ territories have lower rates of deforestation and lower risk of wildfires than state protected areas (FAO and FILAC, 2021).
However, Indigenous peoples and local communities often face overlapping political and economic interests seeking to either protect nature or exploit nature within their lands and territories. Public and private conservation actors have not adequately implemented existing rights-based commitments, and genuine recognition of and tangible support for Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and roles in conservation is still relatively marginal (Tauli-Corpuz et al., 2020). Indigenous peoples and local communities not only face growing threats from harmful industries in their lands and territories, but also face growing threats for defending themselves against such industries. In 2019, 212 people were killed for taking a stand against environmental destruction, 40 per cent of whom were Indigenous (Global Witness, 2020). Indigenous peoples and local communities are at further risk where there is inadequate recognition of their rights and governance systems and a lack of political and legal support (IPBES, 2019).
One of the biggest opportunities to catalyse transformative changes from local to global levels is to support Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their human rights in general and particularly their rights to self-determined governance systems, cultures and collective lands and territories. Although there are no panaceas, this is arguably a key “missing link” in efforts to address the biodiversity and climate crises that would also contribute to social justice and sustainable development priorities. Specifically, it would be a feasible, cost-effective and equitable way to meet nature conservation commitments, including under the forthcoming post-2020 global biodiversity framework (RRI, 2020). These issues are currently severely underfunded, with scarce funds going directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities. Over the past 10 years, less than 1 per cent of financial assistance for climate change issues supports tenure and Indigenous and local forest management; furthermore, only a small share of this is likely to reach Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves, as most of the money is channelled through multilateral development banks and as part of large projects (Rainforest Foundation Norway, 2021).
Overview of Territories of Life: 2021 Report
Territories of Life: 2021 Report is a local-to-global analysis of territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities (sometimes abbreviated as “ICCAs” or “territories of life”). This multi-scale approach weaves together diverse perspectives, insights and new findings about the grassroots global phenomenon of territories of life while also creating space for nuance and complexity. Overall, the report adds to a growing body of literature on the incontrovertible role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in ensuring a healthy planet for all, and the urgent actions required to support them.
At the first level of analysis, this report showcases 17 territories of life from five continents, focusing on how Indigenous peoples and local communities contribute to the diversity of life on Earth through their unique governance systems and cultural practices. Many of these case studies are co-authored by Indigenous or community leaders or their organisations and reflect many years of collective work by and with the featured peoples and communities.
Next, the report scales out to five national analyses and one subregional analysis of some of the leading examples of country-wide grassroots initiatives and national policy and legal recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights and community conservation. They include the countries of six of the case studies of specific territories of life to build upon and connect the local and global analyses.
Finally, the report broadens its lens even further to the most up-to-date global spatial analysis of how much of the planet is likely conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, co-produced with the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). This spatial analysis incorporates data from several sources, which are described in more detail in that report. In effect, this analysis focuses on a ‘subset’ of the overall extent of Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ collective lands and territories that they are likely to be actively conserving.
The present document summarises key findings from all of these components across the three levels of analysis, all of which were produced specifically for this 2021 report. It does not provide a comprehensive review of other literature and initiatives outside of the components produced for this report. This executive summary then presents overall recommendations and specific recommendations for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework being negotiated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Key Findings of Territories of Life: 2021 Report
- Indigenous peoples and local communities play an outsized role in the governance, conservation and sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity and nature. They actively protect and conserve an astounding diversity of globally relevant species, habitats and ecosystems, providing the basis for clean water and air, healthy food and livelihoods for people far beyond their boundaries.
- Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ extensive contributions to a healthy planet are rooted in their cultures and collective lands and territories – in essence, the deep relationships between their identities, governance systems and the other species and spiritual beings with whom they co-exist. Thus, they are also contributing significantly to the world’s cultural, linguistic and tangible and intangible heritage.
- The global spatial analysis shows that Indigenous peoples and local communities are the de facto custodians of many state and privately governed protected and conserved areas, and they are also conserving a significant proportion of lands and nature outside of such areas. However, the mainstream conservation sector has a historical and continuing legacy of contestation for Indigenous peoples and local communities, depending on the extent to which their rights, governance systems and ways of life are recognised and respected. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity for future directions of local-to-global conservation efforts.
- Indigenous peoples and local communities are on the frontlines of resisting the main industrial drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, and they often face retribution and violence for doing so. Along with other challenges, these multiple stressors can have cumulative and compounded effects on Indigenous peoples and local communities, which in turn pose longer-term threats to their lives, cultures and resilience. However, they continue to resist and respond to these threats in diverse ways.
- Even in the face of immense threats, Indigenous peoples and local communities have extraordinary resilience and determination to maintain their dignity and the integrity of their territories and areas. They are adapting to rapidly changing contexts and using diverse strategies to secure their rights and collective lands and territories of life. Although not without setbacks, they have made key advances and continue to persist in pursuit of self-determination, self-governance, peace and sustainability.
In the executive summary, each of these key findings is backed up with relevant evidence from: (a) the case studies of specific territories of life; (b) the national and regional analyses; and (c) the global spatial analysis co-produced with UNEP-WCMC.
Conclusions and Recommendations
As negotiations intensify ahead of the UN biodiversity and climate conferences in late 2021, the time is now to recognise Indigenous peoples and local communities as the true agents of transformative change. They are so central to sustaining the diversity of life on Earth that it would be impossible to address the biodiversity and climate crises without them. Supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their collective lands and territories of life and a minimum bundle of rights is arguably a key ‘missing link’ in global commitments and national-level implementation. Of particular importance are the rights to self-determination, governance systems, cultures and ways of life, and rights to access information, access justice and participate in relevant decision-making processes.
In practical terms, pursuing this agenda requires a massive increase in social, political, legal, institutional and financial support for Indigenous peoples and local communities, primarily from nation-state governments, but also from public and private financial institutions. It is time for social movements and civil society organisations working on human rights, conservation, climate justice and land issues to come together in this collective effort. Lawyers and legal advocates, researchers, journalists, communicators and others with specialised skill sets also have critical roles to play.
The overall recommendations of Territories of Life: 2021 Report are to:
- Recognise and respect the central role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in sustaining a healthy planet, and the deep cultural and spiritual relationships and governance systems through which they do so.
- Support Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their collective lands and territories, strengthen their self-determined governance systems, and sustain their cultures and ways of life on their own terms. This requires significant reforms in national political and legal systems as well as international financial and economic systems.
- Embed and uphold human rights (including Indigenous peoples’ rights and other group-specific rights, where relevant) in all policies, laws, institutions, programmes and decision-making processes that affect Indigenous peoples and local communities, both internationally and domestically.
- Halt the drivers of biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, and halt threats and violence against the peoples and communities who are defending our planet.
- Develop human rights-based financing as a key lever for equitable and effective implementation of global commitments, including on biodiversity, climate and sustainable development.
In the short-term, there are several opportunities for dialogue, leadership and convergence in the negotiation and early-stage implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The updated zero draft of the post-2020 framework states that it must “galvanise urgent and transformative action”. However, the early draft falls far short of this. Much higher ambition and stronger commitments are needed, in four areas in particular:
- Explicitly recognise Indigenous peoples and local communities for their outsized roles in protecting and conserving nature. There is not yet agreement as to whether this should be the focus of a completely new target, or incorporated into an existing target (such as Targets 1, 2 and/or 20).
- Place human rights at the heart of the post-2020 framework, including by:
- Recognising and protecting human rights in general;
- Recognising and protecting the specific rights of particular groups such as Indigenous peoples, peasants, women, youth, and people who are defending human rights and the environment;
- Integrating minimum safeguards to prevent human rights violations and ensure accountability in certain targets of particular concern to Indigenous peoples and local communities (including Target 2);
- Including human rights-related indicators in the monitoring framework, with disaggregated data for Indigenous peoples, local communities and women; and
- Using a human rights-based approach to develop and implement National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans and related laws, policies and programmes at the national and sub-national levels.
- Increase ambition in the targets intended to halt drivers of biodiversity loss, for example, by explicitly identifying the industries that are most harmful for biodiversity and committing to divesting from these industries as soon as possible, including by eliminating 100 per cent of perverse incentives by 2025 (Target 17). These issues are an opportunity for mobilisation of several interlinked movements, including for Indigenous peoples, human rights, a healthy planet, climate justice and alternative economies.
- Increase political and financial support for Indigenous-led philanthropy and appropriate funding mechanisms that go directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities and their organisations. Require human rights safeguards and accountability mechanisms in funding for conservation initiatives implemented by governmental and non-governmental entities.
 Although Indigenous peoples and local communities are often considered together in the context of their close relationships between their cultures and territories and areas, there are clear differences between them under international law. Refer to Annex 3 (“The legal distinction between Indigenous peoples’ rights and local communities’ rights”) of the global spatial analysis of this report. Available online at: https://report.territoriesoflife.org/global-analysis/.