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Ambitious conservation targets impossible without respecting rights of indigenous local communities

Environmental NGOs, government officials and activists are all in Montreal right now at the UN’s biodiversity conference.

The purpose of the conference is to agree a new set of goals to halt and reverse biodiversity loss over the next decade and beyond through the Convention on Biological Diversity. Many are advocating for a global target of 30% of land and sea to be protected by 2030, following a multi-billion dollar lobbying campaign run out of Washington and financed by the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.

The overall success of the conference hangs on this target but the sticking point currently preventing a unified agreement is the violations on human rights generated by impact area-based conservation.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jennifer Corpuz, who is part of the Kankana-ey Igorot people in the northern part of the Philippines, says “There are very, very painful stories of how Indigenous peoples’ rights have been violated, how they have been killed, taken out of their territory and caused to become extinct because of the expansion or the establishment of protected areas”. Corpuz represents the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

Indigenous groups march in Montreal for their human rights against the conservation industry

Others have questioned the mentality of those trying to enforce the target – even if it looks good on paper. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, who is from Nepal, and represents the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, questioned whether the “top-down” approach associated with 30x30 lobbying campaign would work unless those implementing it radically changed their approach to Indigenous peoples.

Sherpa told the Guardian, “That’s where the problem lies because the solution comes from the top, and they don’t really know the realities on the ground, and the ‘solution’ doesn’t become a solution,” he says, adding that it is crucial indigenous people and local communities are treated with trust and respect, with a “spirit of true partnership".

Indigenous upland communities protesting for their human rights in the UK

Despite representing community groups far away from the British uplands, the issues that Lakpa Nuri Sherpa and Jennifer Corpuz raise in opposition to the conservation lobbyists are no different to that many upland communities face on daily basis in this country.

Many of the UK's most endangered species, such as the iconic curlew, are thriving on areas of the uplands which are properly managed by indigenous gamekeepers. The numbers of curlew on land managed by large environmental organisations however are pitifully low and even risk extinction.

'Fortress conservation' is a term coined by the conservation industry whereby biodiversity is protected by forcibly removing indigenous people. Whilst this may seem to some as being more likely to impact Tanzanian tribesman on the plains of Loliondo the reality is it is the same issues being faced by our indigenous upland communities.

Last year for example Brewdog, the international brewing firm, announced they were buying the 9,300 acre Kinrara Estate for an estimated £7.5m. They plan to create a 'lost forest' to offset the carbon produced at its brewery in Ellon.

However it was reported that the first thing that happened after they bought it was the 'indigenous' gamekeepers, gardeners, farming and domestic staff who were employed by the previous owner, have been laid off and the properties they lived in put up for sale. The land was previously used for shooting, fishing and deer stalking.

This is just one example of many now emerging across the uplands in recent years of wealthy international families and corporations buying up large areas of land for conservation purposes at the expense of the rights of indigenous people.

And yet many of those standing on stage in Montreal this week, championing the rights of seemingly exotic indigenous communities from around the world, are the very same individuals who have attacked the rights, either by word or deed, of upland communities here in the UK.

Upland communities may not have exotic sounding names and typical headdress is a tweed flat cap rather than a feathered war bonnet, but gamekeepers and upland farmers have worked this land for generation after generation and are as indigenous as any other tribe now being championed by delegates in Montreal. Any plans by environmental organisations over the use of uplands in the UK cannot happen without putting the communities that live and work there at the centre of that discussion.

As our new friend Jennifer Corpuz says, "we cannot achieve ambitious conservation targets without fully reflecting and respecting and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples … We cannot achieve 30x30 without Indigenous peoples, I cannot overstress it”.


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