Africa: Fixing a Broken Planet – the Role of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities


Speech prepared for delivery at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum 2021 on the theme “Indigenous peoples’ solutions as part of a New Deal for Nature and Nature Based Solutions.”

Thank you for inviting me to speak at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum. The last year has brought into sharp relief the deep interconnectedness between our health and the health of our planet. Through the COVID-19 pandemic. Through growing climate impacts. Through nature and biodiversity loss. Through growing pollution and waste that is poisoning the planet and causing millions of deaths.

Our money- and technology-driven societies have forgotten that nature is essential to our existence. This is why calls to place a healthy natural world at the heart of our economies and societies are growing. But indigenous peoples and local communities, in all their diversity, never forgot this basic principle. Through centuries of direct interaction with nature, they have held on to a belief in the oneness of life. They acknowledge that humanity is a part of nature, not apart from of it or above it.

Through this knowledge and through customary legal systems and cultures, indigenous peoples are often best at conserving nature – as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found in its 2019 assessment. Twenty-eight per cent of global land area is held and/or managed by Indigenous Peoples and where land and marine areas are managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, they are less impacted by human activity. This includes some of the most ecologically intact forests and biodiversity hotspots.[1]

Despite their track record of success, the lands of indigenous peoples and local communities are under threat: from extractive industries, agriculture, infrastructure and so much more. And when indigenous peoples and local communities try to protect the land, they too often pay for their efforts with their lives. Global Witness last year revealed that, on average, four environmental defenders are being killed per week. Almost half of these victims are indigenous peoples and local communities.

If we want to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, protect nature and the climate, and build a better future for all humanity, we need to stop attacking and start empowering indigenous peoples and local communities. Today, I would like to make a few points on how to make this happen.

First, conservation efforts should prioritize the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

For all the reasons I have outlined above, it makes absolute sense to return the reins to indigenous peoples and local communities. This is the best way to effectively and sustainably manage nature. But it is also a matter of fairness, equity and inclusiveness.

At the moment, conservation efforts – like designation of protected areas – can lead to the displacement and exclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities. This affects rights to food, water, culture and livelihoods. At the same time, large concentrations of indigenous peoples and local communities live in areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from the three planetary crises. Because of their dependency on nature, those communities will be hit hard.

Second, the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities must be fully respected at the national level.

These rights are firmly rooted in international law and standards. They have received progressively more attention in the UN system – including a system-wide action plan to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Yet many countries still do not have complete legal frameworks that recognize indigenous rights. Or they do not have instruments and mechanisms to follow up on the respect of these rights – such as culturally appropriate grievance redress mechanisms or stakeholder engagement platforms. There have been victories. One such is the recent creation of a 1,600-square-kilometer protected area in Panama, which came as a result of a decision by the Supreme Court recognizing the Indigenous nation’s land rights.

But indigenous people too often have to fight tooth and nail to win these victories. UN Champion of the Earth for 2020, Nemonte Nenquimo, for example, had to launch a legal battle to protect huge swaths of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest from oil companies. Thanks to her lawsuit, the Pastaza Provincial Court in 2019 protected 500,000 acres of Waorani territory from exploitation. She has my utmost respect and admiration for winning this battle. But she shouldn’t have had to fight in the first place.

Third, ask indigenous peoples and local communities to guide us as we reshape our economies and societies.

Continuing to exclude indigenous peoples and local communities from global efforts to fix the three planetary crises would be a monumentally bad decision. Instead, we need to integrate them into global frameworks, starting with the pivotal meetings of the Rio conventions of climate, biodiversity and land this year. We need to create more inclusive, participatory spaces that support their participation in official delegations to COPs and other processes.