Indigenous and Mobile Peoples Rights at the COP15
In December 2022, hundreds of representatives from Indigenous communities travelled to Tiohti:áke (Montreal) to make their voices heard in discussions about the future of conservation, and to tell policy-makers that their rights must be respected and their people actively involved in efforts to protect nature on their territories. As a signatory of the Dana+20 Manifesto of Mobile Peoples, I was able to attend as an observer. I witnessed an impressive showing for Indigenous rights, but also a lack of recognition for the particular concerns of Mobile Peoples and their particular contributions to biodiversity conservation.
Progress for the Indigenous Rights Movement
More than at any previous meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, Indigenous Peoples were front and centre at the COP15. It was significant that the event took place in Canada, where First Nations People have achieved widespread recognition of the colonial and state violence perpetrated against them. Many sessions at the COP15 began with an acknowledgement that the event – hosted by the city of Montreal – took place on the unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk Nation. On the first day of the COP15, Indigenous youth from western Canada interrupted the speech of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, drawing attention to the ongoing destruction of their lands and extraction of resources under the Canadian government’s watch.
Prior to the COP15, Indigenous representatives gathered for a Pre-COP dialogue on North-South Collaboration on Indigenous and Community Leadership in Conservation. The event was convened by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership (CRP), and the global ICCA Consortium. Speakers called for recognition of the crucial role that Indigenous Peoples have long played in sustaining their ecosystems, and presented a vision of conservation that puts Indigenous self-determination at its core. As explained by Dr Frank Brown, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and hereditary Chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, “We don't want a filter of ENGOs, state governments, and philanthropists dictating to us what our priorities are...those days are over. We can create our own priorities”.
Looking back on the outcomes of the COP15, there were important victories for Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps most significantly, the COP15 on Biodiversity in December incorporated Indigenous rights into the language of the “30 by 30” target, which aims to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and sea cover by 2030. Without this, 30 x 30 could have imposed state-led conservation regimes on Indigenous territories, driving both dispossession and displacement.
That said, the Global Biodiversity Framework that emerged from COP15 fell short of Indigenous Peoples’ demands in many ways. One disappointment is that it does not explicitly recognize Indigenous lands and territories as a specific category of conserved area.
On balance, optimists hope that the progress made at COP15 might signal the start of “a new era” of conservation that is rights-based and Indigenous-led. This is key to the protection agenda because lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples hold about 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity, and their ecological knowledge will be crucial to any viable strategies for sustainable resource use.
Obstacles to Mobile Peoples Involvement
But while Indigenous Peoples are making gains, many Mobile Peoples are being left out of the picture. This is in part because Indigenous identity is based on ethnicity. For Mobile Peoples who are ethnically distinguishable from the wider population, such as Sami reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia and Maasai pastoralists in eastern Africa, claims to Indigenous status are possible. But for many Mobile Peoples, ethnicity is not the defining aspect of their identity. Bedouin herders in the Middle East are seen as Arab just like the majority of the wider population in their countries; pastoralists in Central Asia and the Andes Mountains are in a similar situation.
It is for this reason that Mobile Peoples are not always fully accounted for in the Indigenous rights movement. Granted, pastoralism has enjoyed some recognition at the Convention on Biological Diversity in the past, including a 2010 Good Practice Guide on Pastoralism, Nature Conservation and Development. But in spite of growing evidence about the ways that pastoralists support biodiversity, there were no panels spotlighting pastoralism across the entire two weeks of the COP15.
Fortunately, some Mobile Peoples advocates have found space to speak within the Indigenous Peoples movement. Stanley Kimaren Ole Riamat is a Maasai activist and co-founder of the Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners (ILEPA). He was invited by the RRI to speak at their Dialogue on Indigenous Leadership, where he challenged the long-standing doctrine of Fortress Conservation that has often resulted in attempts to remove Maasai herders from conservation areas. He raised a question: if Maasai are a threat to conservation, then why is the highest density of wildlife found in their rangelands? The reality is that Maasai culture encompasses many principles and practices that support biological diversity and sustainable resource use; Maasai pastoralists have been conservation actors before conservation was a matter of policy.
Kimaren’s call for recognition echoes the words put forth by signatories to the Dana+20 Manifesto in September 2022:
Contrary to common perceptions, our territories and rangelands are important reserves of biodiversity, provide essential ecosystem services, and our ways of life play a vital role in sustaining and managing these areas, while making critical contributions to national economies and food security.
As the Indigenous rights movement continues to make strides in conservation policy as well as other sectors, it will be crucial that pastoralists and other Mobile Peoples are not left out. The designation of 2026 as the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists will go some way toward ensuring that their contributions to sustainable resource use are recognised.