Tribune: Putting Indigenous Peoples at the heart of biodiversity conservation policies

9 October 2020

Written by: Marie-Ange Kalenga & MEP Michèle Rivasi

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Tribune: Putting Indigenous Peoples at the heart of biodiversity conservation policies

The year 2020 promised to be a remarkable year for biodiversity protection. But the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of one truth: human health and the health of the planet are linked; destroying natural habitats exposes us to new animal diseases.

There is no simple solution to combat deforestation because it has multiple causes: predatory agriculture, illegal timber trade, unbridled exploitation of raw materials, all to satisfy international demand. It is also the result of unjust forest laws and corruption.

While there is no silver bullet, numerous studies show that including the most affected populations, specifically local communities and Indigenous Peoples who depend on forests for their survival, reduces deforestation and strengthens biodiversity. It is therefore easy to see why it is important to involve them in developing and monitoring national and international forest policies.

Unfortunately, all too often we witness externally imposed conservation, leaving Indigenous Peoples sidelined in their territories. There are many examples of conservation projects funded by international aid that have got it wrong in this regard. The most recent example is the case of Messok Dja, located in the north-west of the Republic of Congo, where ecoguards have been accused of abusing members of the Indigenous Baka people and denying them access to their ancestral land. We welcome the European Commission’s announcement that it has suspended its financial support for this project, which is led by WWF.

As Europeans, we share responsibility for the destruction of the world’s forests. We are among the largest importers of agricultural commodities such as soya, cocoa and palm oil, whose cultivation destroys forests. We are also major importers of timber. As the world’s leading provider of development aid, the European Union (EU) therefore has a duty, and the means, to support timber -producing tropical countries to combat the structural causes of deforestation and illegal logging.

The European Commission recently published its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. This strategy sets conservation objectives both within and outside of Europe, where the planet’s main biodiversity hotspots are located. It proposes a new initiative called “NaturAfrica”, which aims to protect Africa’s natural areas. We must seize this opportunity to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples in these areas.

Giving the most vulnerable a voice

To ensure that the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 does not violate human rights and makes a real contribution toward controlling deforestation, it is crucial that NaturAfrica, and any other EU initiative to protect nature, be developed in consultation with local communities, and Indigenous Peoples, and that particular attention is given to getting input from women.

The “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous Peoples, which lies at the heart of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, must again become central. EU development programmes must have this basic principle of participation at their core. In the European Parliament, as in other forums for dialogue, we will strive to ensure  that Indigenous Peoples have their rights respected in the future.

  • Marie-Ange Kalenga is Fern's “Forests, Governance & Development Policy Advisor”.
  • Michèle Rivasi is a Member of European Parliament for Europe Ecology – the Greens, and a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development.

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