With a million species at risk of extinction, dozens of countries are pushing to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030. But many people won’t be deciding on the deal: Indigenous communities and others who have kept room for animals, plants and their habitats, not by fencing off nature, but by making a small living from it.
In the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous people put their bodies on the line to protect native lands threatened by loggers and ranchers. In Canada, a First Nations group created a huge park to block mining. In Papua New Guinea, fishing communities have set up no-fishing zones. And in Guatemala, people living in a sprawling nature reserve are harvesting high-value timber in small amounts.
“If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, who leads an umbrella group, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin. “We’re one ecosystem.”
Nature is healthier on the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own, according to several scientific studies. That is in stark contrast from the history of conservation, which has a troubled record of forcing people off their land.
In the Brazilian Amazon, Awapu Uru Eu Wau Wau puts his life on the line to protect the riches of his ancestral lands: jaguars, endangered brown woolly monkeys, and natural springs from which 17 important rivers flow. His people, the Indigenous Uru Eu Wau Wau, have legal right to the land, but must constantly defend it from armed intruders. Just beyond their 7,000-square mile territory, cattle ranchers and soy planters have razed much of the forest.
The community’s efforts have outsized benefits for the world’s 7.75 billion people: The Amazon, which accounts for half the remaining tropical rainforest in the world, helps to regulate Earth’s climate and nurtures invaluable genetic diversity. Research shows Indigenous property rights are crucial to reducing illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
Nature is under assault because humans gobble up land to grow food, harvest timber and dig for minerals, while also overfishing the oceans. Making matters worse, the combustion of fossil fuels is warming up the planet and making it harder for animals and plants to survive.
At fault, some scholars say, are the same historical forces that have extracted natural resources for hundreds of years, at the expense of Indigenous people. “What we’re seeing now with the biodiversity collapse and with climate change is the final stage of the effects of colonialism,” said Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University.
There is now broad recognition that reversing the loss of biodiversity is urgent not only for food security and a stable climate, it’s also critical to reducing the risk of new diseases spilling over from wild animals, like the coronavirus.
Learn more by Somini Sengupta, Catrin Einhorn and and Manuela Andreoni here