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Why indigenous voices must be heard in the global debate about biodiversity

For centuries indigenous communities have remained responsible stewards for biodiversity protection. But today their voices are being ignored.

Brototi Roy
19 November 2020, 5.22pm
Adivasi women, Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India, at the beginning of Jan Satyagraha 2012.
Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA.

On 30 September, the United Nations held a summit calling for 'urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development'. The forum, which was convened by the President of the General Assembly, brought together heads of state and other leaders to discuss the global biodiversity framework after 2020, which is expected to be adopted at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021.

One of the speakers addressing the opening of this summit was Archana Soreng, an indigenous activist and researcher from the Khadia adivasi community in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. She is one of the seven members of the UN Secretary General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

The importance of indigenous knowledge for the protection of biodiversity has long been recognised in international reports and academic articles. According to data from 2011, indigenous communities from India, known as adivasis (literally translated from Hindi as the first or original inhabitants), are the world's largest population of indigenous people, constituting 8.6% of the country's total population (more than 100 million people). Despite this, Soreng was the only voice representing indigenous communities from India at the summit.

The crux of her message was that indigenous practices and world views must be incorporated into biodiversity frameworks by empowering local communities. For centuries, indigenous communities have remained responsible stewards for biodiversity protection, yet they have very little decision-making power, and instead have been faced with forcible displacement and non-consensual relocation due to large-scale mining and infrastructure projects by states and private corporations.

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According to Soreng, the ambition to double the protected area cover to 30% globally, as some suggestions for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework indicate, will be detrimental to socio-environmental well-being and usher human rights violation. This is because it will render millions of people landless, without livelihoods and bereft of culture and heritage.

To see why, we can look at what has happened in India. Between 1988 and 2020 the number of protected areas increased from 67 to 870. Today protected areas make up 5% of India's total land mass, with more than four million people living within and around them. Unsurprisingly, this model of conservation – which neither recognises the customary land rights of the indigenous and marginalized communities nor acknowledges their contributions in safeguarding the biodiversity – has been met with local resistance and campaigns for environmental justice.

The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice is an international database that documents and analyzes environmental justice movements based on a methodology of activist-academic coproduction of knowledge. On 5 October, an interactive map titledLosing Ground: How are India´s conservation efforts putting local communities in peril?’ was launched which examined the different ways that protected areas undermine local communities and indigenous knowledge across India.

The analysis was based on three years of extensive research in 26 protected areas of India as a collaborative effort between different organizations, activists and independent researchers in India and abroad.

The report found that more than 13,000 families were displaced between 1999 and 2020 from within and around protected areas in India. It also highlighted instances of the very controversial militarization of conservation, leading to multiple forms of violence including arrests, injuries and deaths in the local communities.

Eleonora Fanari, a member of the EnvJustice project which has been instrumental in launching this map, says that linking these local struggles to major global questions is crucial:

“It is important to highlight these struggles which have been long ignored, to show how the current conservation structure and the rhetoric of greening are failing in acknowledging justice and recognition of rights as the primary elements to achieve biodiversity protection.”

Neema Pathak Broome, a member of Kalpavriksh, notes that the protected areas are a legacy of British colonial rule in India and continue to devalue indigenous people and knowledge:

“By actively alienating local people, this model of conservation has also ignored the real reasons for wildlife population decline. These include intensive hunting of tigers and other large animals by British and local rulers in the past, and the continuous decline in wildlife habitat due to continuous large-scale diversion of biodiversity-rich areas for mega infrastructural and ‘developmental’ projects like roadways and railways, dams, mining, etc.”

The message Soreng delivered at the UN is therefore more important than ever: indigenous communities must not be ignored and side lined anymore, and must be included in decision making processes.

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