Biodiversity’s Greatest Protectors Need Protection

The creation of Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite in the late 19th-century was a first step towards the establishment of great U.S. National Parks. This was described by Wallace Stegner, an author and historian, as America's greatest idea. However, the park's destruction of Native Americans living within its borders made it a terrible act of colonialism and a violation of conservation. Similar reserves were created in other countries during the 20th century, creating millions of conservation refugees. The negative effects of development were not offset by the protected areas. Since the 65 million year ago event that killed most dinosaurs, plant and animal species are disappearing at a faster rate than ever before. Even humans can't guarantee survival.
The U.S. took one small step to make amends. Debra Haaland (Secretary of the Interior), the first Native American to hold a cabinet post, indicated her intention to protect nature and justice in June by returning the National Bison Range back to the Salish/Kootenai confederation. The Biden administration must go further. It should ensure that the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 2021 meeting is a successful one. This will allow for an ambitious plan to promote biodiversity, which empowers Indigenous communities around the world rather than punishing them for success in conservation.

Edward O. Wilson, a biologist, responded to the biodiversity crisis in 2016 by calling for half of Earth's land to be left as wilderness. The 30x30 campaign, which aims to preserve 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea surfaces by 2030, was inspired by his rallying cry. The CBD will likely adopt the target when it meets in October, with the support of many scientists and major conservation organizations as well as the 60 countries that make up the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People and $1 billion from an entrepreneur from Switzerland.

Critics claim that advocates of 30x30 are seeking a new form of colonialism which makes those most responsible for climate change and biodiversity loss the ones who pay the highest price to avoid them. Elites in democratically weak nation-states could use 30x30 as a pretext to seize land from marginalized peoples. The Indigenous peoples' home areas currently house 80 percent of Earth’s remaining biodiversity, and store nearly 300 trillion tons carbon. These areas will likely be the first to be protected because they are home to 80 percent of Earth's remaining biodiversity and sequester nearly 300 trillion tons of carbon. One estimate suggests that up to 300 million forest inhabitants and other people could be expelled from their territories.

Such seizures are already happening. For example, in the Congo Basin, armed eco-guards have brutally expelled Indigenous Pygmies out of the rain forest in order to create protected areas. The CBD resolution of 2010 declared that 17 percent of the Earth's surface should be given to nature. These wildlife reserves were expanded. The protected areas are often surrounded or even overlaid by oil, mining, or logging concessions. Unsurprisingly, the chimpanzee and gorilla populations continue to decline, even though Pygmy peoples are living in poverty and misery.

Global conservation can be done right. The indigenous communities can do as well as governments in protecting biodiversity. They already preserve 25% of the Earth's surface. They must be guaranteed rights to their territories and the resources to defend them by the CBD. The CBD signatories should also commit to returning certain protected areas that now cover approximately 17 percent of the planet's land to the control and management of the communities from whom they were taken.

This effort could be led by the U.S. In May 2021, the Biden administration released its vision for 30x30. It included a promise to support local communities, particularly Tribal administrations in conserving and restoring biodiversity. The United States must take this resolve to the U.N. global meeting to rescue nature and its most passionate defenders from militarized conservation models it established over a century ago. This is a critical step towards a reprieve of the amazing life-forms and Indigenous guardians that share our planet.