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Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities Offer Best Hope for Our Planetary Emergency

Yoko Watanabe is Global Manager of the GEF Small Grants Programme at UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Nina Kantcheva is Senior Policy Adviser, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Engagement

Alianza Ceibo, a 2020 Equator Prize winner, unites four indigenous peoples in their struggle to counter environmental degradation to protect over 20,000 square kilometers of primary rainforest across four provinces and 70 communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon. Credit: Mitch Anderson

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 13 2020 (IPS) - Indigenous peoples and local communities offer the best hope for solutions to our planetary emergency. These solutions are grounded in traditional, time-tested practices and knowledge.

Indigenous peoples already steward 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, as well as nearly one-fifth of the total carbon sequestered by tropical and subtropical forests. Moreover, indigenous territories encompass 40 percent of protected areas globally.

Yet the voices of indigenous peoples and local communities are barely heard and are often excluded from decision-making. Their rights over land, territories, and resources are routinely overlooked, and they are frequently threatened and often subject of murder, assault, intimidation and detention.

Similarly, our planetary emergency puts the rights of today’s youth, rights to a healthy, viable and livable planet, at risk. Although they will feel the brunt of biodiversity loss and climate change in their lifetimes, they do not have a regular seat at the table.

UNDP, together with more than 40 partner organizations, has joined forces to create a virtual Nature for Life Hub where the voices of indigenous peoples, local communities, environmental defenders and youth can be heard.

Listening to youth voices on nature

One example of a group leading the way on youth action on nature is Youth4Nature. Their goals including mobilizing youth advocates to encourage political leaders to recognize that nature can provide up to 30 percent of our climate solutions needed by 2030; elevating the voices of youth by providing a platform to share their stories and have them be heard; and building the capacity of youth as stewards for a nature for climate movement.

Yoko Watanabe

They, and thousands of youth groups around the world, are leading a new generation in the movement to hold leaders accountable for action on nature.

The UNDP-led Equator Initiative hosted this year’s Equator Prize 2020 Award Ceremony in a live-streamed virtual event. Chosen from among hundreds of nominations, this year’s Equator Prize winners, the indigenous and local communities who protect, restore and sustainably manage nature, are the stars.

They showcase a new normal, standing in contrast to the unsustainable business-as-usual model of how we produce and consume virtually everything. The themes of this year’s winners, “Nature for Climate,” “Nature for Water,” and “Nature for Prosperity,” offer a powerful, local response to our global, planetary emergency.

Reimagining conservation: Aligning nature conservation and human rights

Over the last decades, conservation organizations have been repeatedly challenged to confront allegations of a fortress mentality and embrace a more inclusive paradigm, recognizing that we can only truly conserve nature with the full support of Indigenous peoples and local communities who live in and around protected and conserved areas.

Nina Kantcheva

While numerous examples of successful integrated conservation-development projects exist across the world, widely divergent views persist on what exactly ‘nature conservation’ is and should be. A reset is needed, one that includes communities, policymakers, and scientists, to reimagine how nature conversation and human rights can lead us toward a new era of a rights-based approach to conservation.

Local action and efforts at the community level are often seen as too small to address the global crisis of biodiversity loss. However, local action on nature is essential and should be at the core of our efforts if we are to bend the curve on nature loss, recognizing that Indigenous peoples and local communities have long acted as the stewards of nature, with deep traditional knowledge and nature-based solutions.

We must find ways to accelerate and magnify local action, and to scale up impact. Various pathways already exist, including through policy, advocacy, finance and technology.

There are many exciting initiatives that support local action including the GEF Small Grants Programme at UNDP that has supported more than 25,000 projects in 125 countries, Inclusive Conservation Initiative, Dedicated Grant Mechanism, Community-Based REDD+ initiative, and others that provide financial and technical support to civil society and community-based organizations, including indigenous peoples, women, youth, persons with disabilities, in their continuing efforts to safeguard the global environment while improving their well-being and livelihood.

Defending environmental defenders

In 2019, more than 200 environmental defenders were killed, and many more were tortured, beaten or intimidated. Environmental defenders are on the front line in protecting the nature that sustains us all.

If we are to make gains in protecting 30 percent of the planet, and ending and even reversing the loss of biodiversity, then we must consider that these gains will largely need to take place on the remaining world’s intact areas, a large portion of which are owned by indigenous peoples and local communities.

We must start by standing with those environmental defenders who are safeguarding their lands and territories, and we must secure a future for the planet by securing their rights, tenure, and governance.

There is something you can also do to make the change. UNDP with partners is coordinating a global campaign on the importance of nature for life and for sustainable development, and on the need to stand for nature.

Next time you are tweeting, sharing, liking or posting on social media about nature, consider adding the hashtags #NatureForLife and #StandForNature. Together with local action, they can have a big impact!


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