Dozens of countries are backing an effort that would protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and water. Native people, often among the most effective stewards of nature, have been disregarded, or worse, in the past.
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. Their goal is to hammer out a global agreement at negotiations to be held in China later this year, designed to keep intact natural areas like old growth forests and wetlands that nurture biodiversity, store carbon and filter water.
But many people who have been protecting nature successfully for generations 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. The key to their success, research shows, is not extracting too much.
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. In fact, some of those logs could end up as new bike lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“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 more than quarter of the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own, according to several scientific studies. Indigenous-managed lands in Brazil, Canada and Australia have as much or more biodiversity than lands set aside for conservation by federal and other governments, researchers have found.
That is in stark contrast from the history of conservation, which has a troubled record of forcing people off their land. So, it is with a mixture of hope and worry that many Indigenous leaders view this latest global goal, known as 30×30, led by Britain, Costa Rica and France. Some want a higher target — more than 50 percent, according to Mr. Díaz Mirabal’s organization — while others fear that they may once again be pushed out in the name of conservation.
Defending Land, Protecting Vital Forests
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. Their land is among the last protected forests and savanna left in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Illegal loggers often encroach.