The following statement was submitted by Sushil Raj, WCS Executive Director of Rights + Communities, at the United Nations Permanent Forum On Indigenous Issues Twenty-Second Session. The statement was submitted under the Permanent Forum’s theme “Indigenous Peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health, and climate change: a rights-based approach.”

“It is my privilege to return to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a body where I started my career at the United Nations in 2004.  I address you today on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society where I serve as its Executive Director of the Rights and Communities Program. We work across 61 countries (in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Latin America, North America, and Europe) in allyship with more than 200 Indigenous Peoples and 1500 local communities to implement a rights-based approach to conservation.

“At WCS we recognize the need for a holistic approach to conserving nature that includes and values people. It is by respecting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and amplifying their voices in decision making that we will travel a necessary pathway to equitable, just, and durable conservation.

“As we discuss the theme of this session, I request the Permanent Forum to consider the following in its recommendations based on our experience with the One Health approach:

1. Protect high-integrity ecosystems and their relationship to Indigenous Peoples

The relationship between high-integrity ecosystems and Indigenous Peoples is a reciprocal one. Ecosystems with high ecological integrity (i.e., not degraded) are essential to the well-being of Indigenous Peoples, deeply woven into their customs, traditions, and tenure systems, while, in turn Indigenous Peoples are demonstrably effective at maintaining the ecological integrity of lands and seas. Roughly a third of high-integrity forest landscapes are within Indigenous lands, however, the stewardship of high-integrity ecosystems by Indigenous Peoples is vastly undervalued because most Indigenous lands and seas are not formally recognized by national governments, nor do they enjoy sufficient input from Indigenous Peoples.

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework now recognizes ecological integrity as a core global value for nature and people, is grounded in the human rights-based approach, and provides us with a key opportunity to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples across its various targets. 

2. High-integrity ecosystems play a major role in pandemic prevention at source:

The incursion of roads and development into high-integrity ecosystems, as well as increased human access into such places combined with commercial trade of wildlife raises the likelihood of people coming into more frequent contact with wild animals and pathogen spillover leading to human disease (Zoonosis).

Importantly, we must remember that commercial wildlife trade is not the same as culturally relevant and sustainable hunting by Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities for their physical and cultural and spiritual well-being.  This must be protected and supported to maintain their food security and cultural identity.

Governments and multilateral agencies must recognize the intrinsic links that lead to zoonotic transmission of disease, break down sectoral silos, and prioritize high-integrity ecosystems as they work on pandemic prevention at source.

3. Maintain high-integrity ecosystems as they protect threatened and endangered species and keep others from becoming threatened:

A long list of species is already in the conservation “emergency room,” needing critical conservation efforts to save them from further endangerment, or even extinction. We must invest in prevention— keeping high-integrity ecosystems in excellent condition to ensure that more species can thrive and carry out their full ecological functions. In addition to food security, in many cases species have deep cultural and spiritual values for Indigenous Peoples. 

4. Finally, we must recognize the critical role that high-integrity ecosystems play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

High-integrity tropical, temperate, and boreal forests, as well as oceans play an outsized role in climate regulation. Forests absorb about 30% of the CO2 and most of this absorption occurs in high integrity forests almost one third of which are in Indigenous territories. Without this the earth would be almost half a degree Celsius warmer on average costing the economy tens of trillions of dollars. 

The world's high-integrity peatlands - from the Congo basin to Canada - occupy less than 2% of the land surface area but have such high densities of organic carbon that their loss would release humanity's annual global CO2 emissions multiple times over. They are often inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, and often lack formal protection status, which would protect us collectively.

Incentives are needed to ensure the effective protection of peatlands and forests such that CO2 removals do not drastically decrease with their degradation and deforestation. 

“We have the science, Indigenous knowledge, as well as the collective expertise with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to halt climate and biodiversity crises that are leading to the sixth mass extinction of species and our own demise. But without an extraordinary and shared effort to protect the world’s remaining high-integrity ecosystems, we will fail and in turn will fail Indigenous Peoples who have protected and valued those ecosystems for generations.”