As the world commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9th, the Wildlife Conservation Society has issued the following statement by Sushil Raj, Executive Director of the WCS Rights and Communities Program, and Dawa Yangi Sherpa, Social Safeguards Technical Specialist in the WCS Rights & Communities Program:

“The first International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was celebrated on August 9, 1995 following a resolution by the UN General Assembly in 1994.  Subsequently the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) was adopted on September 13, 2007 after more than two decades of negotiations. This year the UN Declaration turns 16- years-old, and we continue to push for a paradigm shift to make it a reality across the conservation sector.

“The UN Declaration enshrines minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of Indigenous Peoples around the world derived and articulated from binding international human rights instruments. These are also expressed as fundamental rights in the constitutions of some States and in rights under domestic law with increasing recognition across several countries. Since the adoption of the UN Declaration, numerous global efforts have been made to implement its provisions such as a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations, a focus on parliamentarians around the world, and most recently the adoption of the General recommendation N.39 on the rights of Indigenous women and girls.

“Although global narratives are shifting and some global institutions are making explicit commitments to respect, protect, and fund the realization of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, we are not seeing adequate progress on the ground, especially in the areas of governance, land and resource rights. This requires us to change approaches as different stakeholders operate across a range of governance models from supporting Indigenous-led conservation to opening the aperture for human rights in state-led conservation models of protected area management. In order to address some of the challenges within the sector and look towards a different approach, WCS convened a meeting of stakeholders on conservation and human rights in February 2023 to identify and build collective pathways forward. 

“Foremost in this discussion was the recognition that the relationship of human beings with nature is broken which has led us to our current predicament. However, we are fortunate that the solutions to address our intersecting crises of mass extinction of species, biodiversity loss, climate change, and global health pandemics are right in front of us.  The conservation sector has human rights obligations, as well as an opportunity to build on and learn from pathways defined by Indigenous Peoples in many places. Indigenous Peoples’ territories frequently overlap with the highest levels of ecological integrity that inherently store vast amounts of carbon, are more resilient to climate change, and their protection reduces the likelihood of future zoonotic pandemics, providing benefits locally and globally. 

“We therefore need to recognize Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, learn from Indigenous values of relationship, reciprocity, reconciliation, return of culture, and highlight benefits from Indigenous-led governance that yield such high integrity ecosystems, when working with governments and other stakeholders.

“As we seek to build inclusive conservation the sector can be guided by these value systems especially in contexts where rights are denied in order to find structural solutions at the national, regional, and global levels.  The conservation sector is a collective of states, nongovernmental organizations, business enterprises, philanthropy, and broader civil society.  It is this collective that can support the reformation and change of laws and practice by implementing the rights enshrined in the UN Declaration, especially for the protection of Indigenous Peoples who are environmental rights defenders on the front lines of some of the last remaining high integrity ecosystems.  

“We also need to match the calls for global transitions with ground realities as policy makers are asked to move from exclusive market approaches to diverse valuations of nature that navigate pathways to reconcile people’s quality of life with life on Earth. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous scientific approaches can work in tandem as long as there is respect for Indigenous Peoples’ ways of knowing and being, and full equity in collaborations.  As we see calls for transitions in governance that focus on self-determined development, recognition of customary land, and inclusive decision making, alongside calls for financial transitions to direct funding and a paradigm shift in traditional philanthropy, we can weave culture-based solutions into nature-based solutions with the UN Declaration as our guide.   

“So what does all of this look like in practice?  The Wildlife Conservation Society has been supporting the Bunong Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia since 2007 to secure Indigenous Communal Land Titles to protect lands and natural resources within the protected areas of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary and is helping resolve conflicting claims to land as they arise through a detailed land inventory process in coordination with local authorities.  Supporting Bunong Indigenous Peoples’ land rights has contributed to the prevention of 27,000 hectares from being deforested within a threatened yet high integrity ecosystem. 

“In the Greater Madidi landscape of Bolivia, we have provided technical support for decades to the Tacana, Leco, Tsimane´-Mostene and more recently Uchupiamona and Esse Ejja through their Indigenous institutions to secure land tenure and develop, implement and monitor their Life Plans. We are also supporting the establishment of a direct access funding mechanism to support indigenous territorial management, informed by the life plans, as well as Indigenous- led studies related to mercury contamination caused largely by illegal mining activities in the headwaters, that adversely impact their territories and health.  However, it is not sufficient to secure land tenure alone. Self-determined territorial management of Indigenous lands also requires direct funding to Indigenous communities in the Greater Madidi landscape where $11.4 million is needed over ten years for 1.5 million hectares.  This is approximately one third of the cost of management of an equivalent area within a protected area in Bolivia.

“And in Kahuzi Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we continue to implement a paradigm shift by increasing the space to respect and protect human rights in a state-led model of governance. Cultural rights programming and revitalization, intergenerational transmission of knowledge, and the leadership of young people alongside elders is vital to preservation of heritage.

“As we commemorate this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it is imperative that we continue to address the intersecting crises of climate, biodiversity loss, and global health. This has to be done by protecting Indigenous land and resource rights across high integrity ecosystems and working collaboratively on new paradigms.  We must continue to find opportunities to scale impact across countries, landscapes, and seascapes for the greater realization of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and for the protection of our planet.”