IUCN Director General’s Statement on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019

We cannot achieve conservation and wellbeing for people and planet unless we respect and value the rights of indigenous peoples. For centuries, indigenous peoples across the world have preserved much of Earth’s biodiversity. At this precipice of history, where the next decade could determine the fate of the planet’s species and ecosystems, the global community must fully acknowledge, respect and support the rights of indigenous peoples. This includes respect for the cultural, spiritual, social and environmental values they place on biodiversity.

Samburu women group working to market community beadwork artifacts

First and foremost, biodiversity thrives in the care of indigenous communities. As much as 80% of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity lies within indigenous peoples’ territories, and indigenous and community lands store at least 24% of the above-ground carbon in the world’s tropical forests. In Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil, for instance, researchers studying deforestation and forest carbon emissions found that lands managed by indigenous communities emit at least 73% less carbon than lands managed by other groups.

However, indigenous peoples are struggling to keep their territories, lands and resources. The degradation of the natural environment also significantly impacts indigenous peoples through the loss of livelihoods and of cultural and linguistic diversity. The continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples, combined with ecosystem degradation, has severe consequences. Though indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world's population, they account for 15% of the poorest. They continue to fight for rights to their lands, often risking their lives in doing so, in addition to facing serious human rights abuses around the world. From 2009 to 2018 in Latin America, 1,356 attacks against environmental leaders and their communities were recorded. Indigenous peoples made up more than half of those targeted.

IUCN has a long history of working with indigenous peoples to promote the recognition of their rights and to support their conservation activities. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016, the IUCN Members Assembly created a new category of IUCN membership for indigenous peoples’ organisations (IPO) to strengthen their participation, voice and role in IUCN, and in conservation more broadly. The Union now has 19 IPOs as Members. In 2018, IPO members produced a strategy to advance indigenous issues, including increasing their participation in IUCN’s governance and global policy engagement, and strengthening indigenous institutions.

IUCN’s other Resolutions, as well as its policy and field-based work, emphasise indigenous peoples' rights to the territories and natural resources they have traditionally owned, occupied and used. IUCN has supported indigenous peoples in the development of guidelines for Free, Prior and Informed Consent as well as bio-protocols. This ensures safeguards are in place and are respected in conservation processes, for instance concerning the use and access to resources in protected areas, and promotes the equitable sharing of benefits from natural resources.

Indigenous peoples often have an intrinsic relationship with their ecosystems, natural resources and species, marked by respect for the life of these natural systems, with their livelihoods and cultural practices dependent on nature. It is vital that we respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples, as integrating their insight into conservation is proving indispensable. For instance, the Comcáac or Seri people in Mexico have contributed new understanding regarding the behaviours and interactions of species, such as the overwintering of sea turtles which were previously thought by Western scientists to migrate away from the region during cold periods. Indigenous peoples are key partners in ensuring effective conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

Though great strides have been made in upholding indigenous rights, there is still a long way to go. This is why “Upholding rights, ensuring effective and equitable governance” is one of the themes at the IUCN World Conservation Congress to be held in Marseille in June 2020. There, the conservation world will gather to support the engagement and raise the visibility of indigenous peoples. At this critical point in time, we need their contribution to preserving Earth’s diversity – both natural and human – more than ever.

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