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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Instead of 30x30, COP15 Should Pivot to Returning Land Back

Leaders seek a 30x30 framework on biodiversity in Montreal, but such an approach actually takes lands away from the best land stewards: Indigenous peoples.
Sierra Nevada National Park in Northern Colombia

Sierra Nevada National Park in northern Colombia, home to Indigenous peoples for generations

The United Nation’s biodiversity summit, or COP15, is reconvening in Montreal with the ostensibly grandiose goal of 30x30, i.e., conserving 30 percent of the Earth by 2030 — continuing world leaders’ dismal legacy of trying to fix the climate through the same thought processes and a worldview that sent the globe into crisis in the first place. Rather, stopping and reversing biodiversity loss requires a shift away from Western-style conservation and a rapid return of land management rights to Indigenous and local communities.

On the surface, COP15’s 30x30 parameters appear to be a big step in the right direction. According to its proponents, protecting 30 percent of land and water should not only stop biodiversity loss but begin to turn it around by 2030 so that “by 2050, the shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled.” Whether or not these claims are accurate is an issue all on its own, but as of last year, the U.N. claimed that only 7.7 percent of marine areas and 16.6 percent of dry land and freshwater systems were protected. That’s a far cry from the expectations set by 30x30, leading some experts to caution against “unrealistic” goals that could ultimately discourage future environmental measures.

But those unrealistic goals are not the biggest problem facing the initiative, nor is it the difficulty delegates are confronting in hammering out the details. Rather, the deeper issue lies in the very nature of protected areas as promoted by the Global North. With 80 percent of what’s left of Earth’s most biodiverse spaces already protected by Indigenous people, meeting 30x30 would require wresting control of those natural areas away from the rightful caretakers. That is why researcher Fiore Longo is calling the initiative “the biggest land grab in history.”

Jennifer Corpuz of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity is quoted in The Guardian as saying: “There are very, very painful stories of how Indigenous peoples’ rights have been violated, how they have been killed, taken out of their territory and caused to become extinct because of the expansion or the establishment of protected areas.” 

So, while world leaders and conservationists claim they are "making sure that they're seen as stewards rather than just stakeholders,” as an integral part of the negotiations, Indigenous peoples have a long history to look back on and more than enough reason to be wary. And with the bulk of biodiverse land already protected by Indigenous stewards, it’s easy to question the motives behind the initiative.

Indeed, the Western ideals of conservation that view nature as thriving on its own, untouched by humankind, have backfired — leading to mass displacement as people have been forced from their homelands and further environmental degradation as the land lost its caretakers. One needs to look no further than the landscape of the North American West to witness the consequences of removing Indigenous people and their practices from the land.

Clearly, we do not know what we’re doing. Meddling further into territories long protected by their original people will not solve our biodiversity problem, the climate crisis or prevent the next mass extinction. Instead of endangering Indigenous land rights even further with 30x30, COP15 could more effectively achieve its purported goals of reversing biodiversity by pivoting to a what advocates call a “Land Back” framework.

Land Back is a movement to begin returning stewardship of North America to its original people — but its concepts can be applied worldwide in the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change. Doing so could have a substantial impact on preserving ecosystems and preventing deforestation. Indigenous people have demonstrated that they are the best caretakers of the natural world, after all.

“We’re the protectors of the forest,” a man named Bharat who had been displaced from his ancestral lands in the name of creating a protected tiger preserve in India told the news platform African Arguments: “If we don’t save it, what will happen? If we abandon it, who will protect it?”

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro