United Nations and indigenous peoples work together for our planet

Taking place in Marseille shortly before a new international biodiversity agenda is set for the next decade, the IUCN World Conservation Congress is a unique opportunity to shape the ambition and galvanize the necessary action. It is also an opportune time to ensure that all knowledge systems are effectively taken into consideration and engaged in halting the loss of biodiversity while tackling climate change.

Oumarou Ibrahim, an activist on behalf of her Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, gave her clear message to the IUCN World Conservation Congress during an event on the United Nations and the Mobilisation of Indigenous and Local Knowledge.

The thematic event, co-organised by UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems programme and the Commission for Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, was part of the global quadrennial congress organised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, running from 3 to 11 September 2021 in Marseille, France.

The event was opened by Mechtild Rössler, the Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, with two keynote speakers and a round-table with both UN staff and indigenous peoples from diverse parts of the planet. In his keynote address, Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention of to Combat Desertification highlighted that indigenous peoples and local communities rely on land and natural resources. Their cultures and their economies rely on the conservation of these resources.

Indigenous leaders agreed that things have evolved at the United Nations. Indigenous knowledge is being recognised in climate and biodiversity forums. They noted the major progress with the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystems (IPBES) which conducts science assessments on the state of the environment. The launch of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been another major step forward.

The IPBES Chairperson, Ana-Maria Hernandez joined the dialogue and emphasised that the success of IPBES has come from indigenous peoples being involved in all steps of the process. They are in dialogues in the design of the assessments, and they provide authors and reviewers. She finished by emphasising that everyone benefits from the having more knowledge systems working together.

The speakers from the Arctic, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific all emphasised how important indigenous peoples are in taking care of the planet. This is due to their knowledge, their value systems, their spirituality, their technical capacity and their systems of good governance. The UN system has acknowledged this but there are major challenges to ensure equitable participation in decision making.

Speakers highlighted the precarious situation of land and resource tenure, serious human rights violations, and the threats to indigenous knowledge particularly from loss of lands. Ibrahim Oumarou demonstrated that indigenous peoples are carrying the costs of conservation while funds go elsewhere. She and other leaders, made a strong argument that indigenous peoples need access to direct financing.

Claude Gascon from the Global Environmental Facilitate (GEF) noted that it had been an important lesson for them in creating new funding streams for indigenous peoples. “We could see how important the work was on the ground, that indigenous peoples were doing what was necessary but were struggling to get the necessary resources.” The GEF has launched new financing opportunities are adjusting to the needs but this needs to go to a scale which will be empowering to indigenous peoples on the ground and in the national and international policy spaces.

Jennifer Corpuz of the Nia Tero Foundation spoke about indigenous peoples’ expectations for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework which is currently under negotiation. Corpuz called for indigenous peoples to be fully included in the post-2020 GBF agreement and its operational process. “We are holders of knowledge; we are conserving biodiversity. We need the Parties to the Convention to recognise our role and agree to a partnership” explained Corpuz.

Mechtild Rössler noted how important indigenous peoples have been to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and that they had enriched the work on protecting cultural and natural heritage. “We learned how important indigenous languages are to transmit knowledge, culture and values across generations. Next year, UNESCO will be leading the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. This is an excellent opportunity to take this work forward”.

Johannes Refisch of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke about his work with indigenous peoples of Central Africa in the conservation of Great Apes. Refisch called for attention to the participation and employment of indigenous peoples in formal conservation.

“Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is so important to conservation. Many of the trackers are indigenous peoples but as they may not have been to school, they are marginalised. Indigenous knowledge needs to be recognised and where possible to be certified so that they are able to have access to proper remuneration.” Said Refisch, speaking from his experience.

Refisch went on to say that UNEP welcomes close cooperation with indigenous peoples and UNESCO to ensure that indigenous knowledge issues are part of the design and delivery of the UN Decade for Ecosystems Restoration as well as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Kevin Chang, Executive Director of Kua’aina Ulu ‘Auamo NGO in Hawai’i, concluded the meeting with a traditional saying: We do not learn everything in one school. He invited the United Nations, scientists, governments and indigenous peoples to continue working with each other in a respectful manner, recognising the unique cultures, knowledge and value systems of indigenous peoples.