Global biodiversity is in crisis. A 2019 UN report Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ found that ‘nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history’. Some one million species are threatened with extinction. According to the report’s leading author, Robert Watson, ‘We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide’.
Governments are stepping up leadership. In December, 188 nations met in Montreal to produce the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which the UN Environment Program calls a ‘landmark biodiversity agreement to guide global action through to 2030’.
The GBF has 23 specific targets, the first of which is the commitment to effectively conserve and manage at least 30 per cent of the world’s land, coastal areas and oceans by the year 2030.
Currently, only 17 per cent of land and ten per cent of marine areas are under protection. Dubbed ‘30 x 30’, the target was enthusiastically welcomed by most environmental groups, though some angled for a target of 50 per cent as proposed by the ‘father of biodiversity’, the late biologist and author EO Wilson.
Is it enough?
But some question whether the ‘protected area’ approach is enough. In an ABC radio interview, Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked, ‘What about the other 70 per cent?’ In addition to protected areas, she argued that restoring nature requires fundamental changes in human consumption and production.
The creation of protected areas is a leading strategy to protect nature from the ravages of industrialisation. Protected areas demarcate an area of land or water in which some or all extractive human activities such as mining, fishing, tree-cutting and even human habitation are prohibited or restricted.
They take a wide variety of forms, from land-based national parks to marine protected areas and ‘sustainable use’ forests and landscapes. But all have the same goal. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines a protected area as a ‘clearly defined geographical space… managed… [so as] to achieve the long-term conservation of nature’.
There are thousands of protected areas, including some 18,000 in ocean waters. There is substantial evidence that well-managed protected areas preserve natural habitats and enhance biodiversity. But many are poorly managed or, in the case of ‘paper parks’, they are declared but not managed at all. In an egregious example The Guardian reported in October 2020, 71 of Britain’s 73 marine protected areas were subject to highly destructive practices, like bottom-trawling fishing and dredging.
A recent global study found ‘mixed evidence’ linking protected areas with positive biodiversity outcomes. ‘We know that protected areas can prevent habitat loss, especially in terms of stopping deforestation’, said lead author Hannah Wauchope. ‘However, we have much less understanding of how protected areas help wildlife. Our study shows that, while many protected areas are working well, many others are failing to have a positive effect’.
For protected areas to be effective, there must be quality as well as quantity targets.
According to Middlebury Institute’s Jeff Langholz, there is an urgent need to standardise management goals, monitoring mechanisms and evaluation methods. Langholz, a board member of the Maryland-based nonprofit Foundations of Success, told me that the organisation is working with the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas to produce a ‘Rosetta Stone’ framework that will synthesise and integrate the myriad local management frameworks used all over the world.
Exclusion of Indigenous people
Another concern about the 30×30 target is its impact on Indigenous peoples. The history of protected areas is filled with violence against Indigenous communities, including forced evictions, land-grabbing and exclusion from ancestral fishing, hunting and spiritual practice grounds. An exhaustive investigation found that 20 million people were displaced from traditional homelands in the interest of conservation in the 20th century, 14 million of them in Africa alone.
Relations between Indigenous communities and conservation groups have substantially improved in many parts of the world. Indigenous peoples have won legal protections of their land rights nationally and globally, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Conservationists have learned to value the stewardship knowledge of Indigenous peoples, who have tenure over or manage a quarter of the earth’s land surface. As a result, joint management partnerships have blossomed.
Reflecting both this darker history and a new premise, the GBF calls for the 30×30 target to be achieved ‘while respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities’. In a post-conference press release, the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity celebrated the ‘timely recognition’ of the ‘contributions, roles, rights and responsibilities to Mother Earth’ in the GBF and urged swift implementation. ‘We have spoken and you have heard us’, it said, ‘let us now put those words into action’.
Global human rights groups alarmed
But global human rights groups are alarmed about the lack of unequivocal protection for Indigenous land rights in the framework. ‘Without a commitment to safeguard human rights’, said Ashfaq Khalfan, the Director for Climate Justice at Oxfam America, in a press release, ‘the 30×30 target will result in… indigenous peoples and local communities being evicted from their ancestral lands’.
For the 30×30 target to work, protected areas must be well managed and monitored. If their tenure and political voice are secured, indigenous peoples could and should play a pivotal role.
Lyuba Zarsky, who lives six months of the year in Evans Head, is a professor of international environmental policy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
A longer version of this article appeared in World Politics Review, 10 January, 2023.