In December, MLSM Canada’s Agnes Richard and Karen Van Loon were in Montréal during the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15. They reflect on their experiences at COP15 and parallel events in a 5-part blog series.
Indigenous Peoples lead the way on protecting biodiversity but we all share the responsibility
I was rushing down the cold streets of Montréal trying to get to the Old Port before dark so I could more easily find the Indigenous Village being hosted December 9 – 11 by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), not far from the COP 15 Conference Centre.
I looked forward to the panels and conversations on Indigenous Peoples’ leadership in sustaining biodiversity in Canada and around the world.
Biodiversity is in trouble. Therefore, so are we. We are all part of and depend on this interconnected web of life. However, human activity—agricultural expansion, resource extraction, climate change, and so on—is threatening around 1 million animal and plant species with extinction.
Nature is doing better but still declining on lands traditionally owned or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Indigenous Peoples care for and protect 22 percent of Earth’s surface and 80 percent of its biodiversity.
I was in Montréal hoping to learn more about Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives and approaches to protecting biodiversity, and how this connects with addressing climate change and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. And were there any solidarity actions.
On the waterfront I headed over to some distant white shapes and found the traditional Innu shaputuan and other Indigenous structures described in the ILI media advisory. At the shaputuan door I hesitate. Would I feel welcome?
I wondered about this given Canada’s colonial history and ongoing legacy, including Residential Schools. Canada’s parks and protected areas are part of that history and legacy, I learned. I had been preparing by reading We Rise Together, the 2018 report by the Indigenous Circle of Experts on the “creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in the spirit and practice of reconciliation”. The chapter on the dark history sums it up this way:
“For Indigenous Peoples, the history of protected areas in Canada, while somewhat improved in recent times, has been fraught with rights violations, forcible displacement, loss of access to traditional territories and resources, and other substantial inter-generational cultural, social, economic and spiritual impacts.”
I opened the shaputuan door and went in. Crowded but warm! I joined people listening to a dynamic African speaker emphasizing the need for overseas funding that goes directly to Indigenous Peoples and local communities for protecting biodiversity. I find out later that she is Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental and Indigenous leader from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad. I regret I could not make it here sooner on Friday.
On Saturday morning I returned early to be present at the fire and ceremony beginning the day. However, I found people busy repairing the shaputuan walls blown open by the freezing wind. People were gathering and warming up in the matutushan or Innu sweat lodge. I joined them and found it a good time for conversations as we waited.
I went back outside to check on shaputuan repairs and saw a man there not dressed very well for the cold. He was very stoic. I felt colder just looking at him. I asked his language. Turned out to be Portuguese, which I understand but don’t speak well. I was able to confirm that we were in the Indigenous Village and accompanied him to the matutushan where people were warming up.
Protecting biodiversity means protecting Indigenous rights
He was Beto Marubo, an Indigenous leader from the Javari Valley in the Amazon region of Brazil. On the first panel, Protecting Forests and Isolated Indigenous Peoples, he explained that the Javari Valley is home to the highest number of isolated Indigenous Peoples choosing no contact with the outside world. He emphasized that they need protection as they are severely threatened by soybean production, illegal mining, violence and more. The speakers concluded that protecting isolated Indigenous Peoples also protects biodiversity.
I left the Indigenous Village late morning so I could meet up with Agnes Richard and other people of faith joining the March for Biodiversity and Human Rights. It was led by an Indigenous Delegation and had the theme We are one with nature - Protect Indigenous and Human Rights. Participating felt like one small act of solidarity after listening to Indigenous peoples from around the world sharing their stories showing that protecting biodiversity means protecting Indigenous rights.
I found out later online that Beto Marupo’s friend, Bruno Pereira, a professional working with Indigenous Peoples and with Beto to protect Indigenous land in the Javari Valley, had been murdered in June 2022 alongside British journalist Dom Phillips. An illegal fishing gang is suspected. Bruno Pereira had been working to stop the illegal mining, logging, fishing, hunting and other increasing invasions on Indigenous lands, often by criminal gangs. Beto Marupo had also received threats. Brazilian government measures to protect the environment and Indigenous rights had been weakened or not enforced.
Around the world land and environmental defenders face threats, violence, criminalization and death. A disproportionate number of attacks are against Indigenous peoples and many happen in the Amazon region, the world’s most biodiverse habitat.
A Sunday of inspiring stories
Sunday was a rich day full of stories about how Indigenous Peoples have been noticing the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and resource extraction in Canada—and stepping up in response to protect the balance of life, their cultures and traditions, as well as endangered species.
The speakers described a wide diversity of approaches from different forms of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), Indigenous Guardians programs and Indigenous stewardship, to Indigenous-led conservation economies.
Their stories reflected the We Rise Together report explanation that IPCAs can take different forms but “generally share three essential elements: They are Indigenous-led; they represent a long-term commitment to conservation; and they elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities.” Long term commitment here means for future generations.
Just knowing places still exist like the Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba gives me hope. In partnership with Dene and Cree neighbours, the Sayisi Dene First Nation is leading efforts to permanently protect the entire Seal River Watershed from industrial activity as an Indigenous Protected Area. The Seal River Watershed spans over 50,000 square kilometres and is one of the world’s largest intact watersheds and richest carbon sinks as well as home to at least 22 known species at risk such as polar bears and caribou. Watch this short video to also see its stunning beauty.
Two Seal River Watershed Alliance representatives shared their stories on Sunday. Stephanie Thorassie, the Director, said the signatures on their statement of support helped their efforts. Later during COP 15, the Seal River Watershed Alliance and the Governments of Canada and Manitoba, committed to work together on a feasibility study, an important step forward.
Inside the traditional Innu shaputuan conference zone at the Indigenous Village—inspiring Indigenous women leaders on Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas panel. About 90% of protected areas established in Canada in the last two decades have resulted from Indigenous partnerships or Indigenous leadership.
Momentum is growing in Canada. The Canadian government sees the leadership and guidance of Indigenous peoples as “critical to achieve Canada’s domestic and international biodiversity goals”. At the COP 15 Summit the Prime Minister announced up to $800 million over seven years to support Indigenous-led conservation through partnership-based sustained funding. Federal funding was also announced for the First Nations National Guardians Network which launched to support the Guardians who are helping to protect biodiversity.
At the end of a panel she was moderating, Shaunna Morgan Siegers with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) spoke of the knowledge that Indigenous Peoples have to share at this time of climate change and species extinctions. She emphasized that “we have to come together as human beings on this planet” and that “Indigenous Peoples need allies”. Another ILI spokesperson in the closing ceremonies called it a shared responsibility belonging to everybody.
Sharing the responsibility
Yes, I felt welcome. At the end Valérie Courtois, the ILI director, warmly thanked allies for being with them in their house. I felt hopeful. Indigenous Peoples are leading the way and bringing millennia of expertise into protecting biodiversity at this critical time.
I also felt challenged and a little uncomfortable. How could I be an ally to this Indigenous-led movement? Being there felt like a privilege and a responsibility.
I returned home wanting to learn more. I found the Land Needs Guardians website organized by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. Watching their videos brought me back to the stories I had heard in Montréal. I eagerly read their How to Be an Ally of Indigenous-led Conservation, and signed their statement to show support for Indigenous-led conservation.
Somehow this did not seem enough to really share the responsibility.