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The key to better climate outcomes? Respecting Indigenous land rights and autonomy

Anita Hofschneider

Conservation efforts are more effective when Indigenous peoples and local communities are given more autonomy and involvement over their lands. That’s according to a new study published this month in the sustainability journal One Earth.

Researchers analyzed 648 studies of conservation areas between 1991 and 2020, about half of which had data on either the ecological or social outcomes of specific environmental protection efforts. Authors then categorized each conservation case based on the degree to which Indigenous peoples and local communities were involved, ranging from complete exclusion from the process to having full autonomy and decision-making power recognized by authorities. Researchers then conducted statistical analyses comparing the social and ecological outcomes of each case to determine trends across categories.

They discovered that even though including Indigenous peoples and local communities is often talked about as a moral or ethical imperative, it’s actually better for the environment. The researchers noted their findings have significant implications for ongoing global efforts to ramp up conservation and tackle climate change.

“The findings reveal that more equitable governance, based on equal partnership or primary control for [Indigenous peoples and local communities], are associated with significantly more positive ecological outcomes,” the authors concluded.

The study found that in the hundreds of conservation cases they reviewed, Indigenous peoples and local communities were most often treated as stakeholders or consultees, with little to no power over the conservation project. It was rare for their rights and full autonomy to be respected.

But in such cases where the latter did occur, the study authors found conservation efforts were far more likely to be successful. Their analysis found that positive ecological outcomes were associated with 85 percent of cases where Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ autonomy was respected, compared with just 18 percent of the cases where Indigenous peoples or local communities were simply treated as stakeholders.

The researchers pointed to the Los Lagos Indigenous Marine Areas established by Chile in 2012 as an example of an effective conservation effort.

“Indigenous groups fought for control, access to marine resources, and the ability to restore them through their own values and institutions, eventually winning against the tide of rapid coastal economic development and weak environmental regulations,” the authors wrote. “The shift to inclusive Indigenous institutions and collective custodianship produced transformational positive social and ecological outcomes relative to intensive commercial agriculture.”

In contrast, the authors found when China established the eco-province of Hainan in 1994, authorities excluded the Li peoples from involvement.

“The new governance regime was weakly enforced, poorly resourced, and lacked accountability, which reduced effectiveness by providing conditions that were exploited for corrupt logging, relative to when communities themselves helped regulate extraction,” the study said.

In addition to better environmental outcomes, the researchers found positive social outcomes, such as higher incomes and better social relations, also associated with projects that had the greatest respect for Indigenous rights. More than half of the conservation efforts that recognized Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ primary control, or full autonomous control, reported positive social outcomes. When Indigenous peoples or local communities were merely consulted, beneficial social effects were negligible.

The authors said their findings are relevant to global conservation goals, which include protecting 30 percent of Earth’s land and seas by 2030, an initiative also known as 30X30. Indigenous peoples have raised concerns that aggressive conservation efforts could lead to further land grabs harming Native peoples, compounding the trauma of colonization. Efforts to preserve large swaths of land such as national parks in the U.S. and elsewhere have often involved removing Indigenous peoples from those lands.

The study emphasizes that allowing Indigenous peoples to steward their own lands is better for the environment than ignoring their rights.

“This carries important implications, including for actions toward the Global Biodiversity Framework targets, suggesting a need to elevate the role of [Indigenous peoples and local communities] to conservation leaders while respecting their rights and customary institutions,” the authors concluded.

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