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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

COP15: What does conservation actually mean?

MONTREAL, Canada — Top officials from more than 190 countries are meeting this week and next to solve one of the world’s greatest and most consequential challenges: the rapid decline of wildlife and ecosystems. Saving them will protect the many benefits they provide, from cleaning the air and water to pollinating our crops.

At the meeting, known as COP15, delegates are expected to sign an important agreement called the Global Biodiversity Framework, which is like the Paris climate agreement but for nature. It includes more than 20 targets for countries to achieve within the decade, covering everything from pesticide use to farm subsidies.

While delegates have had years to prepare for COP15 — which some of them say is the most important biodiversity meeting, ever — there’s a lot they still don’t agree on. How much money will rich countries give to developing nations? Should governments phase out subsidies that harm the environment or redirect them toward activities that help restore ecosystems? Should this comma in the agreement text go here or there?

There’s even disagreement about something that forms the very basis of COP15 and the broader environmental movement: what the term “conservation” means.

Delegates at the UN’s major biodiversity conference, COP15, try to come to an agreement on goals that countries should reach by 2030, on December 13 in Montreal.
Mike Muzurakis/International Institute for Sustainable Development

To some environmental advocates, conservation means that a given area restricts most human activities to maintain some historic diversity of species. If a park in New York state, say, has 100 kinds of birds from one decade to the next, that might be considered conserved land. But to others — including some Indigenous groups — conservation is more about the process of stewarding the land and their spiritual relationship to it. Under this perspective, “conserved” often means that people are using the land’s resources and have a deep respect for them.

This debate matters today because a key part of the draft biodiversity framework is a goal to “conserve” at least 30 percent of all land and water on Earth by 2030 — a target known as 30 by 30. In the coming days, delegates are almost certain to sign it into law under a UN treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity. But even then, questions will remain due to the ambiguity of the word: What will the law mean for Indigenous lands and other areas that fall outside of national parks?

As nations look to conserve 30 percent of their land, what counts?

The term conservation appears all over the biodiversity framework, but it carries the most weight in 30 by 30. That’s one of the highest-profile targets — and among the most controversial, partly because it’s not clear what will count toward 30 percent.

Most environmental advocates agree that formal protected areas, such as national parks, count toward any measurement of conserved lands, according to Brian O’Donnell, who leads the Campaign for Nature, an environmental group advocating for 30 by 30. These areas — usually recognized by national governments — tend to restrict human activities like mining or construction that might harm the plants and animals that live there.

There’s also another newer and somewhat confusing category of lands, known as OECMs, that advocates also agree should count toward the target. Short for “other effective area-based conservation measures,” these are areas that people use or live in, such as military bases, that have demonstrable benefits for wildlife or ecosystems. (Side note: There’s a frustrating amount of acronyms and vague technical terms in biodiversity policy, which is perhaps one reason why it can be challenging for delegates to agree on anything.)

Together, protected areas and OECMs cover about 17 percent of all land and a bit more than 8 percent of the ocean, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC), a UN agency that manages a global protected area database. WCMC has long been the official indicator of progress toward spatial targets like 30 by 30.

A sign outside of the COP15 venue in Montreal.
Mike Muzurakis/International Institute for Sustainable Development

Delegates at COP15, on December 8 in Montreal.
Mike Muzurakis/International Institute for Sustainable Development

But some environmental experts are also pushing for a third category to count toward 30 by 30: lands managed by Indigenous territories and local communities. As much as 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on these lands, yet many of them are not considered formally “conserved” — largely due to an old-school view of nature as “pristine” land without people. (Some Indigenous territories could be considered OECMs if they demonstrate positive benefits for biodiversity; more on that below.)

That view is now changing, which could make hitting the 30 percent target a whole lot easier.

A simple solution to achieving 30 by 30: grant Indigenous people land rights

Indigenous territories and local communities cover more than 30 percent of Earth’s surface already, according to some estimates. So, in a sense, if you consider them as conserved, the land portion of Target 3 would already be met.

“The demand from Indigenous peoples is for Indigenous territories to be recognized outright on their own terms,” Jennifer Corpuz, a Filipino Indigenous lawyer and key negotiator for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), told Vox. “If we count those, we’re there. We’ve essentially reached the target.”

This approach is appealing to Indigenous advocates who are concerned that 30 by 30 could come at the expense of Indigenous land rights — because the historic definition of conservation didn’t include people. On many occasions, they’ve been kicked off of their land in the name of wildlife conservation. (The current text of the biodiversity framework emphasizes the importance of respecting Indigenous land rights.)

“When we talk about conservation, especially for Indigenous people, it’s a history of displacement, evictions, and rights violations,” Corpuz said. “It’s a very loaded topic with a very mixed history.”

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