Human Rights Hold the Key to Protecting Biodiversity
As governments seek an agreement on a global plan to halt the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity, indigenous peoples’, smallholder farmers’, and other agroecological communities’ rights are being sidelined. Yet it is precisely these groups who know how to preserve our precious natural systems.
HEIDELBERG/LA PAZ – In October 2021, two tractors with a large chain stretched between them cleared more than 2,000 hectares of forest in the Brazilian Cerrado, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. Tragically, such scenes have become all too familiar in the region.
In 2021 alone, 8,531 square kilometers (3,294 square miles) of the Cerrado’s forests, grasslands, and other native vegetation were destroyed – the highest rate since 2015. And in recent decades, 40-55% of the Cerrado biome has been converted to croplands, pastures, and tree plantations, with much of the deforestation making way for large industrial soy monocultures and cattle production. Agribusinesses have dispossessed thousands of communities in land grabs and destroyed the surrounding environment.
The Cerrado is a tragic and alarming example of how quickly the world’s biological diversity is being lost. The region is estimated to be home to 12,000 plant species – 35% of which grow nowhere else in the world – as well as around 25 million people, including indigenous peoples, smallholder farmers, and other communities where traditional livelihoods depend on biodiversity. All are in urgent need of protection.
For the past few years, governments have been negotiating a new Global Biodiversity Framework under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. But very little progress was made at the most recent round of talks in June, and though there is a global consensus on the urgent need to act, the current debate is based on two dangerously mistaken premises.
The first is the assumption that human societies and ecosystems exist separately from one another, implying that the best way to conserve biodiversity is to carve out protected areas that exclude all human activity. Hence, most of the focus today is on the “30x30” campaign to establish formal protections for 30% of all land and marine areas by 2030.
But this “fortress conservation” approach has already been tried, and it was shown to lead to systematic violations of local communities’ rights. By deploying such strategies, governments risk sidelining precisely the people who live closest to the ecosystems that we are trying to protect, and who play a critical role in sustainably managing those resources to preserve their own livelihoods.
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The second flawed premise guiding today’s negotiations is that protecting biodiversity must be turned into a business. Instead of ensuring that industrial and financial activities are regulated to avoid harming people and the planet, the current proposals focus on trying to transform the biodiversity crisis into another opportunity to boost corporate profits.
In “green” business and financial circles, the current buzz is about “nature-based solutions,” a term used to describe interventions ranging from reforestation to carbon markets. The concept has a nice ring to it, and it has been endorsed by the UN Environment Assembly. But it is dangerously ill-defined.
Those who use the term seldom refer to human rights and tend to focus instead on offsetting schemes, such as carbon markets, which tie the protection of biodiversity in one place to its ongoing destruction elsewhere. Rather than a remedy, “nature-based solutions” are becoming part of the problem, serving as a license for business as usual, or even encouraging more land grabs in areas traditionally managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
Governments need to look beyond “30x30” and “nature-based solutions” to put human rights at the center of the Global Biodiversity Framework. Doing so acknowledges that human societies and natural ecosystems are inextricably connected, and that biodiversity protection requires a shift to more sustainable social and economic models. The goal should be to achieve human and ecosystems’ well-being, not shareholder value.
A human-rights lens sharpens the focus on those people and communities who are most affected by today’s destructive practices. It shows that we need to address the drivers of biodiversity loss – extractive and industrial activities – rather than entrusting protection of the world’s ecosystems to corporations and financial markets. Governments are required to hold these entities accountable for the damage they cause to the environment and human communities, and to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, smallholder farmers, and others who have long helped protect the world’s precious ecosystems.
Our food systems are a prime example of why we need a different approach. The crops and animal breeds that feed humanity co-evolved with human farming communities over the course of millennia. But with the expansion of industrial farming models since the twentieth century, we have radically broken from this tradition, destroying 75% of biological diversity in our food and agriculture. Most food systems today are based on deforestation, land degradation, use of pesticides, pollution, high energy consumption, genetic homogeneity, and socioeconomic inequity.
We cannot solve the biodiversity crisis without transforming these dysfunctional food systems. In their place, we can embrace agroecology, which has been shown to be a powerful and effective approach to food production, distribution, and consumption. Agroecology fosters biodiversity by stimulating synergies within ecosystems to boost resilience and productivity. Instead of degrading the land, agroecology revitalizes soils and contributes to their restoration and conservation.
This approach – oriented toward generating integral well-being – has always been taken by indigenous peoples, peasants, and other smallholder food producers. Traditional, collective knowledge of sustainable farming (much of it held by women), together with locally adapted and self-reliant innovations, is central to these groups’ management systems. Protecting this knowledge and supporting agroecology is essential to the shift toward a more sustainable, healthy, and just manner of producing, distributing, and consuming food.
A good example is Cuba, where peasants and urban farmers have boosted food production and resilience while dramatically reducing the use of agrochemicals. One key factor in their success has been the strengthening of peasant networks to facilitate knowledge sharing.
This year’s biodiversity negotiations are a crucial opportunity for world leaders to agree on a plan to protect both nature and people. But a new framework will succeed only to the extent that it guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples, peasants, and other smallholder food producers, while putting the worlds’ food systems on a path toward agroecology.