Planet at the crossroads: Where are indigenous peoples in IUCN’s Congress theme?

Held once every four years, the 2016 World Conservation Congress closes tomorrow in Hawai’i. IUCN’s website describes it as bringing together “several thousand leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous peoples, business, and academia, with the goal of conserving the environment and harnessing the solutions nature offers to global challenges.”

Before the Congress started, IUCN put out a statement explaining this year’s theme: “Planet at the crossroads”. For anyone concerned about indigenous peoples’ rights and the impact that conservation has on indigenous peoples and local communities, it’s a deeply worrying statement.

IUCN also produced a video, which does nothing to reassure:

Here’s the first paragraph from IUCN’s statement about the theme of the congress:

We live in a time of tremendous change, the nature and extent of which is the subject of intense debate and attention around the world. At the heart of this debate is the clash of immediate human needs with their long-term impacts on the planet’s capacity to support life.

IUCN makes no attempt to explain to whom the first word, “we”, refers. “We” are, apparently, all just part of an amorphous blob of humanity. 

Yet it’s clear that the meaning of “tremendous change”, the debate about change, and the impact of change on the livelihoods on, say, an investment banker in London, and the Penan in Sarawak, are worlds apart. Although the two worlds may collide into each other at times, as when the HSBC profited from financing logging and plantation companies operating in Sarawak.

The “verbal fudge” of the Sustainable Development Goals

IUCN’s statement then describes the Sustainable Development Goals as “an ambitious agenda for improving human living conditions for all”. Of course, IUCN doesn’t mention that the SDGs replaced the Millenium Development Goals, that were supposed to (but didn’t) bring an end to extreme hunger and poverty, achieve universal primary education, and ensure environmental sustainability by 2015.

For the SDGs, the deadline has been pushed back to 2030. William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University, dismisses the SDGs:

“They are a very big container of verbal fudge. It sounds really good, but it’s really a substitute for doing things that actually help poor people.”

Population growth or crash?

From there, IUCN jumps to the world’s increasing population, pointing out that today’s world population of 7.3 billion will grow to 8.4 billion by 2030.

IUCN doesn’t mention that fertility rates have fallen by more than half since the 1940s. Journalist Fred Pearce predicts a future population crash.

IUCN fails to differentiate between the high consumption, high pollution lifestyles of the rich, and the low consumption, low pollution livelihoods of small-scale farmers. Not that small-scale farmers are a homogeneous group. In Vietnam’s Central Highlands, for example, during the 1990s hundreds of thousands of lowland Vietnamese moved to the highlands to plant coffee. The result was massive deforestation.

Framing the conservation debate

On development, IUCN notes that,

The benefits of development are not shared equitably, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and economic growth is occurring at the expense of ecological integrity.

IUCN argues that the debate is framed by two competing narratives, one pessimistic, the other optimistic:

  • “it is already too late to avoid catastrophe, and therefore we must now focus on survival and recovery. This leaves people in despair.”
  • “Humanity has faced and overcome many great challenges in the past and will continue to do so. This risks indifference and denial.”

IUCN moves on to a third alternative, one that “stresses that nature conservation and human progress are not mutually exclusive”. The evidence for this alternative is in the World Charter for Nature, Agenda 21, The Earth Charter, and the U.N. General Assembly resolutions on Harmony with Nature.

IUCN has, according to its statement, “been aligning conservation efforts all over the world around three solid lines of work”:

  • valuing and conserving Nature’s diversity,
  • advancing effective and equitable governance of the use of Nature, and
  • deploying Nature-based solutions to climate, food and development challenges.

This approach, according to IUCN, shows that “Nature is not an obstacle to human aspirations”. 

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to IUCN that not all human aspirations are the same. IUCN makes no attempt to explain how this approach addresses conflicting aspirations.

The aspirations, for example, of the Penan who would like what’s left of their rivers and forests to be returned to their control, are not compatible with the aspirations of logging companies, palm oil companies and dam builders whose aim is to profit from bulldozing the forests and blocking the rivers with concrete.

Where are Indigenous Peoples in IUCN’s Congress theme?

IUCN’s statement makes no mention of the impacts that conservation and protected areas have on Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Instead IUCN tells us we need “new partnerships”:

For the alternative path to be credible and viable, we need new partnerships across the planet, between governments, NGOs, conservationists, scientists, consumers, producers, urban planners, entrepreneurs, grassroots and indigenous organisations and financial backers.

This is the first, and only, time that the word “indigenous” appears in IUCN’s statement. Indigenous Peoples are not part of IUCN’s new partnerships – “indigenous organisations” are.

There is, of course, another way of looking at conservation, one that starts with indigenous peoples, their territories, their livelihoods and their rights. But the rights of indigenous peoples are not mentioned anywhere in IUCN’s statement about its 2016 World Conservation Congress.

Of course this is only a statement. But the draft version of the Hawaiʻi Commitments is no better. The word “indigenous” appears three times. The first time acknowledges that some indigenous people were present in Hawai’i. The second time states that,

The wisdom of indigenous traditions is of particular significance as we begin to relearn how to live in relationship with, rather than in dominance over, the natural world.

And here’s the third mention:

The values and wisdom of indigenous people, and the world’s rich faith, religious and spiritual communities provide a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and our relationships with one another and the greater community of life.

The word “rights” does not appear in the draft version of the Hawai’i Commitments.

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  1. Just to suggest a change to the above article:

    WITH THE FINANCIAL SUPPORT OF THE WORLD BANK, during the 1990s hundreds of thousands of lowland Vietnamese moved to the highlands to plant coffee. The result was massive deforestation AND A GLOBAL COLLAPSE IN THE PRICE OF COFFEE AND LOSS OF LIVELIHOODS OF MILLIONS OF SMALL-SCALE PRODUCERS.

  2. Thanks for this comment. I’m not sure that we can blame the World Bank for the expansion of coffee growing in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. In a 2002 piece titled “Vietnam and the world coffee crisis”, Gerard Greenfield (Coordinator of the Social Action Workshop for Alternatives in Asia) wrote:

    “Although a number of NGOs, ‘fair trade coffee’ campaigners, and journalists have blamed World Bank policies for Vietnam’s over-production of coffee, there is not much evidence to support this claim. There was minimal direct Bank lending to the coffee industry in Vietnam. Indirect loans may have played a role, but decisions on actual financing were made by the Vietnamese Bank of Agriculture and state commercial banks. More importantly, the timing of Vietnam’s coffee boom does not match the increase in World Bank activity in Vietnam. Given that coffee trees take four to five years to mature, the extensive planting which led to an explosion of coffee output would have taken place in 1990-91. The bulk of World Bank lending and its imposition of ‘free market’ policies did not begin until after the US embargo was lifted in 1995. In fact bilateral loans and ‘aid’ – particularly from Western European countries and Japan – have played a more significant role in financing Vietnam’s coffee expansion. (Even at the height of the crisis the France Development Fund announced a US$40 million loan to Vietnam in 1998 to create 40,000 hectares of arabica coffee. Although this was presented as an ‘alternative’ to robusta coffee, the emphasis was still on export-oriented expansion of coffee plantations. The recent decline in arabica prices means that farmers who borrowed under this fund at a rate of VND15 million per hectare face financial difficulty even before the trees can be harvested.)”

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