Trust Indigenous Land Stewards to Lead on Global Conservation

Canada’s Indigenous-led conservation initiatives are model solutions for protecting biodiversity

This month in Montreal, more than 196 countries are coming together at COP15 to finalize a new Global Biodiversity Framework that aims to protect and restore the natural world. Years of negotiations will culminate in what many hope will be a “Paris Agreement moment” for biodiversity. Yet the rapid loss of plants, animals, and natural spaces that the world has experienced for decades points to a simple truth: our collective conservation efforts have not been close to enough to preserve the delicate ecological balance we all need to survive. A new urgency for meaningful action is desperately needed. Thankfully, a model for rapid, large-scale action can be found in conservation efforts led by Indigenous governments and organizations right here in Canada.

Across Canada, Indigenous governments and organizations are establishing, managing, and co-governing many of the largest conservation areas in the world. From places like Thaidene Nëné  and Edéhzhíe in the Northwest Territories to Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site in Manitoba to the Tursujuq National Park in Quebec, Indigenous governments have established the most significant new protected areas in Canada in recent years. Many more protected areas are moving forward thanks to Indigenous governments and organizations. For example, the Seal River Watershed Alliance—made up of four First Nations—is working to protect the 50,000 km2 Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba. The government of Canada, meanwhile, has become a leader in pushing for the ambitious goal of protecting 30% of global lands and waters by 2030 — a goal that can be achieved in no small part by allying with Indigenous governments and organizations to support their leadership in land and water stewardship and conservation.

Indigenous peoples inhabit 80% of the most biodiverse regions worldwide. Therefore, if the global community is serious about delivering on the ambitions of any new Global Biodiversity Framework that comes out of Montreal, we must follow the lead of Indigenous peoples around the world who have been stewarding these lands for millennia. In Canada, this has involved federal, provincial, and territorial governments collaborating with Indigenous governments and organizations in the establishment of new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, as well as supporting programs like Indigenous Guardians. We must continue to support these programs that stand as a beacon of hope against alarming trends in biodiversity loss. It is a model that should be emulated in every nation.

With the traditional knowledge that stems from thousands of years of on-the-ground experience with their land, wildlife, and ecosystems, Indigenous peoples need to be at the forefront of conservation in every nation. Biodiversity loss is a global phenomenon with devastating consequences for both people and wildlife, and indeed for all of the Earth’s ecosystems. The natural extinction rate is now between 1,000 and 10,000 times its previous rate. A study released in November 2022 found that in Canada alone, 20% of more than 47,000 native species are critically imperiled, imperiled, or vulnerable to extinction. If we do not act quickly, a million species are at risk of extinction globally in the next few decades.

Western science and traditional knowledge both indicate a devastating decline in avian biodiversity. We know there are nearly three billion fewer birds migrating across the Americas than there were in the 1970s. Moreover, National Audubon Society scientists have found that two-thirds of North American bird species will soon be vulnerable to extinction due to climate change. These are sobering measures of society’s collective failure to address the biodiversity and climate crises. Unless we act now to stem global temperature rise, these twin crises will only continue to accelerate.

The billions of birds that still migrate across the Americas point to another central fact: conservation efforts require international cooperation, including Indigenous-led initiatives that cross national borders. Nature is not bound by geopolitical boundaries. We see this especially clearly in the case of birds whose flyways span the Americas. Species like the Red Knot and the Hudsonian Godwit fly from Arctic nesting grounds to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. The Blackburnian Warbler breeds in Canada and the northeastern United States, but winters in northwestern South America. Other birds, like the Merlin, migrate from the Boreal Forest of Canada to the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America.

As negotiations move to conclusion in Montreal, all involved from government to civil society to the private sector and beyond need to invest more in protecting and restoring the natural habitats that not only protect wildlife, but also promote human health and survival. When birds are in trouble, that means people are in trouble too. In 2021, the National Audubon Society found that the places most important for birds often overlap with natural areas that make the planet habitable for us all.  Bird habitats also overlap with areas critical for other forms of biodiversity as well as carbon storage and climate adaptation. As we work to save these critical ecosystems, global goals like protecting 30% of lands and waters by 2030 provide benchmarks for every country to measure its efforts.

But these ambitious targets can only be reached through new models of conservation that recognize the centrality of, and provide critical resources for, Indigenous-led conservation efforts worldwide. Only by recognizing the interrelationship between the natural world and human beings — a recognition that is at the heart of so many Indigenous cultures and practices — can we fulfill the 2050 UN Biodiversity vision of “living in harmony with nature."

Elizabeth Gray is the CEO of the National Audubon Society.

Stephanie Thorassie is the Executive Director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance and member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation.