With a global biodiversity crisis well under way and over 1 million plant and animal species threatened with extinction, new approaches are urgently needed to stem biodiversity loss and protect the natural values of global ecosystems for all humans. However, a century of learning also makes it clear that to do so, we must grow beyond our traditional reliance on “protected areas” or “national/regional parks.”

This realization comes in part from the fact that the establishment of parks has often led to conflict and created injustices for local peoples who have cultural ties and legal rights to such areas, because land “protection” often means pushing them out or limiting their access. Because humans rely upon and have deep cultural ties to lands worldwide, global conservation goals can be met effectively in the future only by expanding networks of protected areas thoughtfully; in particular, expansion must occur in ways that create synergies between human livelihoods and conservation rather than through gated conservation models that create environmental injustices.

We believe such synergies are possible in collaborations that combine Indigenous stewardship and conservation practices based in Western science. Much research shows that Indigenous stewardship on traditional lands has supported the sustainable management of natural resources and harvests for centuries in many regions of the world. And in some regions, traditional management practices have been shown to be essential to the persistence of rare and endangered species. Because Indigenous peoples manage or hold tenure to roughly a quarter of the earth’s land area, the development of mutually beneficial partnerships that further conservation goals on Indigenous lands has the potential to advance global conservation efforts dramatically.

Our study published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy highlights the importance of collaborating with Indigenous communities to protect species. We compared the number of species present on Indigenous-managed lands, in protected areas and in random locations in Australia, Brazil and Canada. We used the best available data on the global distribution of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles from the International Union for Conservation of Nature to do so.

The number of species present is equivalent or even slightly higher on Indigenous-managed lands than in protected areas. Both have higher number of species than random locations, indicating that Indigenous-managed lands and protected areas are better at protecting species than random locations, which in itself is a good sign.

In 2015, Canada established the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada. The first of the 19 targets, dubbed Canada Target 1, states: “By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10 percent of marine and coastal areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”

To reach internationally agreed-upon protection targets by 2020, Canada created a set of Indigenous and non-Indigenous working groups called the Pathway to Canada Target 1 in 2016. The Pathway process was designed to reflect renewed relationships that respect the rights, responsibilities and priorities of Indigenous peoples. A key element has been the Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) that led efforts to consider how Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) could be realized in Canada and could contribute to achieving Canada Target 1 in the spirit and practice of reconciliation. Members of the ICE included a core group of Indigenous experts from across Canada and officials from federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions.

The ICE was mandated to produce a report with recommendations and guidance on IPCAs for consideration by Indigenous, federal, provincial and territorial governments. The ICE hosted four regional gatherings to hear from Indigenous peoples across Canada on the IPCA concept, and it based its recommendations on Indigenous knowledge and local experiences in Indigenous-led conservation. This work has resulted in and informed ongoing dialogue and the ICE’s report, titled We Rise Together.

In July 2018, the Dehcho First Nations established the Edéhzhíe Protected Area, on the Horn Plateau in the Northwest Territories. It is the first Indigenous Protected Area to be designated since the inception of the Pathway to Canada Target 1. The area will also be designated a National Wildlife Area in 2020. These measures together secure the protection of more than 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest lands and waters, protecting important wildlife such as caribou, and bringing Canada closer to the goal of 17 percent by 2020. The area will be managed by a consensus management board with the Canadian Wildlife Service in partnership with Dehcho K’ehodi Indigenous Guardians.

The Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program was announced in the 2017 federal budget. This program will provide Indigenous peoples with greater opportunity to exercise responsibility in stewardship of their traditional lands, waters and ice. It supports Indigenous rights and responsibilities in protecting and conserving ecosystems, developing and maintaining sustainable economies and continuing the profound connections between Canadian landscape and Indigenous culture. In late 2018, 28 Indigenous Guardians programs received federal funding.

Recognizing the role of Indigenous lands and leadership in biodiversity conservation and facilitating partnerships to ensure the conservation of habitats on Indigenous lands can provide crucial opportunities for countries like Canada to meet their international commitments. Ideally, such partnerships will be led or co-led by Indigenous communities to avoid historic mistakes and support Indigenous land management practices that allow us to meet or exceed global conservation goals. The Pathway process was a great start, conserving biological and ecosystem diversity for the enduring benefit of nature and future generations. More conservation and careful stewardship of lands is needed globally to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems from further degradation. We are hopeful that the partnerships started during the Pathway process will result in the creation of more Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in the spirit and practice of reconciliation.

Ryan German (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and Nicholas Reo (Dartmouth College) also contributed to this article.

Photo: Shutterstock by Simbalia

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Richard Schuster is a Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University. He studies the ecological impacts of human activities and develops novel techniques to prioritize conservation areas and strategies.
Joseph Bennett is an assistant professor at Carleton University. His research focuses on making better decisions to conserve threatened species, manage invasive species and optimally allocate biological monitoring efforts.
Peter Arcese is FRBC Chair in Conservation, University of British Columbia, with 40 years’ experience working on plant and animal populations of the Coast Salish region of North America, and in Africa and South America.

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