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Protesters interrupt a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — demanding that the government stop invading Indigenous land — during the opening ceremony of COP15, the UN conference on biodiversity, in Montréal, on Dec. 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Indigenous conservation funding must reflect Canada’s true debt to First Nations, Inuit and Métis

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) wrapped up in Montréal on Sunday. The ratification of the so-called 30x30 proposal to protect 30 per cent of the Earth’s territories by 2030 was a central focus during the 12 days of negotiations at the international summit.

Canada is an enthusiastic supporter of the global 30x30 plan, which is championed by a host of nations and international environmental NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

However, in order to achieve its national targets, Canada is relying heavily on Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) — all under the guise of “federally-supported Indigenous-led conservation”.

As a Red River Métis person and a researcher on freshwater fish futures and Indigenous sovereignty, I believe that these top-down targets and public-private partnerships could do more harm than good to First Nations, Inuit and Métis here, who deserve honest and true recognition of our sovereignty across Canada.

Funding with strings attached

In a report titled We Rise Together, the Indigenous Circle of Experts define IPCAs as “lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems.”

IPCAs are lands and waters where Indigenous governments protect and conserve ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems.

According to the report, IPCAs can be governed under a spectrum of approaches ranging from one that fully affirms the sovereignty of First Nations, Inuit and Métis as sole rights-holders of a territory to so-called partnership approaches that include hybrid, crown-Indigenous or industry-Indigenous partnerships.

At COP15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $800 million in funding for four Indigenous-led conservation projects over seven years to signal Canada’s commitment to Indigenous-led conservation. This is in addition to $340 million in funding for Indigenous-led conservation announced in 2021.

This federally sanctioned Indigenous-led conservation work — championed to help Canada meet its 30x30 targets — relies heavily on partnerships between Indigenous nations, industry and environmental NGOs.

Behind the scenes

Canada’s combined funding of $1.14 billion for Indigenous-led conservation — and its vocal support of the 30x30 plan — seems progressive, until we look at the federal government’s other investments.

The federal government has simultaneously invested billions in resource extractive industries in Canada, including the $4.5 billion spent to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018.

Internationally, $188 billion of Canada’s $273 billion in mining assets support extensive resource extraction abroad, including mining in Indigenous lands in the Global South.

Canada also works closely with industry to criminalize Indigenous land defenders who are fighting resource extractive projects across the country.

The Cash Back report published by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research and education centre, revealed Alberta’s $200 billion debt to the First Nations in the province. This shows that the federal and provincial debt owed to First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada far outpaces the pittance offered to support their land protection and to remunerate Indigenous land protectors.

Conservation at a cost

Canada’s heavy reliance on officially-supported Indigenous-led conservation to meet its targets further complicates things as these targets could significantly impact human rights.

Maasai leaders in Tanzania fight eviction from their lands. Conservation targets can impact human rights by increasing threats of Indigenous and local dispossession and further impoverishment.

Some of the world’s most marginalized communities, including Indigenous and local communities in Africa and Asia, face threats of dispossession, lack of access to their rightful natural resources and further impoverishment.

Canada’s reliance on IPCAs to meet its 30 per cent targets, could risk aiding land grabs and human rights violations in the Global South.

On the eve of COP15, a consortium of non-governmental organizations representing Indigenous Peoples in the Global South issued a damning plea about the 30x30 plan, urging policymakers not to fetishize a quantified protected area approach. They pointed out that this would come at the cost of addressing the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss, including colonial capitalist extraction and overconsumption.

Tackling the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss

IPCAs in Canada are a potential antidote to the traditional fortress conservation or protected area model employed by eurocolonial parties here in the past. According to these models, biodiversity protection can be achieved only by creating protected areas where ecosystems can function in isolation from human disturbance, thus resulting in the eviction of forest-dwelling communities and Indigenous Peoples.

This being said, we must ensure that these IPCAs are not weaponized by states and environmental groups to silence the concerns about the 30x30 plan from Indigenous communities in the Global South who are not necessarily guaranteed the same legal protections that the federally-supported Indigenous-led conservation in Canada pledges.

At a time when public-private partnerships are facing scathing scrutiny in Canada and internationally, the conservation approaches and policies offered to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities by the government also need to be scrutinized.

These approaches and policies should fully acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous communities without pressure to exchange autonomy for limited funding and partnership support.

Canada is built on lands and waters procured through dispossession and displacement of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The government must, therefore, compensate our communities for the losses incurred across every stretch of this country.

We deserve better than 30x30. We deserve our land back. We deserve honest and true recognition of First Nations, Inuit and Métis sovereignty across Canada.

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