Indigenous-Led Conservation Vital to Canada’s Biodiversity Efforts

By partnering with First Nations and Indigenous peoples, the country becomes a leader in protecting lands and oceans

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Indigenous-Led Conservation Vital to Canada’s Biodiversity Efforts
Canada
Tommy Lafferty, of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, drives his boat alongside the steep rock face of Redcliffe Island within Thaidene Nëné. Known as the “Land of the Ancestors,” Thaidene Nëné is among several areas created through Indigenous-led conservation efforts.
Pat Kane

Late last month, a United Nations report delivered a sobering message: The world had failed to meet 2020 conservation targets set a decade prior, an indication that land and ocean ecosystems aren’t getting the support they need to sustain biodiversity. There was a ray of hope, however. A companion report that includes Indigenous perspectives, the Local Biodiversity outlook, stressed that conservation efforts by Indigenous communities, including those across Canada, point the way to solutions that should be applied more broadly.

Canada, which contains one-quarter of the world’s wetlands, 10 percent of its forests, and the longest shoreline, is playing a leading role in global conservation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at the opening of Parliament and at the United Nations, reiterated the country’s commitment to protect 30 percent of its land by 2030. So far, Canada is the first and only large land mass country to pledge this conservation goal, which is one of the aims of the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity.

Canada has found that the most enduring and reliable path toward achieving these outcomes is through support of First Nations and Indigenous peoples, whose methods of protecting land and seas can stand as a model for the rest of the world. “To take care of ourselves, we must take care of nature,” Trudeau said. “We need to partner with Indigenous peoples, root our decisions in science, and seek local perspectives to build a healthier and more resilient planet.”  

In a statement backing Trudeau’s words, Frank Brown, a senior leader of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a Canadian-based network that supports Indigenous conservation, noted the importance of these efforts. “By placing Indigenous-led conservation at the heart of its approach to protecting both nature and climate, Canada can lead the world in promoting a new model of ethical conservation—one rooted in respect, responsibility, and reconciliation,” Brown said.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have been at the heart of conserving their homelands and environment for millennia. But their communities have only recently been recognized as equal contributors in creating protected and safeguarded areas that support conservation and livelihoods in places such as Thaidene Nëné, Pimachiowin Aki, and Tallurutiup Imanga. And more Indigenous-led protections are on the horizon.

Support for large-scale conservation isn’t found only in Indigenous communities and in the country’s leadership; it comes from a majority of Canadians as well. In a June 2020 poll conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights for the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (The Pew Charitable Trusts is a founding member of this campaign), more than 80% of  Canadians gave resounding support to the federal government’s investment in protecting 30% of lands by 2030. And, despite the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19, more than 70% of Canadians think that nature conservation is vital to their economic future, with almost three-quarters considering Indigenous-led conservation an important part of the country’s economic recovery.

Although diminished resources remain a global problem, Canada is pointing us to a conservation “North Star” by example, one that many other countries should follow. By embracing the knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their stewardship, Canada is providing much-needed leadership vital to helping mitigate climate change, and supporting the international community in improving conservation outcomes.

Lauren Spurrier directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on land and freshwater conservation programs.

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