At the UN biodiversity meeting, putting local leadership front and center

Aerial photo of village in tropical area

This October, the United Nations will hold a high-level meeting of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a global treaty aimed at preserving the vast and vital array of living things on Earth.

The 2024 meeting is especially noteworthy. Why?

For 30x30 to be successful, it must:

  • Fully embrace rights-based, inclusive, and equitable conservation
  • Focus on conservation outcomes by ensuring ecological representativeness, connectivity, and equitable governance
  • Secure durable, long-term funding for protected areas
  • Recognize and support conserved areas beyond protected areas, such as Indigenous peoples’ lands and sustainable fishing zones
  • Be developed in balance with complementary global efforts to address the main drivers of nature loss, including the climate crisis and unsustainable practices around food and other commodities

First, Colombia will host. In natural wealth alone, few countries rival Colombia’s impressive breadth of species and habitats, from its Caribbean coastline and iconic Amazon forests to its high-Andean watersheds and the abundant waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Further, through its groundbreaking Heritage Colombia initiative, which combines $245 million of public and private financing to permanently conserve millions of acres of landscapes and seascapes across the country, the nation is also showing the kind of leadership that promises to infuse the October meeting with a vibrant mix of seriousness and inspiration.

Second, the October gathering marks the first time representatives from all 196 countries will meet on this stage since agreeing on a framework to halt and reverse the loss of nature, including an ambitious target—often called “30x30”—that includes the historic goal to conserve at least 30% of land, freshwater, and oceans globally by 2030.

There, CBD signatories will formally assess countries’ progress and confirm alignment between their national-level strategies and the shared global target. We already know that progress to date is highly varied: Some countries are still exploring ways to engage, while others are developing 30x30 work plans, which are supported by WWF, Conservation Strategy Fund, and the Global Environment Facility.

But moving successfully from ambitious agreement to effective action will hinge on a few core requirements.

For one, the benefits of conserving 30% of the world’s lands and waters will be almost entirely determined by the kinds of sites that are included. So we must ask: Which areas, for example, ensure the broadest representation of different species and natural systems? Where can key areas remain connected, bolstering one another’s health and impact? And what types of land and water uses—beyond traditional protected areas—can make a meaningful contribution?

In addition, we know that even the brightest vision for what and where will be scuttled if proper care isn’t paid to how.

This brings us to perhaps the most consequential line in the 30x30 text: “. . . recognizing and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, including over their traditional territories.”

Rights-based conservation

Conservation in a place is most likely to succeed when it is shaped around the needs and vision of those who live there.

At a fundamental level, this requires proper consultation processes and safeguards to help avoid adverse outcomes for local people.

The government of Nepal, for example, recently adopted guidelines for better realizing its commitment to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent—essentially the unique rights of Indigenous communities to halt or modify conservation efforts that could impact their lives.

Halfway around the world in North America’s Great Plains, insecticides are vital to stop flea-borne disease from wiping out ferrets and their prairie dog prey. There, safeguards ensure those pesticides are safely applied, clearly marked, and pose minimal risk to local people and the environment.

But good conservation goes beyond solely avoiding costs to people’s well-being and rights. It should also actively seek opportunities to support people in the realization of those rights, including their equitable involvement and leadership in all phases of any project or effort—from planning to implementation to evaluation.

“Indigenous and traditional territories provide habitat for a significant percentage of the world’s biodiversity. Respecting the rights and supporting the livelihoods of the stewards of these places is a human rights and environmental imperative.”


In the Northern Great Plains—the same expansive landscape where safeguards help minimize adverse impacts from black-footed ferret conservation—Native Nations are leading efforts to return buffalo to their lands, lifeways, and economies. WWF and other groups contribute to these efforts in many ways, but only by invitation and within the vision set by Native authorities.

In southern Africa, Namibia’s communal conservancy model is built around communities’ rights to manage their lands and resources, including provisions for the equitable sharing of benefits from the sustainable use of wildlife.

And in Colombia, a groundswell of locally led conservation initiatives has taken shape. In the Amazon, the Murui-Muina Indigenous people lead an effort that combines protecting jaguars with securing legal recognition of their territory and incorporating their traditional knowledge as a central tool for conservation. Hundreds of miles to the north, in the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta wetland, a novel partnership among banana, coffee, and palm growers; conservation groups; government agencies; and local communities is working toward a future where everyone has reliable access to fresh water.

So as we look toward the promises and plans of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s October meeting, it is vital that the global community embrace a rights-based pursuit of the 30x30 target. Because while the ways conservation is conducted are as diverse as the examples above, the central tenet is the same: Conservation is most durable and effective when it is developed and delivered in an equitable way.

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