Recognizing Indigenous Peoples' land interests is critical for people and nature

Kanyinke Sena is Director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, a network of 135 Indigenous peoples’ organizations in 22 African countries. Dr Sena is a member of the African Commission Working Group on Indigenous Populations and chaired the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

By fighting for their lands, Indigenous peoples are fighting to save the planet. Although they comprise less than 5% of the world population, Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries. However, despite their critical role in ensuring a resilient and healthy planet for people and nature, there is very little acknowledgment of, or support for, their efforts, especially in Africa.

“Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ land rights, and consequently 80% of global biodiversity, should be placed at the center of present and future global challenges.”

Dr. Sena
Director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee

Our planet is facing a deep crisis rooted in a number of interconnected, global challenges that include infectious diseases like COVID-19, but also climate change, biodiversity loss, and financial collapse. These challenges do not observe national or physical borders and primarily result from human activities such as deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, the expansion of agricultural land, and the increased hunting and trading of wildlife. Most of these activities are undertaken, habitually, in Indigenous peoples’ territories without their free, prior, and informed consent. The continued non-recognition and abuse of Indigenous peoples’ land rights, and consequently the dismissal of 80% of global biodiversity, should be placed at the center of present and future global challenges.

The lawyer and civil rights activist Derrick A. Bell Jr. posited that “only when the interests of a dominant group converge with the interests of a weaker group can the dominant group guarantee the rights of the weaker group.” What genuine interests would therefore guide laws and policies at all levels to protect Indigenous peoples’ land rights while protecting biodiversity.

There are emerging opportunities to drive this discussion. Foremost is increasing recognition by key institutions like the IPCC, the World Bank, the African Union, governments, and NGOs of the nexus between secure community rights and addressing global environmental challenges. Secondly, regional courts and commissions, and national courts, have issued decisions that entrench Indigenous peoples’ land rights, recognizing these rights were not extinguished by formal colonial or post-colonial laws. Third, women’s land rights, including in Indigenous communities, are receiving increasing global attention. This will help reduce internal land-related dynamics among Indigenous communities.

A portrait of a grandmother and two of her granddaughters

The increasing focus on traditional knowledge, which communities have utilized peacefully to coexist with their environments, is becoming of significant interest in international processes. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity Global Thematic Dialogues for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples platform, the IPBES and the work of many NGOs, among others. Last but not least, COVID-19 has shone a bright light on the importance of nature, and business has taken notice.

It’s time to take advantage of existing and emerging partnerships across sectors to converge interest for the sake of people and nature!