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Over 50 nations want to put 30% of the world’s land and waters into protected status by 2030.
Advocacy groups for indigenous people say the move would force 300 million people off their land.
Supporters of the plan say giving indigenous people more power is the key to land and water protections.
As part of his plan to put the brakes on climate change, President Joe Biden set a goal of conserving 30% of America’s land and waters by 2030. For land in particular, that’s a heavy lift — only about 12% of the nation’s land is now under some form of protection.
Biden’s target is part of a larger international ambition to protect a third of the world’s land and waters by 2030. On a global scale, the protected regions would do a lot of work to pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil, coral reefs, sea grasses and other carbon sinks. The effort goes under name 30 by 30, or 30x30.
But some advocates for indigenous peoples see a threat in the international push to protect land.
One of those groups, Survival International, calls the global 30x30 plan "the biggest land grab in history."
Survival International sees the 30x30 initiative as driving people off the land their communities may have occupied for hundreds of years, without giving them a fair voice in the process.
"Three hundred million people stand to lose their land and livelihood, most of them tribal and indigenous peoples," the group said in a message posted to its website on Earth Day, April 22.
The 300 million figure, almost as much as the population of the U.S., is a very large number. We dug in to see where that figure comes from, and whether it represents a reasonable estimate of the likely harm due to the 30x30 plan.
Backers of the 30x30 initiative question Survival International’s reasoning. They say that the plan is designed to strengthen the rights of indigenous people to stay on their land and maintain a traditional way of life — that conservation doesn’t necessarily mean eviction.
Independent experts, meanwhile, see the 300 million figure as a reasonable estimate of how many people live in or near areas that are prime for conservation. But they don’t agree that the number accurately reflects how many could lose their land in the context of 30x30.
A group of 51 countries, led by Costa Rica, France and the United Kingdom, are pressing to see the 30x30 goal adopted at a major international gathering on biodiversity taking place in China in October. The group includes nations from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas.
Protecting indigenous peoples ranks at the top of their priorities.
"Indigenous peoples and local communities are protectors of the most biodiverse sites in the world," the group wrote when they launched Jan. 11, 2021. "To effectively and equitably meet this increased target, they should be engaged as partners in the design and management of these conserved areas."
Brian O’Donnell, director of Colorado-based Campaign for Nature, backs the 30x30 effort. He objects to the characterization by Survival International.
"They have redefined our policies and our intent," O’Donnell said. "Our aim is to safeguard and secure more rights for indigenous people. Getting land tenure rights for indigenous people is the pathway to reach 30x30."
O’Donnell said there is no dispute that conservation efforts have displaced people and led to human rights abuses in the past. He also said the current draft of the biodiversity framework slated for a vote in October should change.
"It’s a work in progress," he said. "There are some safeguards in there now for indigenous people, but they need to be stronger."
Staff at Survival International said they derived their estimate of 300 million from a 2019 study that looked at a more ambitious goal of protecting half of the world’s land and waters from development.
A team led by a University of Cambridge researcher estimated that at that 50% level, at least 1 billion people live in areas that would fall under some form of protection. Survival International staff said that in a follow-up email to a partner group — the Rainforest Foundation UK — the Cambridge researcher said preservation of 30% of land and water would affect about 297 million people.
Survival International added its own take on the study. Where the researchers warned of potential problems with that level of protection, Survival International expressed it more definitively: that the 30x30 plan "will increase human suffering and the destruction of nature. It is a deadly distraction from what is urgently needed to secure human diversity and all biodiversity: the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to their land."
One clarification: Survival International said in its article that "most" of the 300 million people potentially affected would be indigenous or tribal people. But when pressed, the group's staff said it’s not clear that it would be a majority. They told us they should have said "many."
There are countless examples in history of indigenous people being forced off their land in the name of conservation. In Botswana, the government banned the San people of the Kalahari desert from their traditional lands to boost tourism and mining. In Thailand, two national park officials were charged with the murder of an indigenous human rights defender in 2019. The government later sought to have the forest that the activist had fought over designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
In the U.S., Montana’s Glacier National Park was carved out of land used by the Blackfeet Nation. Initially, tribe members had negotiated to hold on to hunting and fishing rights. But when the park was created in 1910, they lost everything.
The abuses continue today, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t happen under the 30x30 initiative. But protecting land doesn’t have to entail displacing people. It is a risk, not a certainty.
And the extent of that risk depends on how the land is protected. Globally, policies in the category of conservation vary, from cutting off all human activity, to allowing traditional practices, to allowing other sustainable uses. Each nation can craft its own rules for each situation. In the U.S., the interplay of legislation, an open public process and executive decisions have produced places where many uses are allowed, and others where there are no roads and no permanent residences.
Researcher Stephen Garnett at Charles Darwin University in Australia cautioned that Survival International’s 300 million estimate, when applied to 30x30, is shaky for two reasons. First, we can’t know for sure which lands would be conserved under the plan. Second, the 30x30 strategy doesn’t hinge on setting land aside in a way that would ban farming or other land uses.
Garnett says Australia has approached this by designating "Indigenous Protected Areas" to make sure aboriginal residents can continue to live on and use the land as they always have. They make up nearly half of Australia’s conserved areas, he said.
A quick look at Survival International’s own website shows the pitfalls of treating all types of conservation projects as a threat to indigenous people.
One news brief focuses on a tribe in India protesting their eviction from traditional honey-gathering sites inside the Nagarhole National Park. With backing from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the land is now a refuge for tigers, and a source of tourism dollars.
But another bulletin tells the story of an indigenous group in Peru that wants an international human rights commission to enforce protections for land that was supposed to be kept as a tribal reserve. The Peruvian government, the post said, had reactivated logging, oil and gas concessions in these areas.
Both are examples of conservation efforts. But in the first case, conservation leads to the eviction of people. In the second, conservation is a tool to protect traditional uses of the land.
Survival International campaign director Fiore Longo acknowledged in an email to PolitiFact that the terms can get confusing, and "we have to see what a protected area means and which model is applied where."
But in the dire prediction on its website that 30x30 would put 300 million people at risk, Survival International doesn’t spell out those nuances.
"The main assumption to yield a number like that is that anyone in a future protected area would get kicked out," said University of Maryland ecology professor Erle Ellis. "This is not the intention of anyone working on 30x30."
Survival International said under the 30x30 plan, "300 million people stand to lose their land and livelihood, most of them tribal and indigenous peoples."
The 300 million figure is derived from a study on the impact of land conservation efforts, but not the 30x30 initiative specifically. While conservation efforts have led to forced evictions in the past, that’s not always the case, and the assumption that 30x30 would do so runs counter to the stated priorities of the nations pressing for the plan.
Survival International said it should have said "many" not "most" of the 300 million would be indigenous people.
The claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
Survival International, Survival International launches campaign to stop "30x30" – "the biggest land grab in history", April 22, 2021
Instagram, post, May 1, 2021
UN Environment Programme, DRAFT OF THE POST-2020 GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY FRAMEWORK, Aug. 17, 2020
High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, Fact sheet, Jan. 11, 2021
Cambridge University Conservation Research Institute, Protecting 30% of the planet for nature: costs, benefits and economic implications, accessed May 5, 2021
Nature Sustainability, A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation, July 16, 2018
Rights and Resources Initiative, Rights-Based Conservation: The path to preserving Earth’s biological and cultural diversity?, November 2020
Survival International, Honey-collecting tribe launches indefinite protest for right to stay in tiger reserve, March 22, 2021
Wildcats Conservation Alliance, Threat Reduction to Tigers through Empowerment and Livelihood Support in Malenad-Mysore Tiger Landscape (MMTL), Southern India, accessed May 4, 2021
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Interview Brian O’Donnell, director, Campaign for Nature, May 5, 2021
Email exchange, Erle Ellis, professor and director of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology, University of Maryland - Baltimore County, May 5, 2021
Email exchange, Fiore Longo, campaign director, Survival International, May 4, 2021
Email exchange, Rebecca Bliege Bird, professor of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, May 4, 2021
Email exchange, Stephen Garnett, director, Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Casuarina, NT, Australia, May 6, 2021
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