While more attention is given to the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems at EU and global level, many still understand ‘nature’ as something separate from us. If we really want to address the accelerating depletion of the natural world, we must understand that we are an integral part of it, writes Laura Hildt.

The understanding that biodiversity and the health of ecosystems supporting our life are in drastic decline is beginning to be accepted by a wider public. Yet, the gravity of the problem for human society has still not dawned on most people, with business-as-usual largely unchallenged in many critical areas.

Once a species is extinct, it is gone for good which is a problem in itself, but has even wider implications. There still seems to be a lack of understanding that this particular extinct species, along with the 1 million other animal and plant species threatened by extinction, plays a crucial role in regulating the climate, pollinating our food and protecting us against the emergence of zoonotic diseases amongst other things.

Nature is not a detached commodity that we can use and exploit until depleted as if we are above and beyond it. Human society is deeply and fundamentally interconnected with – and dependent on – healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Without this there is no economy, no food, no health, no society.

Putting a price tag on nature

This message is not just coming from environmental groups but increasingly also from economists. One of the most recent and influential examples is the report on the economics of biodiversity for the UK Treasury, the Dasgupta review. The key message of the report is that: “Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.”

The approach of ascribing value to nature as a commodity, as the Dasgupta review does, is controversial though and not everyone receives it with open arms. Attributing financial value to nature means bringing it within the current logic and structure of our economy. It is accepting the premise that ‘we only value what has a price tag’, so nature must have one too in order to be valued. Yet, some critics question whether we should strive to put a price tag on everything, or whether it is fact counter-productive, short-sighted and misses the point. They argue that since it mimics the system that has created these challenges in the first place, tools originating from that same thinking are incapable of allowing us to address the issues at hand. 

The report does recognise some of the historic issues associated with such an approach and acknowledges the important role for protected areas: “quantity restrictions, informed by science and supported by legislation, will help to correct the externalities pervasive in our engagements with Nature.” 

The report highlights the importance of a good management of protected areas and concludes that more investment is needed: “It has been estimated that to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean and manage these areas effectively by 2030 would require an average investment of $140 billion annually, equivalent to only 0.16% of global GDP and less than a third of the global government subsidies currently supporting activities that destroy nature.” 

It further confirms that the benefits of protection significantly exceed its costs and that “there are wider benefits too, including lowering the risks of societal catastrophes in relation to human health, not least the risks of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases.

Do we need to define the value of healthy ecosystems to be able to protect them? (Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash).

We need more and better protected areas

It is clear that we need a cross-cutting transformational shift in the way we run our economies. To put a brake on the ongoing degradation, protecting and restoring nature are some of the most effective and directly available measures. 

By establishing and managing protected areas, we allow nature to breathe, recover and build resilience. Earlier this year, 52 governments pledged to protect 30% of terrestrial and marine areas by 2030 as part of a ‘High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People‘. The EU has already committed to protect 30% of the EU’s land, including inland waters and sea area, and to put a third of that under strict protection in its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.

These are positive commitments – if they result in action on the ground. This is not achieved by simply declaring an area as protected. Proper management of the site, in line with the conservation objectives and funding must follow. In addition, the designation and management of protected areas needs to take the needs of the local populations into account, especially those of indigenous people who, in many cases, act as guardians of biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples’ rights and nature protection

Understanding and valuing nature as the foundation of life, and therefore also societies, is crucial. Putting a price tag on nature is not the only way to achieve that. While there is an immense diversity of concepts, views, practices and cultures, many indigenous peoples often share a very close connection to their land and nature. Harmonious coexistence with nature, rather than its relentless exploitation, forms a core element of many cultures. 

Globally, indigenous people own, occupy or use about a quarter of all land, yet they safeguard about 80% of all remaining biodiversity on the planet. Indigenous people therefore play a crucial role in the protection of nature and a lot can be learnt from their practices and ways of living with nature.

There are several international agreements aiming to protect indigenous people and their rights to the land, such as the International Labour Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (only ratified by 23 States) or the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (not legally binding). Yet, sadly, indigenous people’s positive contribution to nature protection is often not valued. Instead, they are still evicted from their long-held traditional lands, subjected to physical violence or discriminated against.

At the root of such human rights abuses, we often find gross generalisations based on a ‘Western’ view that nature can only thrive without humans. Indigenous people are often accused of degrading the land they live on and expelled to make way for ‘pristine’ nature reserves, when in reality, they are often inspiring stewards of the natural environments they live in. This approach entirely disregards long-standing traditions and ways to coexist with nature and ignores the beneficial impact of many indigenous peoples’ land management. 

The sustainable use of the land for subsistence by indigenous peoples does not have to be an antidote to conserving biodiversity. The protection of indigenous rights and of biodiversity are both essential and non-negotiable. They are intrinsically intertwined, and this must be recognised in the management of protected areas, including through participatory and bottom-up processes and safeguards to protect indigenous communities. This would enable indigenous communities to continue traditional practices that often bring an incredible contribution to global biodiversity, rather than locking them out of protected areas and denying basic human rights. Protocols and safeguards are increasingly in place but it is crucial to ensure their implementation on the ground.

The need for the protection of indigenous rights and of biodiversity is made even more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments seeking to revive economies through mining, agriculture or logging on and around indigenous lands have only made the situation worse for some indigenous peoples. Such projects do not only constitute grave human rights abuses but also contradict all scientific evidence pointing towards the clear need of a green recovery as well as the link between depleted ecosystems and new diseases. 

Nature protection efforts often end up excluding human presence altogether. (Photo by Anastasia R. on Unsplash).

Safeguarding nature and indigenuos people’s rights in the EU 

Protected areas, when implemented properly, can help to provide safeguards for indigenous communities and nature.The European Commission, government officials and stakeholders are currently discussing the criteria and guidelines for the designation of new protected areas to meet the target of protecting 30% of the EU’s land and sea area with 10% under strict protection.

This is a concrete opportunity to make a difference across the EU and it is crucial that there is a strong emphasis on the proper management of existing and new protected areas as well as adequate investment in protected areas. This must also include regular and standardised monitoring of all criteria to ensure the protected areas are managed effectively. 

Throughout the process, all stakeholders must be engaged, including indigenous people. In strictly protected areas, the focus should be on non-intervention with strict exceptions for activities necessary to achieve the conservation objectives, small-scale subsistence resource use for indigenous people and non-intrusive activities such as hiking, provided they also do not interfere with the conservation objectives. 

When done properly, with due regard to human rights and with proper management, protected areas are key in halting biodiversity loss. However, protected areas cannot be a carte blanche to further destroy and degrade nature outside their limits. They are also not a license to continue ignoring the EU’s ecological footprint, domestically and abroad, caused by unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

Here we come back to the need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the natural world around us. Not just in protected areas but everywhere. Policy and practice in the EU must thus be guided by the fundamental understanding that we must protect nature for society to thrive.

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