Indigenous-led Conservation in the International Spotlight

The shaputuan, a traditional structure of the Innu Nation, at the heart of the Indigenous Village at COP15 was the largest Indigenous structure to stand in Montreal in centuries. All photos courtesy of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

The last few years have brought a cascade of stories about the decline of the natural world. Yet amid the grim news, a bright spot shines through. Lands managed by Indigenous Peoples tend to be healthier and more vibrant than other areas, according to several major studies. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on lands cared for by Indigenous Peoples. 

The power of Indigenous-led conservation took center stage at the UN Biodiversity Summit in Montreal in December. Known as COP15, the summit was a once-in-a-decade negotiation aimed at reversing the perilous decline of animals, plants, and the larger web of natural systems we all rely on. On December 19, nearly 200 countries signed a set of commitments, including one to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. 

The agreement calls on countries to recognize Indigenous rights, lands, and knowledge. During the negotiations, delegates learned about the sweeping scale and proven success of Indigenous-led conservation by visiting the Indigenous Village located a few blocks away from the convention center. 

The village was hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI)–a partner of Resources Legacy Fund (RLF).* The ILI is the only national, Indigenous-led conservation organization in Canada. It supports Indigenous Nations in honoring the responsibility to care for lands and waters and strengthening Indigenous Nationhood. 

“Building the village was our way of Indigenizing the space around COP15,” said Valérie Courtois, the executive director of the ILI. “We wanted to celebrate the momentum of Indigenous-led conservation. After all, Indigenous Nations are leading the biggest, most ambitious plans for protecting lands and waters in what is now known as Canada. The village was a way to shine a spotlight on that work and share it with our friends from around the world.”

Valérie Courtois, the executive director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, speaks on a panel with ILI senior leaders Hereditary Chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation Frank Brown, the Honourable Ethel Blondin Andrew, Order of Canada, and Miles Richardson, Order of Canada. 

At the heart of the village stood a shaputuan, a traditional Innu structure. The shaputuan provided a heated, spacious gathering place for over 130 people to connect, listen to panels, and attend film screenings. Speakers came from Indigenous Nations across Canada and many described their work creating large-scale Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA) and launching Indigenous Guardians programs to care for these places on behalf of their Nations. Speakers from the Philippines, Columbia, Australia, and other countries also shared their stewardship experiences. 

Gillian Staveley, the director of culture and land stewardship at the Dena Kayeh Institute, spoke on a panel about the Kaska Dena’s plan to create an IPCA spanning over 40,000 square kilometers in Northern British Columbia. “The Indigenous Village has been a breath of fresh air,” she said. “It’s amazing to hear speakers from across the globe speaking their stories, their Indigenous languages, holding their own ceremonies. It does feel like a movement and it’s incredible to be a part of that.” 

Over the course of three days, hundreds of people came to the village for connection and learning. Thomas Joseph, Policy Educator, Indigenous Environmental Network, US, said “Coming to the Indigenous Village and being amongst my own people was healing, it was uplifting, it was inspiring.”

Visitors were joined by several prominent leaders, from Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee to California’s Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot.** Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada Steven Guilbeault spent time walking around the cultural demonstrations and speaking to the crowd. “The Government of Canada is working really hard with many of our allies around the world who also believe that Indigenous-led conservation needs to be at the forefront,” the minister said. 

Gillian Stavely (left) spoke about the Kaska Dena’s plan to protect 40,000 square kilometers in northern British Columbia, and Ashley Menichoche (right) spoke about the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area in the Northwest Territories. 

The village was also a place to celebrate important announcements. On December 7, on the opening day of COP15, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau pledged $800 million in new funding to support four Indigenous-led, regional-scale conservation initiatives, including one the ILI is helping convene in the Northwest Territories. Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty from the Northwest Territories said the announcement “has the potential to improve the wellbeing of our people across our great North.”

Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty speaks after Prime Minister Trudeau announced $800 million for Indigenous-led, regional-scale conservation projects. 

A few days later, Minister Guilbeault, ILI’s Executive Director Courtois, and others announced the launch of the First Nations National Guardians Network. Guardians are trained experts who draw on Indigenous and western science to manage protected areas, conduct research into climate impacts, monitor species, and support culture and language programs. The network announced at COP15 will help get resources into the field faster and offer training and knowledge exchanges. 

The network is also the first-of-its-kind, national Indigenous-led stewardship network. “Five years ago, there were about 30 Guardians programs. Now there are over 120 Guardians programs operating across the country. This is just the beginning,” said Courtois. “With this network, we are establishing a new way for Indigenous Nations and the federal government to work together as partners. It’s an exciting model and we hope it will spread around the world.” ILI hosted a party to celebrate the announcement at the Indigenous Village, complete with musical guests and traditional foods. 

Many visitors to the village left with a sense of momentum, inspired by the growth in Guardians programs, the scores of IPCAs being proposed across Canada–taken together they could protect over 500,000 square kilometers–and all the other models shared from around the world. 

Amberely Quakegesic, the coordinator for the Wahkohtowin Guardian program in Ontario, said: “I’ve been at the Indigenous village all weekend. Listening to Indigenous people from all over the world talk about preserving biodiversity and Indigenous-led conservation has been extremely empowering. It makes me feel more hopeful just being surrounded by these people.”

It’s up to all of us—Indigenous Peoples and allies alike—to build upon this incredible momentum and continue shining more light on this bright spot in conservation, biodiversity, and justice. 

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* RLF staff, in collaboration with other philanthropic partners, have been quietly supporting efforts to advance Indigenous conservation leadership for over 20 years through the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC). The ILI has been a primary partner in IBCC for several years, and starting in 2023, it will take over the boreal campaign and direct resources, determine strategy, and guide partnerships. RLF will continue to offer ILI support, as needed.

** RLF, in partnership with the California Environmental Voters Education Fund, supported a delegation of California legislators to attend COP 15 as official observers. The delegation—which included Assemblymembers Laura Friedman, Phil Ting, and Ash Kalra, and Senators Ben Allen, Henry Stern, Lena Gonzalez, and Scott Weiner—complemented attendance by Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Deputy Secretary Jennifer Norris, and then Acting Deputy Secretary Jenn Eckerle. RLF also supported an event, “California Takes on Biodiversity: A Roundtable,” to discuss California’s efforts to create the Pathways to 30×30 strategy.