With the conclusion of the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on 19 December 2022, a breath of relief seemed to sweep through the international media landscape. After all, this ‘crucial’ meeting (Weston & Greenfield, 2022) led to the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), named after the split way CoP15 was held (in Kunming, China, online, and in Montreal, Canada, in person). In the international media, the list of which can be found below this article, the GBF was indeed hailed as ‘historic’ (Gilbert, 2022; Greenfield & Weston, 2022; Schauenberg, 2022; NTB-AP, 2022; Flemmich & Dönsberg, 2022; Euronews, 2022a), especially since a major and controversial element within the framework is the so-called ’30 by 30’ (or ‘30×30’) target. This target aims to place 30% of all land and sea areas under a managed framework of protected areas or other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) by the year 2030.
In this article, I examine what is indeed ‘historic’ about the GBF and the associated 30×30 target and whether the perception of a ‘deal for nature’ might not actually be misleading.
The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)
The GBF is a major attempt by the Parties to the CBD to halt the loss in biodiversity, which has been identified by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as dramatic (IPBES, 2019). The GBF can be considered an updated, more ambitious and more thought-through document than its predecessor — the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (CBD, 2020)— which have, by and large, not been met for various reasons by its ‘deadline’ 2020 (Xu et al., 2021). In essence, the GBF is divided into two major parts: first, the listing of four long-term goals which should be reached by the year 2050. These goals encompass the protection and increase of ecosystems (Goal A), the sustainable use of biodiversity and a potential increase in its use for the benefit of humankind (Goal B), the sustainable use of genetic resources and their equitable sharing (Goal C), and adequate implementation of the GBF through technology transfer, financial resources or capacity-building (Goal D).
While these goals are held very broadly, the GBF, furthermore, includes 23 targets which are to be reached by 2030, e.g.: to ensure that the management and use of wild species are sustainable, thereby providing social, economic and environmental benefits for people (Target 9); Ensure the full integration of biodiversity and its multiple values into policies, regulations, planning and development processes, poverty eradication strategies, strategic environmental assessments, environmental impact assessments (Target 14); or ensure the full, equitable, inclusive, effective and gender-responsive representation and participation in decision-making, and access to justice and information related to biodiversity by indigenous peoples and local communities (Target 22).
One of these, Target 3, is crucial in the medial depiction of the GBF as being historic. As mentioned in the Introduction, this target aims to protect 30% of all land, sea and inland water areas by the year 2030 through a network of protected areas as well as other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs). Target 3 is even more ambitious than Aichi Target 11, which — unsuccessfully — aimed to protect 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of all marine and coastal areas by the year 2020 (see Carr et al., 2020). As shown in various media sources, the putting in place a network of protected areas in their various forms is considered to be the remedy against increasing biodiversity loss.
What is ‘historic’ about the GBF?
While the different media outlets frame the ‘historicity’ of the GBF as being related to the 30×30 target and the ambition that underlies it, its significance lies, at least in my view, somewhere else. For while it is indeed ambitious, there is no way to tell whether or not it will actually work — especially in light of the failed Aichi Targets. So, when looking at this ‘historic’ framework, particularly compared to Aichi, two elements come to the fore: finances, and the role of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Financial aspects of the GBF
While the Aichi Targets very broadly refer to the “the mobilization of financial resources for effectively implementing the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020” (Target 22), no closer stipulation of this point can be found. This is fundamentally different in the GBF. Here, concrete numbers can be found. First, Goal D refers to “progressively closing the biodiversity finance gap of 700 billion dollars per year”, thereby aiming to address the biodiversity funding gap of USD 285—700 billion that has been identified by UNEP (UNEP, 2022) and others (e.g. Paulson Institute, 2020). This means that by 2050, the required investments into nature conservation are linked to a concrete number that allows to be a guide, particularly for developed countries, i.e. G20.
But the GBF goes further. Financial issues are also addressed in Targets 18 and 19, both of which are therefore to be implemented by 2030. Target 18 aims to “eliminate, phase out or reform incentives, including subsidies, harmful for biodiversity” by the year 2025 by USD 500 billion per year. In other words, national governments are urged to financially limit funding for those industries or businesses which may cause harm to the environment. While the target does not exclusively urge them to eliminate all funding, it nevertheless calls for a reform of this funding. How or in what way this reform or elimination is to occur (except for being “proportionate, just, fair, effective and equitable”), it aims to “substantially and progressively” reduce this funding by 2030. This target can be interpreted as being a major step towards the ‘greening’ of harmful industries and businesses by turning off the money tap in the long run. Since Section E of the document stresses the ‘Theory of change’ which “recognizes that urgent policy action is required globally, regionally and nationally to achieve sustainable development so that the drivers of undesirable change that have exacerbated biodiversity loss will be reduced and/or reversed”, this element is well in line with the underlying premise of CoP15’s vision of effective biodiversity conservation.
Target 19, however, goes much more into detail. Here, the national governments are, in addition to Target 18, urged to invest in biodiversity conservation. They are to “significantly and progressively increase the level of financial resources[…] to implement national biodiversity strategies and action plans, by 2030 mobilizing at least 200 billion United States dollars per year.” While this number still ranges well below the identified biodiversity investment gap (see UNEP, 2022; Paulson Institute 2020), it should be considered in parallel with Target 18, which essentially marks an investment as well by reducing funding.
Be that as it may, Target 19(a) places the burden of investments on the developed states. By 2025, they are thus to increase their funding for biodiversity-related investments to USD 20 billion “in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States, and to at least US$ 30 billion per year by 2030.” This consequently means that the GBF is finding new ways to implement to principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ — a key principle in the 1992 Rio Declaration, which maintains that all states are responsible in addressing environmental harm, but not all are equally responsible in doing so. This refers to developed states who now have the means to develop ‘green’ technology, but have caused severe environmental damage in the past. The GBF therefore puts more responsibility on the shoulders of developed states in supporting developing countries to reach a higher economic level, but by doing so in an environmentally less harmful way.
The recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities
Before the GBF was even adopted, indigenous organisations called for resistance against its adoption. Survival International, a lobby group for the advancement of indigenous rights, for instance, called the planned 30×30 goal ‘The Big Green Lie’ (Survival International, Undated), fearing that its adoption would lead to a justification for so-called ‘fortress conservation’, expelling indigenous peoples and local communities from the lands they have traditionally inhabited in the name of nature conservation. This fear is far from being alarmist or unrealistic, as for instance the violence against the Batwa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has painfully demonstrated (Sellheim Environmental, 2022) or concerning forced relocation of Maasai in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania — an issue the German Zeit recently reported on (Böhm, 2023).
It seems, however, as if the long negotiations of the GBF have led to a document that — at least on paper — recognises the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Already the Decision that adopts the GBF in paragraph 4 urges governments and other actors to foster “the full and effective contributions of women, youth, indigenous peoples and local communities, civil society organizations, the private and financial sectors, and stakeholders from all other sectors” and in paragraph 6 “Reaffirms its expectation that Parties and other Governments will ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are respected and given effect to” (original emphasis).
Section C of the GBF on implementation contains a subsection dealing with the ‘Contribution and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.’ This subsection, first, recognises the importance of IPLCs as custodians of biodiversity; second, it aims to ensure that indigenous rights, practices and traditional knowledge are respected, documented and preserved; third, aims to do so with their free, prior and informed consent (which is also stipulated in Target 21); fourth, aims to ensure their full participation; and lastly, fifth, in reference to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, establishes that the GBF is to be implemented without diminishing or extinguishing the rights of indigenous peoples.
This is further underlined throughout the different targets that are to be implemented by 2030. Especially the 30×30 target, i.e. Target 3, makes reference to the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities — as a response to the resistance its adoption had faced before. The target therefore aims to “recognize indigenous and traditional territories” and to recognise and respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, “including over their traditional territories.” Indeed, also the customary use of biodiversity is respected and protected in Target 5 and further encouraged in Target 9.
Based on the recurring recognition of indigenous rights throughout the document, one might argue that, especially in comparison with the Aichi Targets, the GBF is indeed ‘historic’ as no other biodiversity-related document adopted under any other biodiversity agreement makes such frequent and rights-based reference to indigenous peoples and local communities. Consequently, the loud voices of indigenous organisations appear to have paid off in so far as their rights are recognised and they are to be active actors within biodiversity conservation initiatives.
The blind spot
In the media outlets that have covered the CBD negotiations and the respective outcomes, the voices of indigenous peoples and local communities are traditionally (or let’s rather say historically) unreflected. This is to say that hardly any mention is made of their concerns. Instead, most articles refer to the fact that the rights of indigenous peoples are to be respected and/or that their role in biodiversity conservation might change (positively) (Schauenberg, 2022; Flemmich & Dönsberg, 2022; Gilbert, 2022; Greenfield & Weston, 2022; Weston & Greenfield, 2022). One media article I found explicitly dealt with indigenous concerns (Euronews, 2022b), albeit not in the way one might expect. In this article, the concerns of Latin American indigenous peoples over potential deforestation is addressed in response to a planned regulation by the European Union which aims to guarantee consumers that the products they buy do not contribute to deforestation (European Commission, 2022). While they welcome the law, the article stresses, it is not sufficient to effectively protect species. Merely one sentence notes that indigenous peoples are demanding that their voices be heard at COP15 in Montreal, even though their territories are home to 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity.
While indeed the role of indigenous peoples and local communities appears to be strengthened in the GBF, this role oftentimes comes with several limitations in formulation: “where applicable” or “as appropriate.” These words weaken the seemingly rights-based approach to conservation in so far as there is no clear mechanism to determine where this is applicable or when it is appropriate. It is consequently in the eye of the respective nation state to determine whether or not the protection of rights and lands is either applicable or appropriate. This is also what Cultural Survival, another lobby group for indigenous rights, has lamented after the adoption of the GBF (Cultural Survival, 2022).
What stands out in the GBF — factually making it historical and not historic — is the blind spot of the rights of local communities. While the GBF refers to the indigenous peoples and local communities on numerous occasions (in fact, the term ‘local communities’ occurs 16 times throughout the document), rather vague formulations in terms of human rights can be found while on one occasion reference is made to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The recently adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) is missing entirely from the document. UNDROP is a groundbreaking document, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, for the rights of indigenous and non-indigenous rural people(s) (see Gradoni & Pasquet, 2022; for a German overview of the declaration, see Sellheim, 2022). A truly rights-based approach would have required reference to this declaration as well. However, as seen in CITES, for example, this declaration has not been widely recognised as solidifying the rights of local communities (Sellheim, 2020).
While the 30×30 Target within the GBF is indeed ambitious, to me it does not seem to be entirely clear why international media outlets have used this target to label the framework as ‘historic’. Other elements stand out much more, such as clear financial guidelines or the rights of indigenous peoples. What would have made the framework truly ‘historic’ would have been the absence of any leeway concerning the rights of indigenous peoples and a true recognition of their role as wardens of biodiversity.
What is concerning in this regard is the fact that easily-accessible medial outlets — at least the ones that I have consulted — make no reference to the problems associated with the 30×30 target in relation to indigenous peoples. Instead, the focus lies on the territorial approach to conservation with a complete disregard of other approaches. Headlines count, not diverse and reflective content.
In addition, a truly historic approach of the GBF would have been to emphasise the rights of local communities as well. While they are mentioned in line with indigenous peoples (and therefore in line with Article 8 (j) of the CBD itself), it remains unclear what rights, other than those enshrined under general human rights law, they are to hold. While there is a UN declaration that provides them with a large number of rights, the UNDROP, this document is fully absent from the GBF, making it yet another example for a blind spot which is all so common in discourses on conservation.
The above deliberations leave me to conclude that most media outlets when reporting about CoP15 seem to have forgotten the ‘-al’ in their respective headings: The GBF is not ‘historic’, it’s ‘historical’.