Increasing household income and a human population expected to grow from seven to nine billion people in the next 20 years have driven up global demand for food, fiber, fuel and other natural resources. Rapid urbanization means that more people are consuming in a way that puts untenable pressure on nature.
One way to conserve viable populations of many animal and plant species is to create areas that are off-limits to industrial-scale development. But reducing human pressures does not mean that an area must be entirely free of people. In fact, evidence shows that many of nature’s remaining strongholds have maintained high natural values precisely because of the stewardship of local people over generations.
A recent article in PLoS Biology found that unsustainable extraction of natural resources and large-scale habitat destruction threatens terrestrial species across 84 percent of the earth’s surface. Of the 5,457 terrestrial vertebrates included in the study, about a quarter face impacts across more than 90 percent of their range and may become locally extinct in many areas. Even where populations persist, their numbers are often so small that it is unlikely they will remain viable in the long term. Continuing species loss is both an indicator and a driver of the degradation of natural ecosystems upon which humans depend.
The PLoS Biology study complements an article published last year in Science by many of the same authors, which found that human pressures are undermining the ability of many of the world’s protected areas to achieve the conservation goals for which they were created. Nearly a third of the world’s six million square kilometers of protected areas are under intense human pressure, the researchers reported.
These two assessments highlight a threat to the integrity of our natural ecosystems and the critical functions they provide. While protected areas play a necessary role in conserving biodiversity and intact ecosystems, they are an insufficient response to the challenges we face if not strengthened and supplemented by other conservation actions.
We must proactively plan our use of the earth’s remaining natural areas to reflect their significance for people living there and the quality of life on this planet more generally. This is especially true in the case of indigenous lands. Globally, the lands of indigenous peoples are twice as likely as non-indigenous lands to have high natural values. Indeed, about 37 of the world’s terrestrial surface where conservation values persist have indigenous populations.
Moreover, species loss and ecosystem degradation are often outcomes of indigenous peoples having been dispossessed of their lands and resources and deprived of the opportunity to effectively govern the areas that remain under their control.
Supporting the efforts of indigenous peoples to secure and exercise their legitimate rights over areas of high natural value represents a cost-effective means of reducing and redirecting human pressures while redressing injustices associated with the misappropriation of indigenous lands and resources. Lands managed by indigenous peoples tend to be especially effective at avoiding deforestation.
As we look to a post-2020 global framework for preserving biodiversity, effectively managed protected areas cannot alone achieve our global conservation goals. Even if we reach the ambitious target of placing 30 percent of land and oceans under protection, human pressure on nature will continue across the remaining 70 percent. Investing in protected areas will be effective only if we simultaneously support the sustainable management of adjacent areas with high natural values.
In any effort to conserve and effectively manage nature’s strongholds, we need to think about supporting the legitimate rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities to govern access to and use of their territorial resources. By ensuring that local communities continue to have the incentives and authority to be effective stewards, we can likewise ensure that our consumption remains sustainable long into the future.