World Conservation Congress votes to protect indigenous sacred lands

The Ecologist
September 13th, 2016
By: Hal Rhoades

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has passed a motion declaring that all protected areas and the sacred natural sites of indigenous peoples should be 'No-Go Areas' for destructive industrial activities like mining, dam-building and logging.

The motion was passed as Motion 26 during last week's World Conservation Congress, a gathering that occurs every four years and helps to set the world's conservation agenda.

Motion 26 urges governments to "respect all categories of IUCN protected areas as No-Go Areas for environmentally damaging industrial-scale activities and infrastructure development." It also calls on businesses to "withdraw from exploration or activities in these areas, and not to conduct future activities in protected areas."

The successful passage of Motion 26 will come as welcome news to the hundreds of indigenous nations struggling to protect their lands at a time when sacred sites and protected areas of all types are under threat from extractive industries.

The motion's success owes much to an indigenous delegation from the Uʻwa People of Colombia, the Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, Winnemem Wintu, US, Gabbra herdsmen, Kenya and others from Benin, Papua New Guinea, Russia and Mongolia, who were present at the conference in Hawai'i.

As protests over the desecration of the Standing Rock Sioux's sacred lands intensified last week, these custodians gathered in Honolulu to raise critical awareness of the profound importance of sacred sites for indigenous peoples and efforts to protect embattled ecosystems worldwide.

'We take care of nature, nature takes care of us'

In a statement entitled Statement of Indigenous Kahu`āina Guardians of Sacred Lands released during the congress, the group of indigenous custodians supporting Motion 26 affirm their unified understanding of sacred sites.

They describe these sites as natural places, such as mountains and springs, which are "nodal points, responsible for the harmonious and healthy functioning of Mother Earth."

These sacred sites are "essential to sustaining the biodiversity and health of the lands, oceans, waters and air of our planet and the well-being of humanity", say the custodians, who are responsible for the day-to-day care of their people's sacred places.

In their statement the custodians go beyond the IUCN definition of sacred natural sites as "areas of land or water having special spiritual significance to peoples and communities."

They argue that the cultural and physical survival of indigenous peoples, and therefore the realisation of their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is contingent on the continued existence and health of sacred natural sites.

"Sacred lands enable the next generations to connect, identify with and carry on our ancestral cultures, traditions, ceremonies and spirituality", say the custodians.

In turn, according to UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights Vicki Tauli Corpuz, recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and upholding the health of their cultures is key for ensuring better protection for nature worldwide.

"Conservation organisations ... often fail to take into account why the forests are still standing. Often it is the indigenous people who have lived there since time immemorial who protected and preserved these lands ... indigenous people and local communities are the best proven stewards of their traditional lands and resources, and respecting their rights is critical amid the climate crisis", says Corpuz.

Sacred sites under threat

The passage of Motion 26 into IUCN policy comes at a crucial moment. Around the planet sacred sites and other protected areas are under serious threat as demand for commodities such as timber, fossil fuels and palm oil rises.

Earlier this year, a WWF report revealed that over half of all natural World Heritage Sites (114 of 229), supposedly the most zealously protected areas in the world, are under threat from mining and other destructive industrial activities.

This pattern is replicated in the lands and sacred sites of indigenous peoples, which are increasingly seen as areas of untapped economic potential by mining, logging and dam building companies, amongst others.

At a session during the congress, Aura Tegria, a member of the U'wa Tribe from Colombia, described how threats to Mount Zizuma, a sacred site for the U'wa, are affecting her people.

"The presence of energy mining projects within U'wa territory accelerate climate change and violate our (the U'wa's) mandate to protect, take care of and safeguard our Mother Earth, carrying us toward a physical and cultural extermination", says Tegria.

Each of the other indigenous custodians present at the congress had a similar story to tell. In their statement they describe "industrial activities in all their manifestations - mining, oil and gas extraction, dams, logging, corporate agricultural expansion, industrial-scale wind and solar power, and other extractive practices" as responsible for "multi-generational psychological and emotional trauma for indigenous communities."

Recent research by environmental think tank, Global Witness, has revealed that indigenous communities also suffer disproportionate levels of physical violence. The group found that in 2015, of 185-recorded killings of environmental defenders, 40% of the victims were indigenous.

The custodian's statement proposes Motion 26 as a key policy to help stem and turn back this tide of violence. Linking "the universal value of World Heritage Sites, protected areas, sacred natural sites and conserved territories" and calling for all to be protected as No Go Areas, Motion 26 seeks to prevent the multiple forms of violence that affect indigenous peoples as they encounter extractive industries worldwide.

Read more at the Ecologist.