The United Nations released a dire assessment of humanity’s impact on the world’s ecosystems and natural resources this week. Up to 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to pollution, habitat loss, climate disruption and other consequences of human activity that are wreaking havoc on the planet. Many species could disappear within decades if current development trends continue.
The U.N. assessment comes on the heels of startling climate reports that have alarmed much of the world, but it also illuminates a path forward for humanity: While humans have “significantly altered” about three quarters of land-based environments and two-thirds marine environments, these trends have been less severe or avoided altogether in areas held or managed by Indigenous peoples and “local communities.”
This means that Earth’s resources are protected in areas preserved for and by Indigenous people and managed by communities that enjoy some autonomy from global economic forces and tend to use resources sustainably. However, these areas often face the most pressure from deforestation, fossil fuel production and mineral mining, putting both the stewards of pristine lands and waters and their knowledge for managing them at risk, according to the report.
“Western scientific evidence is now saying what our Indigenous peoples have been expressing for a long time: Life as we know it is in danger,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the U.S.-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), in an email. “Indigenous people have long led the way to protect our natural resources.”
The sweeping U.N. assessment, compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries over three years, concludes that the natural world is declining at a faster rate than any time in human history. Humans depend on nature’s resources to survive, so this accelerating and unparalleled loss of biodiversity poses a “direct threat” to people living in all regions of the world, according to Josef Settele, a research scientist from Germany who co-chaired the U.N. assessment.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” Settele said in a statement on Monday. “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed.”
Global “Development” Drives Extinction
The U.N. assessment covers the past five decades, in which the human population has doubled and global economic development and trade have exploded, along with the demand for food, fuel, timber and other resources. A summary of the assessment was released Monday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the full report is due out later this year.
Main culprits of the rapid loss in biodiversity include changes in land and sea use, climate disruption, the “direct exploitation of organisms” and pollution. More than a third of world’s land surface and 75 percent of its freshwater resources are devoted to farming and fishing, and fish are often harvested from the ocean at unsustainable levels, according to the assessment. In many parts of the world, levels of toxic pollution have increased, and plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has grown tenfold since 1980. Greenhouse gas emissions have doubled over the same time frame.
“The accelerating spiral of climate change demands the world keep fossil fuels in the ground,” Goldtooth said.
With the human population exceeding 7 billion, the global rate of change in natural ecosystems over the past 50 years is “unprecedented” in human history. Under global capitalism, rich countries have more political and economic leverage than poorer countries, leaving “developing” countries with more environmental damage but fewer economic benefits, according to the assessment. We can see this in the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation threatens both biodiversity and Indigenous peoples, as in lower-income countries where international mining and fossil fuel corporations are allowed to ravage ecosystems with impunity.
Indigenous Communities on the Front Lines
At least a quarter of the world’s land area is “traditionally” owned, occupied or managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities who have distinct cultural connections to their homelands and bioregions. This includes about 35 percent of global land area formally protected by governments or other entities, and 35 percent of ecosystems that experience limited human intervention, according to the latest U.N. assessment.
Ecosystems and the species that populate them are shrinking at much lower rates in these areas compared to the developed world, and U.N. researchers recognize that the “knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values” of Indigenous peoples contribute to this conservation. In fact, Indigenous people could contribute to global sustainability efforts if provided legal and political rights to use and steward the lands they know so well.
Yet these lands and waters are under growing pressure from industrial development and resource extraction, threatening not only the livelihoods of various fishers, ranchers, herders and hunters who live there, but also the knowledge they carry with them about managing natural resources sustainably. The U.N. tracked a number of “indicators” developed by Indigenous peoples and local communities, and 72 percent show “negative trends in nature” that undermine their livelihoods and well-being.
“Our extended family includes our Mother Earth, Father Sky, and our brothers and sisters, the animal, bird, fish and plant life,” Goldtooth said. “The loss of species affects our cultural and spiritual survival.”
Indigenous and Native activists are often on the frontlines of the resistance to environmentally harmful development and extraction, both in the United States and across the globe. They have also faced widespread repression.
Last year, Global Witness reported that at least 207 land and environmental activists were targeted and murdered for defending their forests, waters, wildlife and homes against destructive industries in 2017 alone, and almost half of those targeted were Indigenous.
The U.N. Human Rights Council has called “attacks against and criminalization of Indigenous peoples” who defend against governments and polluting corporations an unfolding “global crisis,” and last month Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on Indigenous rights, launched a campaign to protect defenders of traditional lands from persecution, murder and imprisonment on falsified charge.
The U.N., it seems, has recognized the importance of defending Indigenous people in pursuit of its global environmental goals. At this point, modest tweaks to economic markets and resource consumption will not be enough to meet global sustainability commitments like those put forth during the 2017 Paris Climate Accord. Climate disruption and mass extinction are expected to continue for decades unless governments undertake “transformative changes,” according to projections in the latest assessment. As one U.N. scientist put it this week, transformative change means “system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
“The latest U.N. report confirms what Indigenous communities and those asserting ‘community rights’ have known all along: That the best defenders of nature and biodiversity are the communities themselves; and that the best way to protect nature is for those communities to have the legal authority to recognize ecosystems as having rights and to veto harmful development projects,” said Thomas Linzey, executive director of the U.S.-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), in an email.
CELDF and the IEN are at the forefront of an international movement to give the natural world – and the people most connected to it – legal rights within political systems that are shaped by exploitive economics, rather than the needs of the Earth and its people. The U.N. often talks in terms of global sustainability “commitments” and “goals” shared across the world’s governments and shaped by a global climate crisis, but its latest report is an important reminder that the “transformation” needed to save the planet is being led by those most connected to it, from the ground up.
In the U.S. and Canada, the mass displacement and genocide of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples coincided with vast development and ecological destruction, and North American tribes and activists have long been leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice. The Standing Rock Sioux organized fierce resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and Native and Indigenous activists continue to oppose new fossil fuel projects as climate disruption looms. In Wisconsin, the Menominee Tribe is fighting a proposed open pit mine near the Menominee River, and several Western tribes are challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to open public lands and national monuments to drilling and exploitation.
Many Native and Indigenous cultures consider the natural world to be sacred because it sustains all life, including human beings. Now that so many species are disappearing faster than ever before under the weight of industrial civilization, will the rest of the world join them before long?