Will COP16 in Colombia help to protect environmental defenders or be a “colonial conservation rebrand”?

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister who is expected to be the COP16 Biodiversity Conference president, tells The Guardian: “Although the climate is affecting biodiversity, nature is an answer to the climate crisis.”

She adds: “It is not the only answer, but it is a very important pillar, and we want to position it very strongly to build towards COP30 in Brazil.”

Following the United Nations COP15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada in December 2022, COP16 will be held in Cali, Colombia this year over the 12-day period of Monday October 21 to Friday November 1.

The final text from Montreal – known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – that emerged from COP15 included Target 22 with the brief phrase: “ensure the full protection of environmental human rights defenders”.

There is some cautious hope that COP16 in Cali could improve on that language.

And as Muhamad notes, gains seen at COP16 Biodiversity Conference could contribute to strengthening the outcomes of the COP30 Climate Conference that will be held on November 10-21, 2025, in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

Colombia and Brazil are the two deadliest countries for defenders.

In September 2023, Global Witness documented that 60 defenders had been killed in Colombia in 2022 along with another 34 defenders killed in Brazil.

Thirty-six per cent of the 177 defenders killed in 2022 were Indigenous despite Indigenous peoples comprising about 5 per cent of the global population.

Concerns about the 30×30 initiative

Along with the hope that the final text from COP16 could better articulate the protection needs of defenders, there is also the concern that the 30×30 initiative that is part of it could see increased dangers and criminalization for Indigenous peoples and defenders.

More than 190 countries – including Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Canada who are also part of a “high ambition coalition” – have embraced the 30×30 initiative to “protect” at least 30 percent of land, inland water, and coastal and marine areas by 2030.

Muhamad also told The Guardian: “Saving the Amazon is a practical and tangible action. The creation of multinational marine protected areas is a tangible action that has results for the climate and biodiversity.”

Target 3 of the text adopted in Montreal says these areas should be “effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”.

“Protected areas” and conservationism as a land grab

Forty-nine organizations have cautioned: “The Framework’s focus on ‘protected areas’ will likely continue to lead to human rights abuses across the globe.”

The Swift Foundation highlights: “How it’s working right now is a militarized form of conservation. You have guards with guns, people imposing fines, building fences and kicking people out of their traditional lands. And if communities react in defense they are perceived as anti-conservation.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by Amnesty International that describes the risk of “fortress conservation” and Survival International that launched a campaign in April 2021 to stop 30×30 given the threat of it being “the biggest land grab in history”.

Conservation as a gateway to “militarized forms of violence”

José Francisco Cali Tzay, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples who is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala, has also warned: “Throughout conservation’s checkered history, we have seen exclusionary conservation as a gateway to human rights abuses and militarized forms of violence.”

Sofia Monsalve and Georgina Catacora-Vargas have further commented: “Governments need to look beyond ‘30 x 30’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ to put human rights at the center of the Global Biodiversity Framework.”

Specifically, Dene land defender Melissa Daniels critiqued the “performative reconciliation” and “colonial conservation rebrand” of COP15 rather than respecting Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title along with the right to free, prior and informed consent.

And while, for example, a 30×30 conservation-backed maritime park on paper might protect the waters off the coast of Buenaventura, not far from Cali, in practice it could also undermine the assertion by the Afro-Colombian community of Bahia Malaga that sees these waters as part of their collectively owned territories.

Looking ahead

Will COP16 address these concerns?

Will COP16 develop language and mechanisms that could then be seen in the Binding Treaty on business and human rights (a 10th session on this is also expected to take place in Geneva in October 2024) and the COP29 (November 11-22, 2024) and COP30 (November 10-21, 2025) climate talks?

At least 1,910 land and environmental defenders on the frontlines of the biodiversity and climate crisis were killed between 2012 and 2022.

Given a defender has been killed approximately every two days over the past ten years, by the time of COP16 that number could be closer to 2,093 defenders.

Along with the physical protection we provide to defenders at risk, we are committed to advocacy strategies that address this risk at its root.

We continue to follow this.

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