‘We need to understand — we are nature:’ Indigenous leaders speak out at COP15

A panel of 5 people at a UN Press Conference
WWF-Canada press conference on Indigenous-led conservation in Canada © Holly Chapman WWF

On the eve of the world’s environment ministers arriving in Montreal for COP15’s endgame negotiations, WWF-Canada hosted a press conference in the media room featuring speakers from three Indigenous nations.

It was an opportunity to promote one of WWF-Canada’s goals for a Global Biodiversity Framework: ensure future protected areas advance Indigenous people’s rights and priorities while providing maximum benefit for both biodiversity and carbon storage. This is especially crucial because past approaches have focused on setting aside protected areas on a map without prioritizing Indigenous people. That time is over.

WWF-Canada’s president and CEO Megan Leslie opened the press conference by introducing the three speakers — Steven Nitah of Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, Nadina Gardiner of  Cumberland House Cree Nation and Stephanie Thorassie of Sayisi Dene First Nation. James Snider, WWF-Canada’s VP of science, knowledge and innovation, offered closing thoughts.

“What can the majority, dominant societies learn from Indigenous Peoples and the way we view our relationship with nature?” asked Nitah, adding that “getting to 30 per cent is not going to cut it. We need to change our worldviews, we need to have a better relationship with nature, we need to understand that we are nature”

What our speakers had to say about this critical element of COP15 was so impactful that we later heard that their words were being quoted in the negotiation room as people argued the importance of Indigenous leadership in protecting and conserving nature.

Megan Leslie, WWF-Canada president & CEO

Megan Leslie © Holly Chapman WWF

“Until now, conservation and the establishment of protected areas have resulted in these islands of conservation that haven’t, at times, considered things like connectivity, ecological representation, the potential to store carbon and the impact on the livelihood and disruption of Indigenous peoples.”

“So, what do we expect from protected areas? Protected and conserved areas in the future must prioritize equitable and just conservation outcomes. They must provide maximum benefits for both biodiversity and carbon.

And they must advance the rights of Indigenous Peoples… when communities indicate that that is a priority for them.”

Steven Nitah, Managing Director, Nature for Justice

Steven Nitah © Holly Chapman WWF

“Indigenous leadership, and investment in Indigenous knowledge systems, is key to our survival on Earth — not just protecting 30 per cent. Protecting 30 per cent is the easy part. How do we make sure that Indigenous people have the financial resources to manage that 30 per cent?”

“Creating a boundary around an area that is threatened by climate change today is not going to do the job. We have to be active in the management of a changing environment, a changing landscape.”

“We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. To create some other new tool. We need to invest in what’s proven to work. We need to protect what’s proven to work. My thinking is we need to protect Indigenous peoples, their rights and their responsibilities, and give them the space and the resources for them to continue doing what they’ve been doing. They have [80] per cent of the biodiversity that’s left on Earth on their territories.”

Stephanie Thorassie, Executive Director, Seal River Watershed Alliance

Stephanie Thorassie at the WWF-Canada press conference at COP15

“I want you to close your eyes and think: is there a place that exists in our world today [where] the air is clean; the trees are the same as they’ve been for hundreds of years; the rock formations on the boreal are the same. This territory is still the same as it’s been for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. And my nation and my neighbours, we’ve all been stewards of this land.

“Big conferences like this don’t realize they have a big effect on us as well. And it’s really important that we think about people like us who are from these places that everyone is so busy talking about. We live in these places. We exist — our cultures are there, our languages, our community members.”

Nadina Gardiner, Cumberland House Cree Nation, Saskatchewan River Delta

Nadina Gardiner at the WWF-Canada press conference
Nadina Gardiner © Holly Chapman WWF

“[The Saskatchewan River Delta] encompasses over 10,000 square kilometers. It is our homeland. We have been there from time immemorial and we’ve been stewards of the land. It’s central to our survival as a people. Not just physically, but culturally. Everything in our area. Our culture depends on our landscape, and it’s dwindling. Our delta is dying —from upstream impacts, from economic impacts that are not done with a social conscience.”

“The Saskatchewan River Delta is in the heart of the boreal forest, a sanctuary for all beings that share its waters. Vital to migratory birds and animals. Critical to the filter of water and storage of carbon. Today. the Saskatchewan River Delta is formally protected. Under the laws of the Cumberland House Cree Nation and its membership. A sacred place we will continue to look after forever.”

James Snider, VP, science, knowledge & innovation, WWF-Canada

James Snider at the WWF-Canada press conference
James Snider © Holly Chapman WWF

“To move to a nature-positive future, we know that we need to work towards protection of 30 per cent of our lands, fresh water and oceans by 2030. But to do so in a right and just way requires that we… support and advance and protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and priorities to support their government systems, their sovereignty, their self-determination, their economies, their culture and their knowledge systems.

“We’ve heard here today of three examples of Indigenous-led conservation that show the world that this is possible; that show the world that we can invest in Indigenous nations, in their economies and the work that they’re doing on the ground. And the benefits of that are vast — far beyond the pure ecological.

Today, I stand with my colleagues here and say: is this not the model that we want to achieve? Should this negotiation today not embrace those principles first and foremost in all that we do?”

Watch the full press conference here: