The first UN Ocean Conference took place from 5 to 9 June 2017 at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The event was co-hosted by the governments of Fiji and Sweden with a particular mandate to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. Coming on the heels of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, already critical discussions on environmental policy were undoubtedly intensified. In his opening remarks, Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned, “we must put aside short-term national gain to prevent long-term global catastrophe”.
At the opening plenary session, President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson implored, “these are the years when we must maintain fidelity to our two life saving agreements”, referencing the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Evo Morales Ayma, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and member of the Aymara peoples, was most direct in his address, establishing environmental crises as a direct product of capitalism. Morales cautioned against, “the danger of the commodification of biodiversity, nature, and access to the seas and oceans”, the latter point particularly relevant to Bolivia which is a landlocked state. Morales’ anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist politic is a hard challenge to the cosmology of wealthy states, whose unrestrained exploitation of the earth and its resources threatens all life forms. Morales makes it clear: Western states can no longer be the model upon which global environmental policy is drafted.
Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has argued that conservation policy is still very “state-centric”, with particular reference to lack of implementation. During one of the many side events organized during the conference, the panel moderator referred to Indigenous peoples as “benefitting from the resources offered by marine protected areas” whereas to government officials and academics as those who are “dedicated to the marine conservation agenda”. Whether intentional or not, statements like this one reinforce a colonial hierarchy of expertise, locating Indigenous peoples as passive recipients of state and academic intellectual labor. In reality, Indigenous peoples remain active agents and the world’s foremost leaders in sustainable practices and environmental ethics in accordance with their distinct traditional knowledge systems.
According to the 2015 State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous territories “often coincide with areas of high biological diversity, and a strong correlation between areas of high biological diversity and areas of high cultural diversity has been established”. Biological diversity remains deeply connected to human rights (which include cultural rights). During the 16th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, John Scott (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity) argued, “Indigenous peoples and local/ rural communities are among those who depend most regularly on the products of biodiversity: for food, water, traditional livelihood”. Indigenous Traditional Knowledge insures the protection and conservation of these vital resources, which benefit all of us.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) codifies Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands, territories, and resources (see articles 12; 24.1; 25; 26; 27; 28; 29; 31; and 32). It is important to note that the Declaration was authored by Indigenous experts, each leaders in their communities and nations, along with non-Indigenous human rights experts. It is also useful to turn toward Bolivia’s “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth”, passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly in December 2010. This law is governed by six guiding principles: 1. Harmony; 2. Collective good; 3. Guarantee of the Regeneration of Mother Earth; 4. Respect and defense of the rights of Mother Earth; 5. No commodification; and 6. Interculturalism. The law outlines seven specific but not exclusive Rights of Mother Earth: 1. The right to life; 2. The right to the diversity of life; 3. The right to water; 4. The right to clean air; 5. The right to balance; 6. The right to restoration; and 7. The right to live free from pollution. This legal model provides a foundation which can facilitate a more ethical engagement in international environmental policy.
As we commemorate some of the major United Nations events of this year, the tenth anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption by the General Assembly as well as the inaugural Ocean Conference, it is critical that we continue to work toward strengthening engagement and prioritizing Indigenous leadership in all international fora.