This joint event, co-organised by the ICCA Consortium, Maliasili, Luc Hoffmann Institute, and IUCN CEESP, reflected on the core values that should guide relationships and partnerships and the power imbalances that often pervade them. Overall, the event highlighted the importance of reconceptualising partnerships from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples and local communities themselves and in the form of networks of solidarity and support
First published on 02/07/2023, and last updated on 04/18/2023
Despite facing structural and systemic injustices, Indigenous Peoples and local communities play an outsized role in sustaining a healthy planet for all through their cultures, governance systems, and ways of life. Over the past several years, there has been growing recognition of and support for their rights, roles, and contributions, including in the knowledge base, laws and policies, financial mechanisms, and general public. Both this shift towards and remaining barriers and challenges to this recognition and support were apparent in the negotiations and outcomes of the recent 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which culminated in the Parties’ adoption of the new global biodiversity framework.
As more people and organisations seek to offer support to Indigenous Peoples and local communities, it is vitally important to reflect on the very nature of relationships and partnerships, including the core values that should guide them and the power imbalances that often pervade them. When thinking about partnerships in conservation, perhaps the first entities that come to mind are NGOs, funders, and governments. There is a growing push to reimagine and redefine partnerships and organisations in ways that are respectful and genuinely supportive of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ self-determined priorities for their collective lands, waters, and territories of life.
In addition to these ‘traditional partnerships’ in the name of conservation, Indigenous Peoples and local communities often have extensive and diverse networks that they activate in diverse ways – for example, when defending their territories against destructive industries, when seeking support for an Indigenous education programme, or when sharing experiences and skills among peers. Reconceptualising partnerships from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples and local communities themselves and in the form of networks of solidarity and support can help illuminate more appropriate ways forward for those offering support.
To explore these important questions, continue reflecting on existing partnerships, and reconfigure the nature of partnerships moving forward, the ICCA Consortium, Maliasili, Luc Hoffmann Institute, and IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) co-hosted a side event during CBD COP15. Held on 7 December 2022 from 18:15-19:45 ET, “All Our Relations: Exploring the role of relationships, partnerships, and networks in supporting Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ self-determined priorities” featured three ‘lightning roundtables’ with moderators and speakers from diverse backgrounds.
After opening remarks by co-moderators Inés Hernández (Luc Hoffmann Institute) and Holly Jonas (ICCA Consortium), participants connected with each other by reflecting on and sharing a stand-out personal experience with partnerships – positive, negative or otherwise – from the perspective of their community, organisation, or another context, focusing on what they learned and identifying key attributes or elements of healthy and supportive partnerships.
In the first roundtable on “understanding the heart of relationships”, we heard from Indigenous leaders from Burma/Myanmar, Kenya, and Colombia about the core values that guide relationships within their communities and territories, and the key elements of partnerships that have been particularly meaningful to them. In the second roundtable on “redefining ‘traditional’ partnerships”, we heard from champions for change within an international conservation NGO, a funder, and a multilateral agency about what needs to happen within their sectors to usher in a new generation of respectful and equitable partnerships with communities. In the third roundtable, we heard from two people who are innovating on long-standing domains of expertise and forms of social change and supporting communities to weave diverse networks of solidarity and support.
Explore the sections below to learn more about what was discussed during the event.
Lightning Roundtable 1: Understanding the heart of relationships
Moderator: Latoya Abulu is an editor at Mongabay covering Indigenous news, nature-based solutions to climate change and stories about high conservation value ecosystems. As a field reporter, she has covered environmental issues impacting Indigenous Peoples and local communities in Ecuador, Nicaragua, South Korea, Japan, China, and UN conferences. Her work has been featured in The Diplomat, Asia Times, Japan Times, Earth Island Journal, The Ecologist, and others.
Saw Paul Sein Twa is an Indigenous Karen from Burma/Myanmar, co-founder and Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), and President of the Salween Peace Park, which protects the last dam-free main river in Asia and 5,485 km2 of globally significant biodiversity. In 2020, the Salween Peace Park received the Equator Prize and Paul himself received the Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia.
Milka Chepkorir is a member of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills, Kenya, and coordinates the ICCA Consortium’s stream of work on defending territories of life. She was an Indigenous Fellow at OHCHR in 2016, an Environmental Justice Fellow at Natural Justice’s Kenya Hub in 2020, and recently coordinated Community Land Action Now (CLAN), a network of Kenyan rural communities striving to register their community lands.
Nataly Domicó Murillo is an Indigenous leader and advisor of the Embera people. She is a teacher of the Indigenous programme “Licenciatura en pedagogía de la Madre Tierra” at the University of Antioquia and currently national coordinator of TICCA-Colombia, the national network of ICCAs–territories of life.
Latoya Abulu (Mongabay) introduced the speakers and noted the growing recognition of and support for Indigenous rights, roles, knowledge and contributions in laws, policies, financial mechanisms, and general public, and the importance of reflecting on the nature of relationships and partnerships, including the core values that Indigenous leaders believe should guide them. She highlighted that, in the last climate COP, over 300 Indigenous delegates attended the conference and even more have registered for CBD COP15. She invited participants to listen to the panellists’ perspectives and strive for fuller understanding of the nuances of what they believe constitute respectful relationships with Indigenous Peoples and local communities. She posed two broad questions for panellists’ reflection.
Q: What are the core values that guide relationships with and within your communities and territories?
Milka Chepkorir (Sengwer) shared reflections on how, from the perspective of an Indigenous woman, her community’s relationships with land and forests are grounded in humility, reciprocity, and respect:
We are not greater than the trees or water; both of them could be more powerful than anyone, as we can see with tsunamis and droughts. We are who we are because they are what they are. Communities know what we know, and know what to share with younger generations, because of what we have learned through those relationships. Reciprocity holds a central role as a key value in guiding relationships, not just to resources but also to each other. We have equal respect for human and non-human parts of nature. With this as a core value, my community does not need to talk about humans as separate from nature; we are the same, brought together with values of respect and humility.
Paul Sein Twa (Karen) reflected on the increasing threats facing his territory in Burma/Myanmar and the role of the Salween Peace Park in responding:
Karen people hold relational values to our ancestral territories. Kawthoolei [our ancestral territory] is governed holistically by Indigenous knowledge and philosophies and we consider ourselves as guardians or custodians. Above the territory is a spiritual being that looks over us and guides people to ensure that they do not take too much from the land. We ask for permission for whatever we take and if we take more than we need, we’ll be punished by the spiritual being.
Community elders are closely attached to the land. Following decades of civil war and the forced and sustained displacement from the land, elders and community members are in pain. Many have died by suicide. In this context, Karen communities have formed the Salween Peace Park as part of ongoing efforts to reunite, return to and reconnect with our land and territories. Peace means that we can reconcile with spirit beings and be custodians of our land, our territories, and our biodiversity together.
Nataly Domicó Murillo (Embera) spoke to her community’s relationship with Mother Earth:
Humans love our mother. She cares for us, and we want to return that care for her with the values that we come to understand from her. This is the embodiment of reciprocity with Earth. When children grow up, mothers also grow up. In this way, we come to understand our values in relationship to land, from Earth and from Elders. In the beautiful space we’re building in Colombia with the TICCA Network, we are also learning from Mother Earth. Just like in networks, all of nature’s elements are interconnected. We are gathering elements and connections in life and in the network. We know that caring for Earth is also caring for future generations, for the spirit sisters in sacred areas, and for the rights of Mother Earth.
Q: What was a particularly meaningful relationship you have had with a partner, and (without necessarily naming them) what stood out about it for you?
Unfortunately, many Indigenous Peoples don’t havemany meaningful relationships with external partners because they view us as people that don’t know what we have or want, and we have to prove our worth. They think they need their own experts to come and tell us what to do.
In contrast, there was one conservation NGO that wanted to help the government of Kenya protect territory in our area. They were aware of past evictions, so they first came to listen to the community and our experiences and priorities. They acknowledged our territory (even though the government did not) and took direction from us. This NGO then went to the government to relay what they had learned and how they wanted to work with the community in the way we had asked them. The government would not support this because they were stuck in their old colonial way of thinking, so the NGO decided to withdraw and not continue with the funding. They were aware that in the past, NGOs had provided financial support that had in turn been used by the government to evict communities.
It was meaningful because they were honest and transparent, built relations with us, and were led by our priorities. It was also significant that they chose not to act when there was not a pathway for them to do so in a way that supported us. Partners often don’t understand that it should not be a transactional relationship. These stories are rarely written about or shared publicly because they would shame the government, and so we cannot learn from them.
Paul Sein Twa relayed a story about a consultant:
He wrote to me and started by asking questions, including what books he should read to better understand the context and situation. He then learned more and came back to me later and we developed a good plan together. He did his homework and asked open questions. If you come with questions, you will have different responses from the community. Donors and supporters could learn from this approach.
Nataly Domicó Murillo:
In Colombia, we have progressed a bit with setting our own rules for how academic partners approach and engage with communities. This has helped ensure more horizontal power relationships, with communities owning the process and owning the knowledge.
Lightning Roundtable 2: Redefining ‘traditional’ partners
Moderator: Inés Hernández works for The Future of Conservation NGOs Initiative at the Luc Hoffmann Institute as Inclusivity, Diversity and Research Coordinator. With a background in social sciences and conservation, Inés is passionate about the links between nature conservation, environmental justice, and intersectionality. She will be starting a PhD in Geography at the University of Cambridge in January 2023.
Jessica Sweidan (Synchronicity Earth) has been an active (and creative!) philanthropist for the last 20 years. She co-founded Synchronicity Earth, a UK-based charity, in 2009 and more recently co-created Flourishing Diversity, a network initiative centred on the interrelation between cultural and biological diversity.
Minnie Degawan is Kankanaey Igorot from the Cordillera, Philippines. She is long-standing advocate for Indigenous Peoples and currently works with Conservation International as the Director of its Indigenous Peoples Program.
Adriana Moreira works with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as a Senior Biodiversity Specialist and Latin America Regional Coordinator of the Programs Unit. She has received the Chico Mendes Florestania Prize and the Pirelli International Award for her work for conservation and sustainable development of the Amazon region.
Inés Hernández (Luc Hoffmann Institute) set the context with reflections on the way we tend to think about ‘traditional’ partnerships in conservation, in that perhaps the first entities that come to mind are NGOs, funders, and governments. There is a growing push to reimagine and redefine partnerships and organisations in ways that are respectful and genuinely supportive of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ self-determined priorities. This roundtable’s speakers are champions for change from within these ‘traditional’ partners. Inésposed two broad questions for their reflection.
Q: What do you think is the biggest change that needs to happen within your sector to usher in a new generation of respectful and equitable partnerships with communities?
Jessica Sweidan (Synchronicity Earth) noted both the intentions for and barriers to truly changing how we engage:
The physical space of this event itself, despite thoughtfulness and intention, reflects those barriers; we’re having roundtable discussions in a square room! We want to shift how we work, but it’s still trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Some Western funders still come to the table with preconceived notions as opposed to stopping and listening to how we can help and support and what you need from us. We’re asking people to share the table without reflecting on or changing what the actual table looks like. We need to focus on genuine reciprocity and mutual benefit. Partnerships are a step in the first direction, but they still have timelines associated with them. From Indigenous perspectives, relationships last forever; they are not transactional.
Minnie Degawan (Conservation International)reflected on the fraught history of the conservation sector:
When I heard my sister Milka talking about the colonial approaches of conservation organisations, I feel embarrassed as an Indigenous woman, but I hope things are changing. Conservation NGOs need to stop thinking of Indigenous Peoples as beneficiaries and see them as full partners, leaders, and contributors. They too often still fail to see the capacities and knowledge and contributions that go beyond land and resources. Until conservation organisations realise that Indigenous Peoples are not ‘beneficiaries’, these relationships will not change. Communities are saying they are better off without them. I see some change, but unfortunately it is very slow. Despite the history of dispossession and all that has been lost, we [Indigenous Peoples] can’t be forever isolated. To conservation organisations: stop looking at us as poor and as needing help; look at how we can contribute. To Indigenous Peoples: let’s be open to the possibility of new kinds of partnerships with conservation organisations.
Adriana Moreira (GEF) spoke of the need to both find what works in terms of these changes in approach and then to mainstream them:
There are some good examples of GEF-funded projects that support Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ land and access rights, but these remain exceptions. The big challenge is for this to become the mainstream. GEF is learning from this and finally responding to it. The GEF-funded Inclusive Conservation Initiative is working with Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations in a way that is akin to how GEF engages with countries. It is on the right track and will be funded again under the 8th phase of GEF. However, there are opportunities to improve this approach. The values shared earlier – respect, reciprocity, humility, deep and radical listening, and engaging with communities as partners (rather than beneficiaries) – resonate strongly. In my experience, GEF is learning to engage with communities from the very beginning of the process, not just consultation at the end. It takes time and a lot of work, but the result is synergy and sustainability.
Q: What are you or your organisations doing to put these important changes into practice? After listening to the first roundtable, what insights might inform your thinking or approaches moving forward?
Adriana Moreira further elaborated on experience with the Inclusive Conservation Initiative:
The Inclusive Conservation Initiative is our flagship project. It is now supporting nine projects in four regions and is set to continue and grow. The GEF sees this project model as a key way for engaging Indigenous Peoples and local communities more directly and fully as partners. This is good, but also challenging around donors’ timelines and expectations. We need to engage earlier in the process and have more time available, and create different types of incentives for projects with this approach.
Minnie Degawan noted the implementation gaps between written policies and what is being done in practice:
Conservation organisations often have good-sounding policies, but they now need to implement all the good things that are being said and written. I doubt any conservation organisation would say they don’t follow FPIC [free, prior and informed consent], but the challenge is operationalising it. There is often a major gap there.
Conservation organisations also need to see Indigenous Peoples as capable and let them lead. This is different from being part of the conversation or having a seat at the table. We might think they can’t be project managers or handle spreadsheets, but maybe if they actually lead, including with their way of thinking, we wouldn’t need spreadsheets or hard-to-understand indicators.
With the Inclusive Conservation Initiative, a lot of time is spent supporting Indigenous organisations to navigate and meet GEF’s regulations and requirements. For Indigenous Peoples to be truly leading, based on their ways of knowing, we need more fundamental changes in GEF’s and philanthropy’s granting systems.
Jessica Sweidan highlighted that Synchronicity Earth is aiming to address gaps:
We don’t accept grants or have a large structure. We look at biodiverse landscapes that need attention and how we can support people in those areas, whether it’s around amphibians, freshwater fish, or biocultural diversity. We focus on direct support to people on the ground, with about 90 projects that are minute in comparison to GEF and Conservation International, but we are elevating them.
We are a hybrid philanthropy/charity. Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to design and structuring of the process. My shout-out to funders is that they can make these design decisions. Bylaws, rules, and ways of working can be shifted. It’s about having the consciousness embedded within the organisation and the willingness to redesign how we give and receive.
Lightning Roundtable 3: Weaving networks of solidarity and support
Karl Burkart is co-founder and Deputy Director of One Earth, a non-profit organisation working to accelerate collective action to solve the climate crisis through ground-breaking science, inspiring media, and an innovative approach to climate philanthropy.
Holly Jonas (ICCA Consortium) highlighted that, throughout the event so far, we have heard from Indigenous Peoples about different approaches to and values in partnership, and about shifting trends in partnerships within conventional or traditional partnerships. Indigenous Peoples and local communities also have their own networks and partnerships that they connect, amplify, and activate on their own terms and for their own purposes. This lightning roundtable focuses on different approaches to supporting and working in solidarity with communities as part of diverse networks.
Q: Karl, tell us a bit about your approach to working with Indigenous Peoples and local communities and how this fits in with their networks of solidarity and support.
Karl Burkart (One Earth) noted that much of his organisation’s work is about language:
It is about bridging the big gaps in language and ways of knowing, and communicating between different groups. Ninety percent of my job over the past decade has been about bridging Indigenous wisdom and knowledge, and Western science. We began exploring a while ago how we could support and fund Indigenous Peoples more directly without intermediaries. Maps are a powerful tool in these efforts. At one point, Amazon Frontlines said communities needed maps and wanted those maps to be their own. A lot of Western organisations would helicopter in, measure and monitor their territories, and make maps, but this often happened without them, or with their knowledge but without their ownership. One Earth worked with a start-up that worked with tribes to develop their own software for mapping, called Mapeo.
In terms of feedback from Indigenous Peoples, they were surprised by our approach. We were new and didn’t have baggage or restrictions. We also learned to have more patience, to slow down and back off sometimes, to throw out a lot of the Key Performance Indicators, and to shift more to storytelling as evidence for how the funds are being used. We are trying to bring this wisdom back into a boxy, square world and make it impactful.
Q: Oscar, we heard about Avaaz’s call for a large public march in Montreal alongside COP15. How is activism evolving from your perspective?
Oscar Soria (Avaaz) described approaches to mobilising collective action, with the nature of and approach to the work defined by the needs and visions of Indigenous Peoples:
Our approach starts with what we call “barefoot walking”. It is a powerful way of mobilising collective action. We try to avoid extractive activism or “extractivism”, the white saviour complex, and shouting without listening. It’s not about Avaaz; our mission is to bring voice to others and give access. We start by listening, taking a step back, learning, and trying to find the core voice and being directed by it. Often we don’t talk, we just amplify. We put money for Indigenous Peoples to come to these rooms and speak for themselves. How we do the work depends on the needs of Indigenous Peoples.
We seek to maintain radical generosity that goes in both directions. We use our ability to raise funds quickly from our 17 million members to support Indigenous Peoples. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we pivoted our approach and focus in response to the urgent needs that arose. We had to learn how to deploy support very quickly despite not being a humanitarian organisation, by listening and being responsive.
We detach ourselves. We don’t call it a partnership, we call ourselves “shared dreamers”. We focus on accompaniment, building sisterhood and brotherhood. Five years ago, an Indigenous leader from Brazil who was trying to organise a march said, “I don’t need your money, I need you to be here.”
Q: What are the next iterations of advocacy in your fields? What are your key takeaways from the discussions today for your work moving forward?
Karl Burkart highlighted the continued and growing importance of bringing science together with activism:
We can help equip activists with sound science to make clear and articulate demands. The focus here remains bridging and translating. Activists and scientists are often siloed.
‘Protect’ and ‘conserve’ are loaded terms and the rationale or meaningfulness of these global frameworks is sometimes unclear. We need more (and more amplified) storytelling to move into more fully post-colonial spaces. We are here with the aim of helping that process along.
Oscar Soria stressed the personal nature of this work:
The next level for professional activists is to make it personal – because it is personal. So many Indigenous leaders and activists got COVID and died. We must carry forward the voices of those who have been lost.
We may be shared dreamers, but we don’t share the same violence. We need to be accessible, open, responsive, willing to accompany, and create solidarity. With radical generosity, all that you don’t give is lost. We need to take risks, make a mess, bring people in and together, and, throughout this work, recognise our positionality. We need to build a sense of solidarity from common citizens, not just professional activists.
I get the pain. A lot of people have good intentions but ultimately forget, or don’t see their debt in these spaces. The conservation community has a moral debt that hasn’t been paid and has to be paid. Already we hear at COP15 that certain organisations are willing to set aside demands for human rights-based approaches for the sake of “compromise” in Target 3. We normally don’t call out specific NGOs but may change that here. We need to stop that and call that out.
To conclude the event, Holly invited the Indigenous speakers from the first roundtable to share their final reflections.
Paul Sein Twa (Karen):
I am happy to hear that there are things changing and moving in the right direction with funders and conservation organisations. In these spaces where there are many NGOs and donors in the room, it’s important to remember that while these good intentions are being put into practice, donors and others seeking Indigenous Peoples’ partnership must avoid making us compete with one another or between organisations for funding. It is also important to not centralise decision-making or rely on government focal points to guide funding decisions. We have fights with our governments so they can’t advise us.
Milka Chepkorir (Sengwer):
It is encouraging to know that at least a few funders are looking at conservation from our perspective. However, it remains unbalanced with those with the most money on the other side. As this pathway continues and expands, I hope that conservation organisations will stop the competition of supporting communities. Instead, work with a smaller number in a deep and meaningful way. If many organisations go to the same communities, competing over them for partnership and each with their own hidden agenda, it creates confusion among communities. Don’t compete to have communities and their voices on your websites. Get yourselves sorted out before you come to us.
Indigenous Peoples are not resistant to partnership, but the same colonial dynamics are continuing in a “softer” way. Community conservancies are modern land grabbing dressed in nice clothes. If the system is still the same and will still take away community lands, we will still be afraid to partner with anyone and you shouldn’t expect partnerships. Funders need to have meaningful relationships among themselves, rather than competing over us. I hope we as Indigenous Peoples will start to turn away funders who aren’t taking the right approaches and tell them to go figure out their own issues first.
Nataly Domicó Murillo (Embera):
Listen to communities before starting the process. Conservation is important, but in territories of life, it arises from relationships with ancestral land and knowledge. Colonising and capitalist dynamics and relationships will undermine it if they are too much or too many. Communities need to continue to develop effective ways of granting or withholding consent and protecting their territories and visions.
Holly Jonas (ICCA Consortium) thanked all the speakers and moderators and reflected back some of the key messages and calls to action shared throughout the event, including the critical importance of listening, learning, respect, sharing abundance, trust, patience, radical generosity, and having a sustained and coordinated approach.
Finally, Holly reminded and challenged all to keep finding each other and these points of connection and convergence during COP15. Ask yourself each day, what is one thing you can do to push a button here or there? Whether it is in a statement in plenary, speaking to a journalist or otherwise, each of us has power. We need to draw power from our collective strength together.
Note: “The speakers’ remarks are not direct quotes but were paraphrased and/or edited for clarity. The ICCA Consortium would like to thank Rafaela Freundt and Sandra Da Silva for providing simultaneous interpretation support between English and Spanish during the side event. This side event was one of a series of COP15 events on systems change in financing and partnerships in support of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. For more information, please contact Holly Jonas (email@example.com).