The 30x30 pledge at this year's UN Biodiversity Conference calls for countries to commit to protecting 30 percent of Earth's ecosystems by 2030. Biodiversity is critical to our future thriving. But when is a promise more than a promise?

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There are a few ways to read the major concluding deal from this year’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), held in Montreal from December 7 to 19. Over 190 countries ultimately signed on to what is being called a historic deal, the “30×30” pledge to establish 30 percent of the Earth’s natural ecosystems (on land and in coastal and marine environments) as protected areas by 2030.

But protected how? By whom? To whose exclusion? At what cost to the other 70 percent?

These questions went unanswered by the end of COP15, after heated debates that revealed plenty of compromising details. There are many ways to “protect” land, but one of the most common in the West is “fortress conservation“, a human-exclusive land-use model which often leads to the eviction of Indigenous peoples and other local residents. At the outset of COP15 proceedings, Sophie Grig of Indigenous-rights organization Survival International estimated that up to 300 million people could be affected by related displacement pressures.

These are not new concerns. In India’s Gir Forest, an initiative called “Project Lion” already calls for the resettling of 2,500 Maldhari families to create an inviolate territory for lions, even though studies show that the cohabiting relationship between lions and humans actually boosts the former’s number. Earlier this year, Foreign Policy‘s Aby L. Sène reported on how many Western NGOs are advocating for protective models that would most severely impact the Global South, home to vast tracts of the world’s most biodiverse terrain.

And that disparity in burden and outcome matters, because delegates further agreed that the target of 30×30 would be a global (rather than a national) figure. This means that, so long as enough of the world’s most biodiverse countries are locking off huge segments of their terrain, more developed countries need not drastically transform their own territorial arrangements. This approach to mitigating climate change is part of what’s called “green growth” or “sustainable development”, which optimistically holds that people in the more developed world can still do our part to reach key global environmental goals without significantly changing our lifestyles or economic priorities.

This is also the foundation, though, of criticism of the whole 30×30 plan with respect to its neglect of what will happen to the other 70 percent. Degrowth, a more holistic approach to reducing our need for as many destructive material industries in the first place, has most recently been advanced by the Scientist Rebellion, which is now following in the footsteps of Indigenous protesters, Latin America’s green democratic wave, and youth advocacy groups: all of whom have been calling for more comprehensively eco-conscious living for decades.

What was and wasn’t included

There was no consensus at COP15 as to how each country would do its part: only promises to monitor, some vaguely Indigenous-inclusive language about honoring local groups, and calls for each country to submit action plans (with no named deadline) for review.

Critical language around the use of pesticides was also softened to a promise to halve the risk factor from related chemicals: a long way from what the world requires in the short term to remediate the steep loss in insect biodiversity and its attendant ripple effects through the food chain (i.e., avian, amphibian, and mammalian biodiversity and biomass).

Worse still, as with other “protected” land in recent years (including UNESCO’s many exploited sites in Africa), the agreement offers no properly actionable bans on extractivism in these areas. A national park could easily be declared by government, staked out by military, cleared of local groups in the name of conservation efforts, and subject to mining.

(Or tourism: In Tanzania earlier this year, 150,000 Maasai faced eviction by military force from their ancestral lands on the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for a UAE-based company to use the space for commercial hunting.)

Even though the UN strongly opposes extractivism on protected sites, its committees have historically lacked the leverage to do more than pass declarations, and hope that international pressure on individual regions (and their investment banks) will suffice.

However, besides the numerous debates held at the World Heritage Committee level and the adoption of this “No-go commitment”, the percentage of properties affected by extractive industries has continued to gradually increased since 2005, demonstrating the need for more companies to add their voices to this commitment and pledge not to have any extraction of oil or gas nor any exploration activity within the perimeter of World Heritage properties.

UNESCO, “World Heritage and Extractive Industries”

One might think that, especially because the Global South might be tasked with the heaviest load to achieve COP15’s ambitious goal, they would have been given more say and resources to pursue their work in this latest international conference.

However, the Chinese delegate leading the assembly announced that the deal was done while the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African nations were still calling for more local funding to support their biodiversity initiatives. This bodes poorly for less-affluent nations having the financial security they need to protect local lands without giving way to extractivist and other such exploitative international enterprises.

As Sène and other recent scholars on the “New Scramble for Africa” have noted, environmental and related “development” programs, when directed in this fashion by the international community’s major power brokers, have a long recent history of failing to properly include, uplift, and serve the needs of Africans themselves.

While this 30×30 deal may well be historic on paper, proof of its actual net benefit to the overall healing of our ecosystems (as with the tentative deals reached in November’s COP27 summit on climate change) remains to be seen in developed regions’ follow-through.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.