What’s wrong with the Global Safety Net approach to conservation?

Prof Duffy contributes to letter in Science

Dr Anwesha Dutta (CMI, Norway) gathered a group of scholars, including Professor Rosaleen Duffy, together to respond to Dinerstein, E. et al “A “Global Safety Net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate.” Science Advances 6.36 (2020): eabb2824. Web. 18 Dec. 2020.

Our response, published in Science is below.

Re-thinking the Global Safety Net: Local leadership in Global Conservation

  • Dr Anwesha Dutta, Assistant Professor, Chr Michelsen Institute 
  • James Allan, Post Doctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam
  • Thomas Worsdell, Independent Researcher, N/A
  • Rosaleen Duffy, Professor, The University of Sheffield
  • Kundan Kumar, Director, Asia Program, Rights and Resources Initiative
  • Nitin Rai, Research Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE)
  • Harry W Fischer, Associate Senior Lecturer, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
  • Gam Shimray, Secretary General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)
  • Pasang Dolma Sherpa, Executive Director, Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Research and Development (CIPRED)

Dinerstein et al.’s recent article”A Global Safety Net”’ presents a spatial argument to conserve 50% of Earth’s terrestrial area to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilise the climate (Dinerstein et al., 2020). Their contribution is showing where nature conservation can help tackle the climate and biodiversity crises simultaneously. These interrelated challenges have been dealt with separately for too long and we commend Dinerstein et al. on their efforts. It is especially significant because the authors propose a key role for Indigenous Peoples’ (IPs) lands in the Global Safety Net (GSN) (Dinerstein et al., 2020). However, we have several concerns around the application of the GSN and the proposed role of Indigenous Peoples (IPs), Local Communities (LCs) and their lands within it. The GSN approaches the role of IPs in a manner that could perpetuate historical and colonial injustices, by ignoring the long history of exclusion, state takeover of IPs’ and LCs’ lands (Mollett & Kepe, 2018; Tauli-Corpuz, Alcorn, Molnar, Healy, & Barrow, 2020). Through their customary practices IPs and LCs have already demonstrated both leadership and agency in biodiversity conservation across the world (Tauli-Corpuz et al., 2020). This has been documented through decades of research highlighting communities’ ability to effectively manage local resources, particularly when granted substantial autonomy to direct management decisions (Forest Peoples Programme, International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network, & Centres of Distinction on Indigenous and Local Knowledge and Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2020). Therefore, discussions around recognition of IPs, LCs and their lands must move beyond tok enistic and instrumental mentions. Otherwise, we risk the rhetoric of acknowledgment without meaningful rights to access agency and self-determination.

Dinerstein et al.’s call for securing IPs tenure “rights” is progress within conservation discourses. However, current rights (in this case over land) have roots in the past, and their equity continues to be shaped by historical-political processes of land tenure, amongst others (Mollett & Kepe, 2018). Therefore, we need to go beyond just calling for rights recognition, and suggest a “rights” framework that first and foremost address these legacies. There is increasing recognition that IPs and local communities should have rights to own and govern their lands and resources through traditional/customary institutions (Ruckelshaus et al., 2020). However, in most of the world this recognition lacks a legal basis, which further curtails their customary practices in the identified conservation areas. The absence of legal recognition through the enactment of existing laws to provide land ownership risks further expropriation, land grabbing and infringements by outside a nd more powerful actors, including conservationists (Mollett & Kepe, 2018). To illustrate, while only 10% of the earth is legally owned by IPs and local communities, they customarily manage 50% of earth’s terrestrial land (Rights and Resources Initiative, 2015). The promotion of a rights framework rooted in westernised and often colonial value systems also risks undermining collective governance and valuable local, traditional and Indigenous knowledge essential for positive biodiversity conservation and climate outcomes (Mollett & Kepe, 2018). Ultimately, it is in the best interest of both nature and humans to recognize the agency and self-determination of IPs and LCs to effectively govern their territories through secure and culturally appropriate tenure rights regimes (Ruckelshaus et al., 2020). The GSN explicitly mentions the inclusion of IPs lands and territories as part of its core strategy. Yet, the GSN will also equally impact LCs, who together comprise at least 1 billion people (Schleicher et al., 2019) with distinct histories, politics and value systems. By lumping them together in one acknowledgement, global biodiversity objectives and science-based target setting fails to capture this richness in cultural diversity and views and also threatens to undermine their individual and collective autonomies (Fernández-Llamazares, Benyei, Junqueira, & Reyes-García, 2020). Linked to this is the concern of support or disagreements towards the GSN approach by the IPs and LCs. Although, it is challenging to incorporate the opinion of 1 billion people, we should not assume (as the GSN model does) a handful of Indigenous leaders are a representative sample. Any conservation analysis that uses spatial data on habitat intactness, wilderness, or avoids places with high industrial pressure will disproportionately select the lands of IPs and other local and rural communities leading to an inequitable ‘conservation solution’ or map. This is because IPs live in the most remote and intact regions of the planet and have done so for millennia. In many cases, these regions are still intact only because of the ways IPs manage and protect their lands through their customary governance systems (Forest Peoples Programme et al., 2020), which is under acknowledged in the GSN. As such, the data used in global analyses such as the GSN can entrench global inequalities, power imbalances, and promote further injustices. Any global spatial analysis should aim to identify and be open about the potential perverse impacts it may have on people, especially the historically marginalized (Erbaugh et al., 2020).

Global analyses that support international target setting and the global conservation agenda are necessary and important. Yet the key question is how best to recognize, integrate and promote IPs rights? The history of conservation practice suggests that good intentions can lead to negative outcomes for people (Brockington & Wilkie, 2015). We therefore offer suggestions for the socially just achievement of the goals(with realignments around concerns we raise) outlined by Dinerstein et al. First, we need to move beyond token or instrumental mentions of IPs and their lands. IPs are not tools for implementing conservation plans, they should be partners in setting the global conservation agenda. We must acknowledge cultural diversity as central to the development of an effective conservation strategy. Failure to do so perpetuates top-down and colonial forms of conservation (Mollett & Kepe, 2018). Global analyses must engage with the real-world implications of any recommendations a nd interventions by focusing on those who could be negatively affected by them. As a result of conservation’s on-going legacies, there is a need to understand and discuss how global data and analytical approaches could perpetuate these inequities, biases and injustices. Dinerstein et al recognize that promoting land rights is fundamental to conservation; however, there are real risks if the process of securing land rights is not co-led by IPs and LCs. Ultimately, it is important for scientists working on global level mapping to work on the ground with these groups as allies to avoid potentially negative and unjust consequences.

You can read the response to our letter from the authors of the Global Safety Net paper here 


Brockington, D., & Wilkie, D. (2015). Protected areas and poverty. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 370(1681), 20140271. doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0271

Dinerstein, E., Joshi, A. R., Vynne, C., Lee, A. T. L., Pharand-Deschênes, F., França, M., . . . Olson, D. (2020). A “Global Safety Net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate. Science Advances, 6(36), eabb2824. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abb2824

Erbaugh, J. T., Pradhan, N., Adams, J., Oldekop, J. A., Agrawal, A., Brockington, D., . . . Chhatre, A. (2020). Global forest restoration and the importance of prioritizing local communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution. doi:10.1038/s41559-020-01282-2

Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Benyei, P., Junqueira, A. B., & Reyes-García, V. (2020). Participation in Biocultural Diversity Conservation: Insights from Five Amazonian Examples. In C. Baldauf (Ed.), Participatory Biodiversity Conservation: Concepts, Experiences, and Perspectives (pp. 165-183). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Forest Peoples Programme, International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network, & Centres of Distinction on Indigenous and Local Knowledge and Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (2020).

Local Biodiversity Outlooks 2: The contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities to the implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and to renewing nature and cultures. A complement to the fifth edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook. Moreton-in-Marsh, England: www.localbiodiversityoutlooks.net

Mollett, S., & Kepe, T. (2018). Land Rights, Biodiversity Conservation and Justice: Rethinking Parks and People: Taylor & Francis. Rights and Resources Initiative. (2015). Who Owns the World’s Land? A global baseline of formally recognized indigenous and community land rights. Retrieved from Rights and Resources Initiative: http://rightsandresources.org/wp-content/uploads/GlobalBaseline_web.pdf.

Ruckelshaus, M. H., Jackson, S. T., Mooney, H. A., Jacobs, K. L., Kassam, K. S., Arroyo, M. T. K., . . . Ouyang, Z. (2020). The IPBES Global Assessment: Pathways to Action. Trends Ecol Evol, 35(5), 407-414. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2020.01.009

Schleicher, J., Zaehringer, J. G., Fastré, C., Vira, B., Visconti, P., & Sandbrook, C. (2019). Protecting half of the planet could directly affect over one billion people. Nature Sustainability, 2(12), 1094-1096. doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0423-y

Tauli-Corpuz, V., Alcorn, J., Molnar, A., Healy, C., & Barrow, E. (2020). Cornered by PAs: Adopting rights-based approaches to enable cost-effective conservation and climate action. World Development, 130, 104923. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.104923