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Pithy answers for a complicated world: why the 30×30 ‘solution’ will hurt the environment and violate indigenous rights

13 September 2021

By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director at MRG

At the Marseille Conference of the IUCN Congress last week, discussion once again centred on the so-called 30×30 plan as a key ‘solution’ to combat climate change. The IUCN has been documenting the extent to which land and oceans are brought under ‘protection’ by states in the belief that such protection can help cure the ills of over-development and wanton destruction of the environment by human activity. In the lead up to the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China beginning on 11 October, more will no doubt be said about this plan and how it is envisaged to defend the world’s rapidly shrinking biodiversity.

What then is this 30×30 plan? It is basically a governmental promise to ‘protect’ 30 per cent of the globe’s land and seas by 2030. The plan is being backed by the Biden administration as well as major conservation NGOs.

The concept sounds good, and the phrase is certainly catchy, yet the evidence base that such a solution may actually work is incredibly weak. It draws on a colonial legacy of ‘fortress conservation’ that locks indigenous communities out of their lands in the name of nature. The track record of biodiversity conservation in many places where such systems are operational is disastrous. And that is without factoring in its potential impact on the world’s indigenous peoples, who currently steward 80 per cent of global biodiversity.

The central issue with this ‘solution’ is not that it is based on an underpinning theory that human beings cause environmental damage and that restricting all human activity will allow nature to heal. Rather it lies in the purposeful lumping together of the world’s indigenous peoples, who largely live in circular sustainable economies in harmony with their surroundings, with the vast corporations which extract enormous resources from the ground for profit. Like in colonial times, indigenous eviction from lands that are envisaged as being allowed to ‘return to wilderness’ is considered as appropriate ‘collateral’ for these lands to becoming carbon sinks to enable less drastic changes for people living in the rest of the world where environmental pollution is a way of life.

The impact on three indigenous communities illustrates the harm that the 30×30 plan could do, and the real implications for people whose very culture over generations has centred around safeguarding their environment.


As currently structured the 30×30 plan will marginalise Adivasi communities who have lived in harmony with nature in India’s tribal belt states but who are already under development aggression. These mineral rich states have seen intense commercial exploitation that has devastated the biodiversity and reduced the communities to living on the margins of their own, now devastated land. If the scheme goes ahead, it will further marginalise these communities (currently protected under the Indian Constitution) and place lands directly in the hands of state governments with close links to industries. The recent announcement of the establishment of new coal plants shows that far from preserving the environment, the scheme may well remove the only custodians of the lands who stand between nature and its devastation by commerce.


The Mau Forest has huge significance for Kenya and the wider world as one of the key water towers of the Nile River. Hunter gatherer communities such as the Ogiek (literally translates to ‘keeper of fauna and flora) have lived under increasing pressure of encroachment commencing with British rule which sought to exploit the wealth of the forest on a grand scale. The exploitation of these lands has continued with logging and commercial activities pushing the Ogiek community and their way of life to the margins as powerful interests sought to profit. Despite a path-breaking ruling from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2017, the Kenyan government appears unwilling to implement this judgment, which demanded official recognition of the Ogiek’s traditional custodianship of nature. Instead, the 30×30 scheme could provide justification for the Kenyan and other governments to act against such communities, forcing evictions and placing lands directly in the hands of those who have overseen its destruction. This will likely prove fatal to the environment and the communities.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The ancient Batwa culture makes the Congo River basin one of the cradles of human civilisation. Their centuries’ old traditions of living in harmony with the forest was disrupted by European colonisers who exploited the land and created the exclusive zones which were reserved for their own privilege, evicting local people who were seen as not significantly different from animals (in contrast to Europeans). The devastation of the areas has followed and the ‘reserves’ in the name of nature have been unable to protect against environmental damage. The expansion of parks and the physical intimidation of the communities who live on, protect and rely on them for subsistence by armed guards is effectively the modern face of the 30×30 scheme.


The evidence is plain to see around the globe. The science points to a clear direction of travel. Vested interests acting in the name of environmental protection need to be called out for what they seek to do: protect their own gains in the climate fight.

We advocate a four-fold path to mitigating the climate disaster. Recognise indigenous sovereignty over the lands and territories they live within. Design shared strategies for nature conservation with indigenous communities, including measures for accountability. Place environmentally focussed institutions at the behest of those who wield traditional knowledge; they should listen with humility and implement ways to incorporate that knowledge to generate new scaled up versions of protection. Provide responsibility with conditionalities, modes of accountability and powers to compel others, to indigenous peoples, not only to regenerate their own homelands, but also to seek to influence and change the trajectory of their surrounding areas.

This path is not as pithy as ’30×30′. If climate mitigation could be achieved by rhetoric and gimmickry that may have been a problem. But complicated and differentiated solutions are needed to cope with the messy lifestyles that have seen a small part of humanity, acting in its own interests, push the other societies, often against their will, to the edge of climate extinction. Calling this behaviour to account may be for another day. For now, it is urgent that we change our focal point in the fight for climate survival and not entrust it to the same people who are destroying it.

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Photo: Stephen Kotioko stands in Mau Forest, Kenya. Credit: Jason Taylor.

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