5 Questions with Peter Seligmann on Earth’s Last Stewards


Peter Seligmann speaks about the essential role of indigenous people and why their future is at risk.

For nearly 30 years, Conservation International (CI) has sought to preserve natural capital around the world. Their method is holistic and non-prescriptive — they help where they can and do what it takes to protect natural landscapes. In order to do this, one strategy they return to time and again is working with local indigenous populations. Emerson Collective President and Founder Laurene Powell Jobs sat down with Peter Seligmann, Chairman and CEO of CI, to discuss the enormous potential of indigenous peoples in the preservation of the natural world.

Alejandro Criollo, an indigenous Shaman in A’I’ Cofan Durano, Ecuador. © Lucas Bustamante

For decades, the work of protecting nature meant sequestering it from the impact of humans. CI, on the other hand, has a different approach, recognizing that conservation serves not just nature but also humanity. Can you walk us through your premise of connectedness and how that thinking has matured over time?

We’re all connected — all humans rely on nature. If nature doesn’t thrive, we don’t thrive: It generates crucial benefits in the form of fresh water, reliable food, a stable climate and protection from storms and floods, and so much more.

Earlier in our history at CI, we solely focused on protecting biodiversity hotspots — places where rare species are highly concentrated and endangered — and we had great success. But we saw that over time, the world was still losing forests, people were still overfishing, climate change was still getting worse, and so on. And at the same time, we began to look at our dependence on nature, not just as repositories of species but generators of these benefits services that we need to survive.

Near Chiapas, Mexico, CI is working with local engineers and farmers to help teach organic farming and marketing techniques. © Jessica Scranton

Globally, the territories occupied by indigenous peoples are home to 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. With lives so deeply intertwined with nature, they will be the first to experience the dramatic effects of climate change. Can you share a few examples of how this is taking place today?

Every community on Earth is already experiencing the effects of climate change, but indigenous peoples are both some of the hardest hit and have fewer choices to cope with the changes. There are hundreds of examples, but a few are particularly dire. Indigenous Arctic peoples are losing entire villages to thawing permafrost and eroding coastlines, while at the same time facing changes to migratory patterns for the caribou and whales they need to subsist. African pastoralist communities are being impacted by long-term drought, forced to reduce their livestock numbers and driving many to cities to seek alternative livelihoods.

This tragedy is compounded by the fundamental injustice of the climate problem: Those who are least responsible for carbon pollution are the least able to adapt to the coming changes.

Tonggo Manurung discusses rubber supply chain issues with Faizal Reza of local NGO and middleman Amir Hussein in Pagaran Galagala village, Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra. CI is a firm believer that indigenous groups are the best stewards of our natural capital. © Conservation International/photo by Tory Read

Conservation often comes at the expense of indigenous rights, starting right here with the very first national parks in the United States. How is that changing around the world, and how are conservation- and climate-related programs being used to advance indigenous rights rather than undermine them?

Research continues to show that when local communities have secure rights to manage their lands, it leads to better conservation outcomes — benefiting not only these communities, but all of humanity. In most cases, indigenous people have managed their ancestral lands for generations and have developed a deep knowledge and profound connection to these places, and this connection makes them well-placed to continue to do so in a sustainable way.

CI early on adopted a policy on the rights of indigenous peoples, and it has become central to our conservation approach. In the Amazon, for example, we are working with national governments to formally recognize indigenous rights and traditional lands and resources as part of forest conservation efforts to mitigate climate change. In Indonesia, we are helping local people better manage their fisheries and protect them from outside industrial fishing. And in Kenya, we are working with indigenous villages to provide durable funding sources for policing services that both combat poaching and improve community security. There is of course more work that needs to be done, but we are headed in the right direction.

In only four countries do indigenous peoples legally own or control more than 60% of the land area: Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Uganda, and Turkmenistan. © Conservation International/photo by Will Turner

Indigenous peoples and local communities have been engaging in global policy forums to ensure their rights are recognized and respected in international agreements such as the Paris Agreement. However, there is still much work to be done in underscoring the importance of this population’s voice. What does the path to that empowered dialogue look like?

All international decisions must take into account the rights and perspectives of indigenous peoples, and that means full and effective participation in discussions that effect and impact their lands and resources. Since 2010, CI has worked with the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change to strengthen the capacity of indigenous organizations to engage in high-level and technical policy dialogue. At Paris, we coordinated with and supported the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion to provide a voice for indigenous peoples within the climate negotiations. And we provide regular training to local indigenous leaders wherever we work to bring them to the table. We live this mantra at CI with indigenous community leadership ingrained at every level of our organization.

A woman from the Kayapo tribe in Brazil speaks at the international Conference of Parties. CI regularly provides training to indigenous leaders to better bring them to the table in national and international negotiations. © Alejandro Zambrana/Sesai/Flickr Creative Commons

At the next gathering of Conference of the Parties in Marrakech (COP22), many of us will gather with the intent of action and forward motion. How can we make sure that our actions around indigenous rights are meaningful, sustainable and transformative?

Though indigenous peoples and local communities control almost a quarter of all lands worldwide representing 80 percent of global biodiversity, they receive less than two percent of all conservation financing. We already have models that we know work to empower indigenous communities, ensure the protection of rights and share benefits equitably. Going forward, we need to dramatically scale up these efforts in order to support the full realization of the potential of indigenous peoples and local communities to combat climate change. In Marrakech, countries will be looking to make good on their commitments from Paris, and it will be up to negotiators to write rules that encourage the most effective solutions. Nature — and in particular indigenous-stewarded nature — is an investment opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.

What’s Next?

  • Read more about how CI is partnering with local communities
  • Watch this video to see indigenous people at work at the Indigenous Peoples’ Pavilion at COP21
  • Keep up to date with CI by joining the mailing list

Cover Photo: © Conservation International/photo by Will Turner