By Published: Jan. 20, 2023

On Dec. 19, more than 190 countries—excluding the U.S. and the Holy See—signed onto an agreement to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030 and take 22 other measures to reduce global biodiversity loss this decade. 

The agreement, signed at the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity’s 15th Annual Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Montreal, is a particularly impactful one, said Mara Goldman, an associate professor in the Department of Geography who specializes in biodiversity conservation, indigenous knowledge and global development. 

“They came together to redesign a new biodiversity conservation framework for post-2020, as there was global failure to meet any of the prior goals that were set for protecting biodiversity,” she said. “It’s a big achievement not only for biodiversity conservation, but for human rights.” 

CU Boulder Today spoke with Goldman about biodiversity conservation, what happened at COP15 and how people around the world are part of the solution. 

Why is biodiversity important? 

We often think about biodiversity from a species perspective: We need to save the rainforest because of all the different species of plants and animals there—and there might be a cure for cancer, for instance, in a plant species that we haven't even discovered yet. There's also diversity at the genetics level, within a species. Through modern agricultural practices, for instance, we've lost much of the diversity in species like corn and potatoes, which then reduces the ability for these particular plants to deal with climate change, insects or other threats. Low genetic diversity also puts populations in the wild at risk. If you have a small population of lions, for example, and they're genetically not very diverse, a sickness could come in and wipe out that whole population. The same thing occurs at the landscape or ecosystem level on our planet. It's not healthy to only have forests. We also need alpine grasslands and all the other ecosystems. 

Do threats to biodiversity and climate change overlap? 

Climate change is going to pose a great deal of threat to the planet, to individuals and to communities—and it's the same thing with biodiversity. They're interconnected. Diversity, at any level, helps with the ability for species—for populations, for individuals, for communities—to respond to change. It's impossible to imagine a world without diversity: Everything from the food that we eat, to the water that we drink to the survival of the planet depends on halting and reversing biodiversity loss, which was the goal of the recent COP15. 

Why was the recent “biodiversity COP” so timely? 

It was important because there's now a recognition that biodiversity loss is happening at an extreme rate, something on a planetary scale that we haven't seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. People refer to it as a mass extinction. 

There was also an acknowledgement of historic and ongoing mistreatment and human rights concerns for indigenous and local communities in the name of conservation. 

What was accomplished at COP15?

A big accomplishment was the “30 by 30” target. It is a promise and a push by scientists to protect 30% of the planet's land and oceans by 2030. It's also controversial because indigenous communities were afraid—and remain afraid—that the achievement of that goal is going to impinge on their rights. So another important achievement, not only for human rights but for biodiversity conservation, is the recognition of the knowledge and rights of indigenous and local communities, including their territorial rights within the 30-by-30 goal. 

There’s also what is being called a second 30 by 30, which are the finances involved. Similar to the most recent climate change COP (COP27 in Egypt), one of the big achievements of COP15 was a promise for money: $30 billion for developing countries by 2030 to help them reach these goals. 

Another target recognizes gender as an important issue. What role does it play? 

In the lead up to the COP15, I was working with a group of women academics and activists to push for a separate target on gender, because research shows that women and girls tend to be the most affected by the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. Women and girls are often responsible for water collection, fisheries management, small stock management, and so on. And yet, they are often excluded from conversations about biodiversity protection and management. So women's needs and concerns are no included in the conversation, and we also miss out on all the knowledge that they have, which is often quite different than knowledge that men have, because of different roles and responsibilities that often happen along gender lines. So it's really exciting that there's actually a gendered target now as a result of COP15.

How are the indigenous communities crucial to the success of biodiversity conservation?

There's been a lot of research recently, including a scientific study that is now also touted by the UN, that shows that the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet exist in lands that are occupied and managed by indigenous communities. Indigenous communities often have different knowledge, different ways of interacting with what we call nature, that could be incredibly useful for redefining our relationship with nature—but they often lack the legal recognition to do it. 

What is the biggest challenge for biodiversity conservation going forward? 

The biggest challenge is that equitable participation from communities around the world is necessary to reach the 30 by 30 goal. Conservation often happens in ways that bring women to the table, bring indigenous communities to the table, and bring local communities to the table, but it doesn’t change the way the table is structured. Those in power don't change the power dynamics at the table. Sometimes indigenous and local communities, and women, are brought to the table at the end to just give their agreement. 

Biodiversity conservation is dependent on cultural diversity. The recognition of indigenous rights and knowledge and the inclusion of women is not an add-on. It needs to be fully a part of the process. So how are we going to create new systems? If that challenge can be taken up, then there's a real promise that we can protect both biodiversity and indigenous rights and knowledge.