Mongabay Features

Backing the stewards of biocultural diversity: Q&A with Indigenous rights leader Carla Fredericks

For at least the past 20 years, conservation has been wrestling with some of the darker aspects of its historical relationship with local communities: legacies of colonialism, institutional racism, lack recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights, and abuses like forced evictions from traditional lands and extrajudicial killings. These issues gained increased notoriety in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing last year when the Black Lives Matter movement forced a public conversation around state violence and social injustice in the United States and beyond.

There are signs that the conservation sector is now doing more than just paying lip service to these concerns: Indigenous peoples and local communities are being more actively engaged in decision-making; leadership and boards of conservation institutions are prioritizing diversity and inclusion; and discriminatory practices are increasingly being called out as unacceptable. Issues like free prior informed consent (FPIC) are regularly part of conservation project planning, while conservation groups have taken to promoting local peoples’ land rights as a key component of the battle against climate change and the extinction crisis.

But reorienting conservation to put the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities at the center of strategy and decision-making won’t be easy. Recognizing Indigenous rights as a gap in the philanthropic space in general, the San Francisco-based Christensen Fund recently reoriented its grantmaking approach and adopted a new mission: supporting the global Indigenous peoples’ movement “in its efforts to advance the rights and opportunities of stewards of biocultural diversity.”

To deliver on this mission, last year Christensen hired Carla Fredericks as its executive director. Fredericks, an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, is an Indigenous rights lawyer and academic who has worked in a number of capacities and roles to “defend and elevate” Indigenous peoples’ rights. Her efforts have included authoring and co-authoring numerous academic papers on Indigenous rights; serving as counsel to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline; and establishing First Peoples Worldwide at the University of Colorado, a program that works to promote implementation of the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) across business and government. On assuming her role on Jan. 1, 2021, Fredericks became the first Native American to lead a private foundation with more than $300 million in assets.

While Christensen’s focus isn’t conservation per se, its work has significant implications for conservation, given that Indigenous peoples and local communities around the world steward land that account for 80% of terrestrial biodiversity and at least a sixth of carbon stored in tropical forests. Fredericks says the conservation sector still has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights, rather than just using Indigenous peoples as a mechanism to achieve conservation outcomes.

“I hope that conservation-focused work can really engage now in some deep thinking and make serious commitments to supporting Indigenous people purely for the sake of human rights,” she told Mongabay. “I’ve seen a few approaches that seem somewhat like they are trying to utilize the rights of Indigenous people to achieve conservation objectives. I really think this is a backwards approach.

“Though it is true that Indigenous peoples are the knowledge bearers of sustainable land practices and land stewardship, Indigenous peoples really need to be considered as rights bearers as opposed to stakeholders or something different. It’s only once we see that shift happen and we support Indigenous leadership in a way that is unequivocal that conservation can engage properly with these communities.”

Fredericks spoke about conservation and Indigenous peoples rights, protests and advocacy, the impact of COVID on native communities, and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.