Dr Witness Kozanayi attended a workshop on indigenous and local knowledge, which forms part of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment on the sustainable use of wild species. The meeting was held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, from 6-7 May 2019. Witness was one of two African representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) participating at the IPBES workshop. Witness is currently a post-doctoral researcher within the DST/NRF SARChI Bio-economy Chair, but grew up in the rural areas of eastern Zimbabwe, where he also conducted his PhD. SARChI Chair A/Prof Rachel Wynberg is involved as a lead author in the policy chapter of the IPBES sustainable use assessment.

The workshop followed the 7th session of the IPBES plenary, and the launch of a landmark new report, the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Alarmingly, the report indicates that despite multiple policy interventions, nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with the rate of species extinctions accelerating. Grave impacts on people around the world and on our planet are now likely.

Sustainable use is one of the thematic assessments now taking place within IPBES, aiming to consider various approaches to the enhancement of the sustainability of the use of wild species of all organisms within the ecosystems that they inhabit and to strengthen related practices, measures, capacities and tools for their conservation through such use. The IPBES Paris workshop aimed to facilitate participation of IPLCs in the development of the sustainable use assessment and to identify challenges and opportunities associated with maintaining and promoting the sustainable use of wild species.

Witness experienced the workshop to be a resounding success, largely due to the participatory way in which it was facilitated. To have an effective dialogue calls for the building of mutual trust and confidence between indigenous and local knowledge holders and natural and social scientists through practicing mutual respect for each other’s cultures and approaching potentially contentious subjects with sensitivity. At the start of the workshop, participants were given the opportunity to discuss the issues they wished to address, and how they should be approached.  Ultimately, this led to the co-production of outputs by the co-chairs of the meeting and the IPLC representatives.

Key discussions focused on the fact that while there is a rich endowment of biodiversity across the globe which has sustained billions of lives over the years, this is becoming increasingly degraded. In addition to the direct use of biodiversity, indigenous and local communities derive spiritual and cultural fulfilment from its use. Such values are usually ignored by mainstream policy pronouncements, at both national and global levels. Consequently, local biodiversity conservation practices are often shaped by indigenous cultural practices. This has informed the need for a policy dialogue space within IPBES to ensure that the sustainable use assessment incorporates local voices and different ways of knowing.

Going forward, additional meetings will be organised at venues and times yet to be announced. A number of IPLCs will be asked to contribute to chapters of the sustainable use assessment report. Witness describes the workshop as an appropriate platform for grassroots to engage with policy development about biodiversity issues that affect African communities in a direct way. He concludes, “Biodiversity and communal areas are dear to my heart since I grew up in the natural resource-rich communal lands of eastern Zimbabwe, an area where I also carried out research for my PhD studies. For various reasons, including poor policy frameworks, that rich biodiversity is getting degraded, and together with it – local culture and livelihoods”.