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Partnership Explores Ecological Conservation Mechanisms and Indigenous Rights

Northwestern Law student research for WWF examines water, land, and Indigenous rights in four countries

Arleigh Truesdale | July 11, 2023
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Verdant land and fresh water are essential for communities and countless species who depend on Earth’s diverse ecosystems. Yet conservation mechanisms typically offer protection in silos, rather than taking a holistic approach where land, water, and the communities that inhabit them are seen as inextricably intertwined. In some cases, conservation efforts can undermine the longstanding practices of Indigenous communities.

Taylor Nchako ’23, of Northwestern Pritzker Law, spent much of her spring semester examining how to address this issue. She began by surveying four countries—Brazil, Peru, Namibia, and Zambia—to understand how existing land management practices interact with water and land rights of Indigenous communities in each country.

Her work was a part of the standing partnership between Northwestern University and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy facilitates student research projects with WWF through the law school’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic (EAC). Paired with clients and organizations including WWF, law students provide real-world legal assistance under the tutelage of Northwestern legal experts and professors.

“I wanted to do something meaningful and applicable to real life, rather than a thought exercise,” said Nchako, whose research was completed under the guidance of Robert A. Weinstock, Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Director of the EAC. “As the world turns from aspiration to implementation under the Convention on Biological Diversity, WWF asked Northwestern to help it make sure that implementation centers and empowers indigenous peoples,” Weinstock shared. “It’s an honor to help WWF develop these policies and we can only do it because of Northwestern’s superlative students like Taylor and the global reach created through our partnership with WWF.” 

In 2022, Nchako had the opportunity to collaborate with the WWF Zambia team through the EAC, where she studied the governance of a transboundary river in the South of Africa.

This spring, her project set out to investigate how to implement Other Effective Area-based Conservation Mechanisms (OECMs) in a way that would strengthen Indigenous sovereignty and land and water management practices. Devised under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the term OECM encompasses a variety of geographical areas that consistently achieve positive biodiversity outcomes using various land management practices.

Under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, inland waters have often not received the same level of priority as land and oceans “Rivers, waters, wetlands are important for our biological diversity and human wellbeing,” said Nchako, which is why her research focused on water regulation regimes across and between countries.

Nchako provided WWF with recommendations for ways to improve OECM frameworks:

Holistic Protection of Waterways

Freshwater ecosystems are quite literally fluid and so they often extend beyond and between national borders. “It’s important to make sure the ecosystems are protected along the entire waterway,” Nchako said. If only downstream areas are protected, for example, upstream pollution could continue to degrade the ecosystem. To Nchako, “coordinated and holistic protection of the entire waterway means governing bodies should include the surrounding ecosystem in the OECM designation.”

Examine Transboundary Indigenous Rights

With transboundary waters, particularly rivers in the Amazon that cross through several countries, Nchako is interested in how the UN affords rights to Indigenous peoples who rely on and manage natural resources. “Many borders did not exist when Indigenous people first settled these areas,” she said.

The OECM framework is intended to enable Indigenous peoples to report conservation occurring in their territories and areas towards global biodiversity targets without those areas needing to become protected area or change their governance regimes.

Strengthen and Center Indigenous Goveranance

“Indigenous communities have been conserving these places for a long time and understand very intimately the ecosystems,” so Nchako recommends “ensuring Indigenous groups have recognition under national legislation.” Recognition could mean endowment of land management rights, endorsement of the tools and data collection methods used by Indigenous communities, and provision of technical support as requested.

Nchako also suggests that OECM frameworks establish direct and sustainable funding for Indigenous peoples and improve their ability to contribute to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Direct access allows for accountability measures like reporting instances of pollution or making sure land rights are protected. Further yet, Nchako recommends helping, at their request, Indigenous communities establish NGOs or non-profits for ecosystem management and to support the livelihood that has historically contributed to conservation.

Looking Forward

Nchako is optimistic that her recommendations will be heard and is motivated by the communities who have laid the groundwork. “It is hard to ignore the calls that Indigenous people are making in international spaces,” she reflected. “That speaks to the power that Indigenous people have been able to amass through coalition building, being present, and attending conferences.”

Jeff Opperman, WWF’s lead freshwater scientist who helped advise Nchako, added, “Freshwater ecosystems are critically important for both biodiversity conservation goals and for the food and livelihoods of many communities, including indigenous communities. OECMs are a promising mechanism for securing the rights of communities and contributing to conservation goals. Taylor’s research will help us better understand the complex relationships between OECMs, indigenous lands, and freshwater conservation and that will help WWF achieve its mission of conserving ecosystems for the benefit of nature and people.”

With her recently acquired law degree, Nchako intends to spend her career focusing on climate change and the energy transition with a local-to-global lens and a particular focus on Africa.  “I belong to a tribe that was oppressed during the struggle for independence in Cameroon and is still facing political prejudice. On a more personal level, that’s part of my interest in Indigenous rights,” she shared.

To current and future Northwestern Pritzker School of Law students, her three-pronged advice: “Be curious, pursue things that you are genuinely passionate about, and remain grounded and down to Earth.”