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Can indigenous communities lead the way in conservation?

  • Published at 11:00 pm February 22nd, 2020
Meghalaya india-indigenous
Photo: Reuters

Making the planet a priority

Species are being lost at about a thousand times the natural rate of extinction. This is faster than at any other period in human history. Ecosystems -- the vital systems on which all life depends -- are being degraded across the globe.

From animals to insects and plants, bio-diversity loss cannot be effectively addressed without tackling the rapid disappearance of indigenous cultures. The two are inextricably linked.

Indigenous peoples have conserved bio-diversity for millennia. They have created much of the world’s agricultural bio-diversity, including thousands of crop varieties, livestock breeds, and unique landscapes. 

These practices continue today in many of their territories, creating new varieties of crops and livestock that are often more resilient than modern equivalents.

So it is unsurprising that the rich diversity of nature is declining less rapidly on indigenous peoples’ lands than in other areas. This clearly shows that the world’s 370 million to 500 million indigenous people play a critical role in conserving bio-diversity.

This is backed up by extensive research. According to several studies, traditional ecological knowledge is effective in conserving bio-diversity and regulating sustainable resource use, including hunting, wild harvesting, fishing, farming, and pastoralism, a form of animal husbandry. 

Living in harmony with nature is a fundamental part of indigenous peoples’ core values and beliefs.

A stronger voice

Yet across the world, indigenous cultures and practices are being eroded by modernization, commercial development pressures, lack of secure rights to land and resources, migration, and lack of cultural education. 

As a result, many are struggling to save their unique cultures, knowledge systems, and identities from extinction. This is despite growing recognition that they hold the key to solving many of today’s environmental problems.

Up to 80% of bio-diversity is located on indigenous peoples’ lands, while at least a quarter of all land is traditionally owned or managed by indigenous peoples. Evidently, these cultures need to be protected. This should be part and parcel of broader tactics to conserve bio-diversity. New bio-diversity targets, for example, must protect indigenous cultures.

Yet the role of indigenous peoples is poorly recognized in most bio-diversity strategies and targets. 

Biocultural heritage territories

A change in perspective is needed. In 2005, IIED, the sustainable development research institute where I work, and its partners developed a definition of biocultural heritage in order to address this dual extinction crisis. 

Our research with 11 indigenous groups in Peru, Panama, Kenya, India, and China has revealed multiple interlinkages and interdependence between indigenous knowledge, bio-diversity, landscapes, cultural and spiritual values, and customary laws. These form key components of biocultural heritage, along with indigenous languages.

The way forward

Efforts to save the rich variety of nature cannot be achieved without working to save indigenous cultures. Governments must legally recognize and protect indigenous peoples’ rights to territories, natural resources, traditional knowledge, and self-determination. And indigenous peoples must be fully and effectively involved at every level in efforts to save bio-diversity.

This will be particularly important this year when the new global bio-diversity targets are negotiated. Not only is this key to humankind living in harmony with nature, it is also vital for enhancing support for poor and marginalized indigenous peoples in order to achieve the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Krystyna Swiderska is a PhD Candidate in Biocultural Heritage, Coventry University. A version of this article originally appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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