Maori activists among protesters in New Zealand

Calls for shared decisionmaking are increasingly being heard at national and international levels. Image © Jon Lyall/Shutterstock

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Indigenous Peoples call for co-operation to conserve the world's biodiversity

Recognising the rights of the world's Indigenous Peoples could be crucial to protecting nature.

The traditional inhabitants of many nations are important allies in the fight against the biodiversity crisis, which threatens their distinct ways of life. 

The Indigenous Peoples (IPs) of the world have a message for our governments: 'Work with us, not against us, to restore the world's biodiversity.'

As the traditional inhabitants of their lands, IPs have thousands of years of knowledge of how to preserve the environments they live in. However, they have historically been overlooked when it comes to conservation, following centuries of oppression and marginalisation.

While their rights have gradually been better recognised in recent decades, IPs remain on the front line of the biodiversity crisis which threatens their way of life, their homes, and their existence. They're calling for co-operation at national and international levels to lend their help in protecting nature.

'The nations of the world must understand that we are not their problem, but their solution,' says Gakemotho Satau, a Botswanan activist from the San people. 'We are here to provide ways to fix the problems that they have created, and we want to help.'

'We are the traditional stewards of our land, and we have developed tried and tested approaches that are specifically adapted to conserve their diversity. But to put these in place, we must have a role in making conservation policy, and not simply be the recipients of it.' 

UN delegates meet with CBD personnel in Geneva

Delegates from all over the world attend bodies such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Image © UN Biodiversity/Convention on Biological Diversity, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Who are Indigenous People?

There is no one definition of what makes a person, or people, Indigenous. Different organisations, countries and IPs all have their own ways of defining what it is that sets them apart. 

One common definition is that IPs are the descendants of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins first arrived.

However, these definitions can be contentious. Some groups which would otherwise be defined as IPs object to negative connotations the term can convey, and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues says that IPs should be allowed to define themselves.

In any case, IPs are found all over the world. They include peoples such as the Cherokee in the USA, the Maori of New Zealand and the Ainu of Japan. Many IPs span the borders of more than one country, such as the Saami of northern Europe.

While they may have been the only residents of their lands in the past, centuries of colonialism, conflict and forced movements mean they tend to be in the minority today. Issues surrounding recognition of their rights continue to face IPs.

'Indigenous issues are at different levels around the world, with some states co-existing with them and recognising that they have their own distinct way of life,' Gakemotho explains. 'In others, such as southern Africa, the issue of who is Indigenous is a sensitive one.'

'There is no question that Africans are all indigenous to Africa, but our historic and cultural ways of living as IPs are different from the majority of the population. After decades of debate, there is still little progress on our collective human right to live as we have for thousands of years.'

Joram Useb, the Regional Co-ordinator of The Indigenous Peoples' of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), adds, 'When Indigenous Peoples come together to talk about our common issues, we find they are just the same wherever you are in the world.' 

Five Maasai warriors in traditional clothing walk through the savannah

Groups such as the Maasai face increasingly extreme weather, which threatens their way of life. Image © Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock

What threats do Indigenous Peoples face from the biodiversity crisis?

Biodiversity around the world is under threat. A recent report from the WWF revealed that between 1970 and 2018 populations of monitored wildlife crashed by 69%, with Latin America and the Caribbean bearing the brunt of these declines.

IPs face the loss of the animals and plants that they depend on for food, resources and income as overharvesting from nature limits the ability of wildlife to naturally recover.

'Harvesting from nature is part of our way of life,' Joram says. 'Our motto is "the more you know, the less you take."' 

'If we know of a medicinal plant, for instance, we just take what we need and don't harvest the entire area. When hunting, we would target older animals and a mixture of different species to allow their populations time to recover.'

'These species are now being driven to the brink of extinction by large scale exploitation, which is putting pressure on our communities.'

Aside from wildlife, entire ecosystems are also being rapidly lost. According to the monitoring programme Global Forest Watch, in 2021 more than 110,000 square kilometres of forest were lost, equivalent to an area one and a half times the size of the island of Ireland.

Brazil alone saw an area of undisturbed rainforest more than half the size of Belgium destroyed in the same year, directly harming groups such as the Yanomami who live in the Amazon. 

The UN's human rights body has warned that the loss of forest is costing the Yanomami their homes and lives, with cases of malaria and mercury poisoning on the rise as a result of illegal forest clearing by gold prospectors.

Ecosystems are also affected by climate change, which is exacerbating the effect of biodiversity loss. 

'Rainfall is becoming very uneven in southern Africa as the climate changes,' Joram says. 'In some areas we are having very long droughts that are killing wildlife while others are getting much more rain than normal, which is causing widespread flooding.'

'Climate change is changing our ecosystems and forcing people to move from place to place, and country to country. This movement is causing conflict between people, and between wildlife and people.'

As the loss of biodiversity makes their way of life less viable, IPs risk losing elements of their culture and heritage. Efforts to stem these losses by conservationists and national governments can also have negative impacts, with allegations of IPs being evicted from their lands as new protected areas are established.

'We face environmental laws that are not in line with our way of life,' Joram says. 'We were custodians of the land, but the creation of reserves without proper consideration can present challenges for us to live as we used to.' 

Sunset over the Amazon rainforest

The soil of the Amazon rainforest may have been enriched by its ancient inhabitants. Image © streetflash/Shutterstock

How can Indigenous Peoples help to protect biodiversity?

IPs have been protecting biodiversity for thousands of years, and may have even played a role in the development of some of the world's most diverse ecosystems.

For instance, the Amazon rainforest contains areas with particularly fertile soils known as Amazonian Dark Earths, or terras pretas. It is believed that ancient societies may have played a role in enhancing these soils, although natural processes are also likely to have been involved.

The role of IPs in modern conservation, however, has only been appreciated more recently. While they represent just 5% of the world's population, they are custodians of around 18% of its land, particularly in biodiversity hotspots.

One think tank estimates that this land contains up to 80% of the world's remaining biodiversity.

'We know our lands, and are able to spot the early warning signs of change,' Gakemotho says. 'We also have accumulated Traditional Knowledge to protect them, such as controlled burning to reduce the risk of disastrous fires.'

The spiritual and cultural values of IPs can also help to protect nature. For instance, a survey of the Lua people of Thailand suggests that their beliefs are linked to the responsible management of natural resources such as fish.

Gakemotho says that the approach of IPs to nature, thinking of themselves and their actions as part of a wider environment, can be compared to the principle of ecosystem thinking which has become more popular in recent years. 

'Developed economies have historically misplaced humans in their thinking of the environment,' Gakemotho says. 'IPs place humans at the centre of an ecosystem, so that they can ensure a sustainable relationship between biodiversity and ourselves.'

A number of studies and reports demonstrate that when appropriately supported to protect the environment, IPs are effective guardians of their lands. A 2021 paper, for example, found that protected Indigenous lands had significantly more intact and diverse forests than other protected areas.

However, in countries where Indigenous lands were not protected by national governments in Africa and Asia, intactness could be lower than in non-protected areas.

The study's lead author, PhD student Jocelyne Sze, suggests this could relate to the status of IPs.

'In a lot of Asia, Indigenous lands and Indigenous rights are not recognised,' Jocelyne says. 'So, while an area may be categorised as traditionally Indigenous, Indigenous people may not have control over the land.'

'Also, because lots of mineral, oil, and gas deposits are often found within Indigenous lands, it's not surprising that those lands are often really exploited.' 

Aymara women sat on dusty ground in Bolivia

Bolivian groups, like the Aymara, have been given increased rights in the country's recent constitution. Image © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

What changes do Indigenous Peoples want to see?

Indigenous Peoples are calling on the world to recognise their rights over their ancestral lands, and to give them a greater role in decision making.

'It's not possible to tackle biodiversity loss without acknowledging the rights of IPs,' Gakemotho says. 'Doing that in the past has brought about the climate crisis and biodiversity losses the world is now experiencing.'

'Recognising our rights will not only promote our own self-determination and give us greater legal protections but will allow us to integrate our Traditional Knowledge into the country's own.'

One way to achieve this could be to include IPs in the constitutions of the world's countries. Bolivia, for instance, adopted a new constitution in 2009 which gave the country's ancestral inhabitants the right to self-determination and control over their land.

This has allowed IPs in the country to establish sustainable forest management schemes that have given them an income from sources such as cacao and coffee, which has in turn been reinvested into their own communities and adding more land to their protected areas. 

'We always encourage governments to align their policies with our way of life, as our communities know to preserve and conserve the wildlife we live alongside,' Joram says. 'We have lived alongside these animals and plants for a long time. We respect the land and are respected in return.'

IPs are also calling for a change in mindset to ensure that the planet is put ahead of profits from exploiting nature.

'Climate change and conservation have worsened because the exploitation of natural resources is linked with money,' Gakemotho says. 'IPs want a sustainable, social economy where money is the by-product of good conservation and not the other way round.'

Sharing the benefits of biodiversity is one of the aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international agreement to protect nature. While some deals have been struck with IPs, benefit sharing remains an area of ongoing debate between the signatories of the convention.

Dr Chris Lyal, a Scientific Associate of the Museum who is involved with one aspect of the agreement, says, 'The CBD is one of the few places where IPs have a platform to speak about their issues.' 

'Increasingly, attention is being paid to the role of IPs as custodians of biodiversity, and they are now at the table asking for a reasonable share of the benefits. It's one of many factors around benefit sharing that CBD parties are now considering in ongoing discussions.'

Benefit sharing and the conservation roles of IPs are among the items agreed at COP15, with IPs keen to see the decisions made translate into actions on the ground.

'These decisions need to be implemented not just at an international level, but on the ground in the nations of the world,' Joram says. 'A lack of resources is often given as a reason why they can't be put in place, but we can help with this.'

'If you decentralise the implementation of conservation and allow IPs and local communities to take part in this, then new solutions can and will be found to the biodiversity crisis.'