What Conservation Efforts Can Learn from Indigenous Communities

May 29, 2019
By Annie Sneed
Scientific American

A major U.N.-backed report says that nature on indigenous peoples’ lands is degrading less quickly than in other areas

A kaleidoscopic diversity of Earth’s plants and animals underpins human existence but is under major threat from the environmental degradation wrought by human activities from mining to agriculture. A million species face extinction—many within decades—without major changes to the way we interact with nature, according to a United Nations–backed report released earlier this month.

But there is a bright spot: this decline is happening at a slower rate on indigenous peoples’ lands, according to the report, which was compiled by a panel called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Its authors and other conservation experts say the world should not only draw lessons from those and other local communities’ environmental stewardship but that scientists and policy makers need to support and partner with them in order to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.

“On average, they are doing a better job of managing natural resources and environmental hazards like species decline and pollution,” says Pamela McElwee, one of the report’s lead authors and an associate professor of human ecology at Rutgers University. “This is a watershed moment in acknowledging that indigenous and local communities play really important roles in maintaining and managing biodiversity and landscapes that the rest of us can learn from.”

Stewards of Biodiversity

The report says at least a quarter of our planet’s land is owned, used, occupied or managed by indigenous peoples. And that includes 35 percent of terrestrial areas with very low human impacts, as well as approximately 35 percent of lands under formal protection. The numbers would rise even higher if groups the report designates as “local communities”—considered nonindigenous, but with strong ties to the land through livelihood and other factors—were included. “We have always been saying that if you really look at it, indigenous peoples manage very large areas of biodiversity. But to have governments accept that, and to make it one of the major findings of the report, is quite significant,” says Joji Carino, who is Ibaloi-Igorot from the Philippines’ Cordilleras Highlands and a senior policy adviser of the Forest Peoples Programme. This nonprofit human rights organization works with indigenous peoples, particularly in tropical forest countries.

The report found that indigenous and local communities contribute in many significant ways to biodiversity. By combining wild and domestic species in gardens, for example, they have created habitats that are much more diverse and species-rich than typical agricultural landscapes—which are often vast fields with acre upon acre of the same crop. “In some cases, there are 300 or 500 species in a garden,” says Zsolt Molnár, a coordinating lead author of the IPBES global assessment and an ethnoecologist at the MTA Center for Ecological Research in Hungary. Many indigenous and local communities actively manage their lands, such as through traditional burning practices that promote biodiversity in places including Australia. They also carry out ecological restoration of degraded lands, such as in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where indigenous communities have been involved in restoring shellfish populations and native plant species.

Indigenous peoples and local communities also play an important role in long-term monitoring of ecosystems. This is critical, especially because some of these groups live in remote, hard-to-reach areas, such as the Arctic or Amazon forest. “It’s really [these communities] that are collecting the data, often through everyday experiences, so they can report back trends for species, population numbers over time, interactions between species, noticeable declines,” McElwee says. “That monitoring role can be really important, particularly where we don’t have a long-term scientific presence.” For example, indigenous communities in the semipolar regions of the U.S. and Canada have collaborated with those countries on the Local Environmental Observer network, which collects observations on everything from temperatures to wildlife sightings.

Often, though, scientists and governments have not recognized—or have even denigrated—the contributions of indigenous and local communities to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health. In Hungary, for instance, traditional herders had long allowed livestock to graze grasslands, which helped promote biodiversity by maintaining the balance of plant species. But when the country established national parks several decades ago, government authorities often discouraged, restricted or even outright banned traditional grazing on grasslands. “The problem was that science had no understanding of traditional herding and its impacts,” Molnár says. It is only over the last couple decades that government authorities and scientists have recognized herders’ crucial role in grassland management and have started reintroducing and supporting traditional grazing in the parks.

A Different View of Nature

Indigenous and local communities tend to succeed at conservation for a number of reasons, say experts such as Eduardo Brondízio, co-chair of the IPBES global assessment and an anthropologist at Indiana University Bloomington. These communities have long histories with their lands, which have provided sustenance in a very direct and intimate way. “When you understand the potential uses and the values of hundreds of species, you see a forest differently than if you don’t recognize that,” he says. Social norms and rules can also help communities regulate their natural resources. “It’s about [viewing] the landscape not only from the perspective of just agriculture or ranging,” Brondízio notes. “Instead of focusing on a single management issue, they look at the function of landscapes and what is important to keep in terms of connectivity, how different habitats can be managed to complement each other.”

They also tend to have a deeper understanding of local ecosystems and their dynamics, and this can help make better-informed management decisions. “Community-based institutions are often more successful than government policies or institutions (like formal protected areas) simply because they are closer to the ground and can respond more quickly to changes or threats,” McElwee says.

In addition, many indigenous and local communities tend have a reciprocal relationship with nature, rather than viewing nature as existing to serve humans—as much of Western culture has historically regarded things. “The institutions, the cultural values, the way of living and the way you see nature itself—as [inseparable] from your social life and identity—that creates a different view of what to use, how to use and how to deal with the tradeoffs of use,” Brondízio says. As McElwee notes, “Even if we don’t acknowledge it, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we produce—it all depends on healthy ecosystems. That is a lesson we can learn from indigenous peoples and local communities who know this already, and who are actively conserving and managing lands.”

Experts say indigenous and local knowledge is—and will be—a critical part of protecting the planet’s biodiversity and the overall health of our ecosystems. This means governments and scientists need to be allies with these communities by amplifying their voices, including them in scientific assessments, recognizing territorial rights and creating partnerships between scientists and indigenous and local communities. “One of the big points is that governments really have to respect our knowledge, values and innovations,” Carino says. “As well as recognize land tenure systems, access rights, and so on.”

At the same time, many of these communities and their lands face immense threats. They are dealing with pressures from encroaching infrastructure, agriculture, mining, logging and other activities that also endanger biodiversity. There are internal pressures as well, Brondízio says. “Poverty is a major issue among indigenous and local communities,” he explains, adding that this can put pressure on their natural resources or allow outsiders to exploit communities.

Standard conservation practices can present a threat too, experts including Molnár and Carino say. “There are many bad examples where indigenous territories were appropriated by the government, declared a protected area, and indigenous peoples were translocated or just simply killed,” explains Molnár, pointing to the example of the Ogiek, who were evicted from their homes on Mount Elgon in Kenya. “If we want indigenous peoples to become allies in the protection of biodiversity, then we have to respect their rights,” he says. Carino agrees. “Really, the whole way of conservation in the future needs to be rethought,” she says. “It has to be conservation with respect for human rights of the peoples who are living there, who are managing these areas.”