Indigenous and community-led conservation is the alternative, and the model of conservation that can succeed and must be promoted. We don’t just want to protect community rights against biodiversity protection, but protect biodiversity more effectively by centering local and indigenous communities in conservation, and advancing their rights at the same time. This is the solution to the climate crisis.
Indigenous people are fundamental to the preservation of global ecosystems and therefore to life on Earth as we know it. In fact, Indigenous people protect 80% of the global biodiversity, while representing less than 5% of the world’s population. This is because indigenous peoples know their ecosystems really well and base their economies (ecological agriculture, pastoralism, fishing, hunting…) on the health of their ecosystems. The deep knowledge they have of their ecosystem is embedded in their culture, norms, myths and spirituality.
They are the last barrier of defence against the loss of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems.
Many indigenous and local communities around the world hold a variety of visions that differ from the western conception of nature/human separation: they see themselves as intimately connected with the land, the forest and the ecosystem, they understand that their well-being is completely interconnected with the land.
Instead of understanding ecosystems as “natural resources”, or as a surrounding “environment” they see plants and animals as part of their family, and as sacred beings, alive and full of spirits. Therefore they treat them with great care to promote their inter-connected flourishing.
This is why the dispossession of these communities is a tragedy to them, but it is also harmful to the ecosystem, as those who are removed are actually helping it. And that’s why we must support the rights of Indigenous people if we want to preserve the ecosystem.
A huge body of academic and scientific research is catching up with Indigenous knowledge and finding increasing evidence that when land is managed by Indigenous and local communities the biodiversity, forest cover, soil health and the state of the ecosystem more generally improve significantly, compared to when they are managed in other ways.
Just to name a few benefits and resources regarding Indigenous-led conservation:
OUR STUDIES, SOURCES AND EVIDENCE ON
INDIGENOUS-LED AND COMMUNITY-LED CONSERVATION:
Researchers from the University of British Columbia published a study in “Environmental Science & Policy” that found that in Brazil, Australia and Canada areas managed by Indigenous communities have higher biodiversity than protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves. It’s not only that Indigenous and local communities slow down deforestation and degradation, but they actually improve the state of the ecosystem.
“The Ecological Society of America”: Found that the percentage of ‘Intact Forest Landscapes’ (biodiverse and not degraded forest) is higher in indigenous lands than other lands (10.9% in indigenous lands, 6.8% in other lands), admitting that “the true figure may indeed be considerably higher”. They also found that in the majority of sites, indigenous lands contain less degraded forest than other lands, and that the rate of deforestation is lower on indigenous lands than other lands. They conclude that “granting Indigenous Peoples formal legal titles to their forests must be seen as the most critical mechanism for slowing forest loss and protecting these lands from uncontrolled and unregulated resource extraction.
“Indigenous lands have ecosystems that are more structurally intact, and ecological communities that are more compositionally intact, than the global average for terrestrial regions; and their intactness is declining more slowly”; “The Biodiversity Intactness Index averages 85% on Indigenous lands (vs 79% globally)”; “Mean Species Abundance averages 85.5% in Indigenous Lands (vs 76.1% globally)”; “Community-based conservation institutions and local governance regimes often have been found to be effective, at times even more effective than formally established protected areas, in avoiding habitat loss (established but incomplete), with several studies highlighting contributions by indigenous peoples and local communities in limiting deforestation, as well as initiatives showing synergies between these different mechanisms”.
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Comparing the biodiversity (of vertebrates) in indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, with that in protected areas, “Indigenous-managed lands were slightly more vertebrate species rich than existing protected areas in all three countries”. They also found that species which are threatened with extinction survive in larger numbers on indigenous-managed land. Concluding that “collaborating with Indigenous nations and organizations to support and/or enhance Indigenous land management practices clearly represent one potential route to achieving global targets for biodiversity conservation, and simultaneously advancing In- digenous rights to land, sustainable resource use, and human well- being”. They say that indigenous values which underlie their relationship with the land, the world, and each other have to be supported in order to advance with successful biodiversity conservation.
Central African hunter-gatherers (‘Pygmies’) hunt a far less animals and a smaller range of species than non-indigenous villages (27 times fewer animals hunted), and that as a result, indigenous villages are able to exist in many environments including deep forest and areas which are more populated, whereas non-indigenous villages are only located in more populated areas (not deep forest). “Pygmy hunters have less impact on game animals in the Congo Basin” and so conclude that community conservation projects would be more successful with them than with non-indigenous
Where indigenous communities have been given land rights in Peru, forest clearing is reduced by three-quarters, and forest disturbance is reduced by two-thirds.
Short articles about the importance
of community-led and indigenous-led conservation:
Indigenous-led conservation’s role in environmental protection:
Indigenous peoples are crucial for conservation – a quarter of all land is in their hands:
Forest People’s Program: How to do conservation in a way that centers local communities’ rights:
Kichwa community in Ecuador articulate its Living Forest proposal for conservation to the world:
UN Rapporteur on Indigenous rights: why investing in their conservation is the most effective way to preserve the global ecosystem:
CHECK OUT OUR PARTNERS’ CONSERVATION WORK:
THE KETA PROJECT:
The Keta project began in April 2019 and runs until March 2022. Keta is the Baka word for “dream”. The objective of this EU-funded project is to strengthen the active participation of forest-based indigenous peoples (both organisations and communities) in sustainable natural resource management, in order to enhance the promotion, protection and defence of indigenous peoples’ human rights.
Key components of the project include organisational capacity building support for the Gbabandi platform from Well Grounded; a tailor-made training programme for indigenous leaders; training on key natural resource management issues; and support for the Gbabandi Indigenous Women’s Network. Keta has been designed in conjunction with indigenous associations as a follow-on from the EU Cameroon project, which initially supported the creation of the Gbabandi Platform. Project partners are Forest Peoples Programme, Okani and Gbabandi.
RECLAIMING THE LAND
The Guaranì Mbya are a community we work with. They live in the state of Sao Paulo, Brasil, but they have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands.
The Guaranì have been dispossessed by the Portuguese colonizers of their ancestral lands. Before colonization the Guaranì used to have communal, collective decision-making, but the Portuguese forced the rule of the chief to control them. A group of young Guaranì leaders gradually re-introduced their traditional participatory and communal system, injecting new political energy in the community as they saw that their voices mattered.
They’re connected with their spirituality and rituals, gathering faith and grounding themselves in their identity. They created a Guaranì institution, the YvYruppa commission, linking the different village assemblies for coordination and mobilization. They created networks of allies and contacts, made studies proving their ancestral claims and eventually mobilized all the Southern Guaranì to peacefully occupy the central avenue of Sao Paolo and the state government building, resisting police brutality and intimidation, until the government backed down and granted their land back.
HEALING THE LAND
During this time their lands had been turned into eucalyptus monocultures, which had severely degraded the soil and water. The Guaranì took out the plantation and teamed up with agroecologists from Sao Paulo, combining their traditional knowledge and agriculture with their ecological research. They re-introduced native bees and traditional seeds and used soil-restoration techniques. They replanted a part of the Atlantic forest with a diversity of local species. They applied treatment with plant-based fertilizers and created an agro-forest, which preserved the ecosystem and biodiversity by cultivating a wide variety of plants and foods on ground, bush and tree level, where the interactions between the plants and animals nourish, fertilize and support each other.In doing so they purified the air, water sources and soil, while also producing nutritious food for them.
This shows how land rights are fundamental to conservation and how human activity is compatible with it.
BELONGING TO THE LAND
A young local leader, Tiago Karai, told us how their philosophy creates this relationshipwith the land – he explained how:
This land does not belong to them. It is them who belong to it, as much as all the animals and plants they share it with. That is why they work so hard to make it thrive. They seek to live on a beautiful land, but never to own it, never to be its lords, never to dominate it and exploit it. They want to enrich it for all living beings, including us and future life to flourish on it.
Tiago critiques the western underlying assumptions of hierarchy among beings: in Yvyruppa, everything is connected and relying on everything else, so it doesn’t make sense to have something superior. The human needs the insect to fertilize the soil so they can eat. How can they be superior to insects if they wouldn’t live a year without them.
For them all beings are connected and equal, like brothers and sisters. It is fundamental to treat every being, all humans, animals, plants, insects, even stones with respect, dignity and care.It is essential for us to learn from these perspectives so that we understand that also in Europe and in /cities we can live on the land in a way that respects it and protects it.
As a result of an intense community process of mapping and dialogue, the Ogiek of Mount Elgon, Kenya, have written down their customary bylaws for the first time, in order to ensure the continued conservation of their ancestral lands and natural resources.
As one Ogiek community member explains:
“We have never conserved. It is the way we live that conserves. These customary bylaws we have had forever, but we have not written them down until now.”
PEOPLE OF KAZIRANGA
The people of Kaziranga have come together with a message for all those who celebrated World Rhino Day. Pranab, from the Mising tribe, talks about his people’s work in protecting the rhino for millennia and in helping Kaziranga National Park thrive.
“The biggest contributors to conservations are the people of Kaziranga: the tribal communities; the indigenous communities; the traditional forest dwelling communities of Kaziranga, who have sacrificed day and night for the survival of elephants, rhinos, tigers, and deer, and all flora and fauna in Kaziranga – they should not be forgotten. WWF, Forest department, all these agencies were born just a few decades back but conservation by the indigenous communities and people is ages old. It is an old story where people have made it an integral part of their culture.”
Conservation science clearly shows that indigenous and local people are the ones best equipped to conserve their own forest. Therefore, when they are evicted their forest becomes vulnerable to destruction by outsiders. For this reason many scientific ecological bodies are now recommending to promote and protect the land rights of Indigenous and local communities in order to preserve the ecosystem. Right now we are facing a climate and ecological catastrophe, which conservation is failing to stop or even slow down. So doing conservation in a way that really protects ecosystems is fundamental to the survival of humanity as a whole.
If conservationists support companies and persecute indigenous peoples, they will be complicit in absolute ecological collapse; if they support indigenous peoples and fight companies we still have a hope of surviving and creating a better world.
Want to learn more? Read this Decolonising conservation extended resource and reading list: