Indigenous people are communities that have lived in a region for many hundreds or thousands of years prior to colonisation. Typically they have strong links to the surrounding natural habitats, wildlife and ecosystems. They would also have distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems and be resolved to protect their identity and their social, economic and governance customs and conventions. Most importantly they would have developed a civilisation that has internalised collaboration with the natural world, such as the aboriginal peoples of Australia and the numerous North American Indian nations. It is under their watch that biodiversity on Earth has flourished until the intrusion of modern humans.
The fact that the Amazon ecosystems are as rich with biodiversity as they are today is proof of how successful the indigenous cultures have been there, living in balance with their environment for at least the last five thousand years.
The 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide manage or hold tenure over 25% of the world’s land area overseeing 80% of global biodiversity. 1,5m species have been catalogued so far. It is estimated that there are millions more in indigenous lands still unknown to us.
The degradation of the environment in these indigenous lands, caused by global warming, deforestation, mining, toxic waste, industrial agriculture practices, biofuel production and monoculture, is having a direct impact on the livelihoods of their inhabitants with a consequent decline in biodiversity, food and water security.
The Sápara nation lived in the rainforests along the borders of Peru and Ecuador and numbered around twenty five thousand prior to the 16th century Spanish invasion. The population today numbers only four hundred and their sacred Naku forest lands has been reduced to 12% of their previous 2.6 million hectares. This story is similar to that of the Maasai of Tanzania and the Sengwer and Ogiek peoples of Kenya. Indigenous peoples have had to abandon their livelihoods and ancestral lands because of large-scale dam development along Ethiopia’s Omo River. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana and the Inupiaq whaling community of Kivalina have become climate refugees.
By 2100, says United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Many, he projects, will be forced to choose between starvation and migration.
Siham Drissi, from UNEP’s Ecosystems Division, points out that indigenous people have knowledge that stems from centuries-old observation and interaction with nature. They understand the one-ness of life and the sacredness of nature. Their way of life does not exceed ecological boundaries and this ensures that the ecosystem which they call home continues to provide water, fertile soil, food, shelter and medicines.
Experts warn that we not only need to rewild degraded indigenous lands, we also need to rewild modern people and bring nature into urban areas.
The culture of indigenous groups has included the stewardship of nature long before the conservation movement began. They have been observing environmental changes for generations and have recognized patterns. This is exactly the kind of knowledge and expertise we need, to tackle climate change and mitigate its harmful impact.
Although the UN has recognised the importance of indigenous people, they continue to be marginalized at national and local levels and their role in biodiversity conservation ignored. They are at risk of extinction and their ancestral territories are under threat.
As we become more acutely aware of the current 6th mass extinction of life on Earth caused entirely by people, there is growing acknowledgement of the role of indigenous peoples and their knowledge in biodiversity conservation and climate change resilience. It is critical to protect all indigenous lands in order to preserve this knowledge.
Jon Waterhouse from National Geographic explains “As a global community, we have lost our way; we forgot what it means to have a relationship with the land.” To find it again, we have great guides, says Waterhouse. “Indigenous peoples have mastered the art of living on the Earth without destroying it. We must heed these lessons and take on this challenging task, if we want our grandchildren to have a future.”
United Nations Environment Programme – Indigenous peoples and the nature they protect
National Geographic – Indigenous peoples defend Earth’s biodiversity—but they’re in danger
This article was published in the Senior Time of The Times of Malta on the 23rd July 2021