The approach of each society concerning the management of natural resources depends on the value, ethics and how each society defines and measures the quality of life. “The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity––then we will treat each other with greater respect”. (David Suzuki). Based on this statement, indigenous people are the first society who have a strong and special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practise reverence, humility and reciprocity. Regarding the relationship, it is important to have a look at the protection practice of the indigenous society. In this perspective, this paper aims at understanding the indigenous practices regarding the protection of nature, based on a documentary approach.
Who are indigenous people?
Based on Martinez Cobo’s study which provided the most widely cited “working definition” of indigenous peoples:
Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system (UNDRIP 2013).
What does the environment mean for the Indigenous society?
Throughout the world, managing protected areas involves people and organisations in widely differing roles. Field managers, whether working for an agency or for a community, deal with concrete problems and responsibilities on a daily basis and directly enjoy the rewards that only nature and culture at their best are able to provide.
For millennia, indigenous peoples around the world have used their indigenous knowledge and science for adapting and living with nature. Recently, the worldviews of indigenous peoples have also challenged the prevalent discourse on sustainable development, calling for recognition and respect of their traditional knowledge and collective rights to use and control the lands and natural resources that they depend on and strive to protect. In Latin America, it is estimated that the surface area to which indigenous peoples have acquired legal rights, or where these rights are in the process of being adjudicated, is almost ten times greater than the surface area of all existing protected areas in the region (Redford and Mansour, 1996). Indigenous people more holistically integrate environmental sustainability as a duty, responsibility, and obligation to the land and future generations as key objectives for advancing ecosystem-based conservation and stewardship initiatives (Vogel, B & all; 2022).
Evidence shows that indigenous custodianship, where it has been able to be maintained, has a direct benefit to the environment. At least 32% of the world’s mappable territories are owned or governed by indigenous people and local communities, via legal or customary-old means. Of these lands, 65% are in good ecological condition – that is to say, they have zero to low levels of human modification. In all, 91% of lands maintained by Indigenous people and local communities have been found to be in good or moderate ecological condition (WWF 2021).
Convention No. 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, recognizes that many indigenous people have a profound relationship with their territories as a result of living in them for generations. Often, the territories are sacred or have spiritual significance (ILO, 2003). Since the subsistence economies of indigenous peoples are based on the use of and access to natural resources, protection of these resources and of traditional practices for their use, management and conservation are essential to ensure their survival. ILO Convention 169 specifies that indigenous and tribal peoples have the right to participate in the use, management, protection, and conservation of natural resources, as well as the right to be consulted before natural resources on their territories are explored or exploited (ILO, 2003).
The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Protecting the Environment
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realise that we cannot eat money.” – Chief Seattle
The recognition of the Indigenous knowledge systems and practices for the sustainable management of natural resources is important due to the strong link and the envy to protect their traditions, and their social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are distinct from those of dominant governments.
The contributions of indigenous and local knowledge systems towards a better understanding of biodiversity and its sustainable use and management, has been documented in the scientific and grey literature in many domains: biodiversity conservation and wildlife management, customary marine resource management, rural development and agroforestry, traditional medicine and health, impact assessment; and natural disaster preparedness and response (IPBES 2013).
There is also a growing appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge in the potential benefits to modern industry and agriculture. Work on indigenous knowledge provides support to understanding the role of customary livelihoods within sustainable development and the links between environmental management, science and well-being.
Indigenous peoples are recognized as being among the world’s most vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised peoples. Despite being vulnerable, most indigenous peoples have a strong connection to the environment and their traditional lands and territories. They also often share legacies of removal from traditional lands and territories, subjugation, destruction of their cultures, discrimination and widespread violations of their human rights. Indigenous lands make up around 20% of the Earth’s territory, containing 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity—a sign indigenous people are the most effective stewards of the environment. Traditional, indigenous and local knowledge has emerged as an essential resource, alongside science, to inform environmental decision-making in global intergovernmental processes. This recognition is reflected in the continued discussions and establishment of international conventions, protocols, guidelines and other norms and practices towards the protection and inclusion of traditional knowledge in environmental policy and related scientific assessments.
- Eugenia Recio, Ph.D. Dina Hestad, Ph.D. April 2022, Indigenous Peoples: Defending an Environment for All
- International Labour Organization. 2003. ILO Convention on indigenous and tribal peoples, 1989 (No. 169): A manual. International Labour Office, Geneva.
- IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). 2013. Initial elements of an IPBES approach: Towards principles and procedures for working with Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) systems. IPBES/2/INF/1/Add.1
- Mark Godfrey 2007, Indigenous Peoples and protected areas management
- Ron Weber, John Butler, and Patty Larson, 2000 Indigenous Peoples and Conservation Organizations Experiences in Collaboration
- The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A Manual for National Human Rights Institutions 2013, page 6
- WWF, UNEP-WCMC, SGP/ICCA-GSI, LM, TNC, CI, WCS, EP, ILC-S, CM, IUCN, The State of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Lands and Territories: A technical review of the state of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ lands, their contributions to global biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services, the pressures they face, and recommendations for actions, https://wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/report_the_state_of_the_indigenous_peoples_and_local_communities_lands_and_territor.pdf , 2021.
- Vogel, B.; (King’s University College, London, ON, Canada); Charles Norris, K.A.; (Cambium Indigenous Professional Services, Curve Lake, ON, Canada). Personal communication, 2022.