Climate Action

To save the planet, we need indigenous perspectives

Humans and climate change are driving species to extinction at unprecedented rates. To slow or eventually reverse these declines, we need to better manage our land to preserve habitats and secure biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth. To that end, a study published this week confirms what many communities have known for years: To preserve biodiversity, we must turn to indigenous peoples for guidance and management.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, compared levels of biodiversity in thousands of areas in Australia, Brazil and Canada and was the first of its kind to compare biodiversity and land management on such a large scale. Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) compared 15,621 geotropical areas across three continents, with great variations across climate, species and geography.

While area size and geographic location did not have a major impact on species diversity, one aspect had a major influence on biodiversity – indigenous land management. The researchers found that indigenous-managed lands have the highest levels of biodiversity of vertebrate species. Protected lands like parks followed, and randomly selected nonprotected areas had the least amount of biodiversity.

A traditional way of preserving species and habitats is by expanding protected areas – parks, forests, reserves – through legislation. While protected lands are a cornerstone of biological conservation, it may not be enough, especially in the face of climate change and human activity. Adding indigenous land management practices can help these vulnerable areas.

About 370 million indigenous people live across 90 countries. Indigenous peoples (also known as first peoples/nations, tribes, and other local and traditional terms) currently occupy, own, manage or have land tenure over 25- 50 percent of the Earth’s land. However, legal ownership of these lands is only 10%, as many indigenous communities aren’t able to prove in court that the land they’ve occupied for hundreds of years is legally theirs, leaving an opening for industries to establish claims or annexations of ancestral territories for resource exploitation.

“Going forward, collaborating with Indigenous land stewards will be essential in ensuring that species thrive and survive,” said lead author Richard Schuster, in a statement.

The success of collaboration depends on government agencies understanding and recognizing indigenous relationships to the environment and involving them in conservation efforts from an early stage. Attention to these and other factors like intergenerational involvement and cross-cultural education can lead to environmental success.

The study noted that in the past, settlers have banned indigenous people from exercising their customary land use practices, forcibly removing both the people and these practices from the land. With the climate crisis in full effect, governments must recognize the unique and impactful perspectives that indigenous communities bring to environmental conservation, and include these communities to collaborate on solutions.

The UBC researchers were not the first to suggest including indigenous land practices in current conservation efforts. Earlier this year, researchers found that traditional practices like purposeful burning, waste deposition and interplanting can increase biodiversity and species resilience.

This week’s study came around the release of another major report on climate change and land, Thursday’s special report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The UN climate report highlights the need for better land-use and agriculture practices to curb the impacts of climate change, and was the first time the IPCC cited indigenous people and their knowledge as resources in the fight against climate change.

“Agricultural practices that include indigenous and local knowledge can contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change, food security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and land degradation,” the report said.