Despite centuries of persecution, indigenous groups still manage or have tenure rights over at least a quarter of the world’s land surface. Often inhabiting these lands as far back as memory extends, they share a deep and unique connection to their environment.
Recently released figures show that indigenous groups are continuing to pay a heavy price for standing up for their ancestral lands. In 2018 alone, at least 164 indigenous people were killed defending the environment, adding to hundreds more deaths in preceding years.
They’re not the only ones – numerous lawyers, park rangers, and journalists have also been killed attempting to protect both resource and biodiversity-rich land from extractive industries. But indigenous groups account for the largest proportion of these killings, in a global battle that according to new research published in Nature is now more lethal than some war zones.
We must make sure that these deaths aren’t in vain. The same key UN report that declared a million animal and plant species as at risk of extinction also highlighted that nature under indigenous control is declining less rapidly than in other lands. It’s time for us to sit up and take note of how they safeguard biodiversity, and why they’re willing to put their lives on the line for nature.
Sharing a worldview that is centred on the land and their place within it, indigenous knowledge contains two central ideas that place nature front and centre. The first is connectedness. Constantly observing the surrounding environment, indigenous peoples have an intimate understanding of the interconnected nature of all living beings and natural systems. Tied to the changing world, this understanding is thorough but pragmatic and local in scale, always open to be altered in the face of evidence.
The second idea is collectiveness. Knowledge is not considered to be owned by individuals, but held collectively by people as shared experiences that represent the sum of their wisdom. People are responsible for one another, nurturing values of cooperation, sharing and reciprocity.
Research on indigenous livelihood practices shows how these values preserve the integrity of nature. In Amazonia for example, centuries of attention to crop health, climate, and forest regeneration has led to the development of rotational farming practices, whereby diverse crops are grown within a small farming area and continually rotated across a larger natural landscape over successive harvest seasons.
Compared to modern intensive monoculture farming, this traditional method improves soil water and nutrient retention, reduces erosion and degradation, stores carbon more efficiently, increases crop biodiversity, and preserves forest habitats. The system provides a continuous flow of food through different seasons, where surpluses can still be sold, and its diversity makes it more resilient to environmental threats. The involvement of many in the success of the crops reinforces community cohesion, and a closer connection with the natural world.
At a larger scale, indigenous territories have been recognised as crucial for maintaining vital natural stores of carbon. For example, studies using satellite imagery from northern South America suggests that indigenous lands have lower incidence of deforestation rates as a result of less invasive methods of farming, fishing, hunting, and land management. These methods not only require much less open space, but also support healthy soil and animal populations, creating much more resilient ecosystems.