Indigenous rights vital to survival

At the global scale, indigenous lands are critical for biodiversity conservation and cultural survival. Yet at local, sub-national and national scales both are often threatened.

Colonialism was an unnatural disaster with lasting human and environmental consequences. One of its legacies, however, is that many remaining conservation lands are also the treasured homelands of indigenous peoples. An inexhaustible hunger for resources, land and markets drives modern economies and puts many of those areas at risk. This threatens global cultural and biological diversity. Now, writing in Nature Sustainability, Stephen Garnett and colleagues1 review the intersection of indigenous lands and the conservation estate at the global scale for the first time. They conclude that indigenous peoples manage or have tenure rights over a quarter of the world’s land surface. This means respectful collaborative partnerships with indigenous peoples are an urgent conservation issue and a compelling human rights matter. Conservation science will be important in building such partnerships — but cultural, social, political and legal agility is also needed to overcome greed, racism and cruel colonial histories.

Credit: Rolf Hicker Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

In the corridors of power, indigenous peoples are easily dismissed as quaint anachronisms in the modern world. But even as they are marginalized from decision-making systems that affect their well-being, indigenous peoples are unequivocally central to many of the most compelling contemporary challenges.

In many countries, indigenous peoples still face direct threats from conservation strategies that treat exclusion of traditional custodians from their lands as essential to preserving ecosystems threatened by industrial economic activities. Indigenous peoples have been blamed for habitat loss; at the same time they have been expected (or forced) to sacrifice customary livelihoods and sources of well-being for conservation outcomes. Their concerns, rights and aspirations are often overlooked or dismissed by conservation agencies and strategies.

But in 87 countries, indigenous peoples’ land tenure is recognized — formally or informally. In the first study of its kind, Garnett et al. calculate that at least 40% of the terrestrial conservation estate of protected areas is owned and/or managed by indigenous peoples.

Stepping back from the intricacies of people–state relations at national and sub-national scales, Garnett and colleagues utilize data from 127 sources to provide a global snapshot of the significant overlap between indigenous lands and protected areas. They spell out the extent to which indigenous peoples are involved in managing areas of high conservation value.

Their study builds a new perspective on how human rights, biodiversity conservation and environmental justice weave together in practice. The international collaborative team involved sifted large global datasets, ground-truthed the information, analysed the patterns and debated the ethical and political terrain that reveals indigenous peoples as central to achieving national and global environmental targets. Their analysis reveals the survivors of colonialism’s greedy onslaught as key custodians of our common treasury of cultural and ecological biodiversity.

Ill-considered attempts to rehabilitate colonialism as a form of governance find some settler societies reinvigorating processes of displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples2. In contrast, extensive scholarship demonstrates the value of building networks of collaborative governance that prioritize human and environmental well-being, sustainability and justice3,4,5. Despite assaults on their autonomy and authority, however, many indigenous governance institutions have proved themselves remarkably resilient6,7,8. They have partnered in diverse local collaborations that are central to delivering national and global environmental goals9.

Whatever the urgency of the conservation agenda, collaborative environmental governance cannot and must not simply assume powerful industrial nations can impose unsustainable burdens onto indigenous peoples10. Rather, relationship-building approaches to co-management will necessarily involve sophisticated engagement with the legacies of transgenerational trauma that undermine sustainable well-being in many indigenous groups, along with negotiation of sustainable resources for collaborative governance in which restitution, truth telling and changes in policy and law see institutions of power commit to ethical protocols and processes that acknowledge, respect and support indigenous peoples5 not as quaint reflections of the deep past, but as important and knowledgeable partners in sustainable futures.

The scope of the challenge revealed by Garnett et al. at the global scale will be played out in a myriad of local, sub-national and national processes and solutions. Their work demonstrates that indigenous partners must be central to those processes, and that alongside environmental and conservation scientists, the soft skills of intercultural social sciences will be foundational to success11.

The scale of spatial overlap between indigenous-managed areas and conservation areas that Garnett et al. reveal confirms indigenous peoples as important actors in global environmental futures. Indigenous institutions are among the world’s most durable and enduring for governance, offering inspiration for the development of sustainable systems, while others, acting on vested interests, opt for short-term gains at substantial social and environmental cost.


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Correspondence to Richard Howitt.

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Howitt, R. Indigenous rights vital to survival. Nat Sustain 1, 339–340 (2018).

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