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Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, and about two-thirds of the world’s wildest areas, are on lands held by those whose ancestors first lived there.
Given that indigenous people only make up about 3 percent of the world’s population, those statistics are particularly impressive, said Stephen Garnett, a scientist at Charles Darwin University, at the Global Landscapes Forum’s annual conference in Bonn, Germany earlier this month. What’s more, he added, forests managed by indigenous peoples are, on average, in a better state than those managed by governments.
The numbers make a clear case for why “indigenous peoples need to be part of all our conversations about sustainable futures,” he said. But numbers alone are not enough.
Stories matter, too.
Landscape Hero and Right Livelihood Award winner Yacouba Sawadogo shared his personal tale of devoting his life to reviving traditional practices – stone rows of cordorns pierreux and digging zaï holes to catch rain – in order to irrigate land in drought-plagued northern Burkina Faso and make it fertile again. “I gave up everything, time and belongings, to dedicate myself to the land,” he recounted. “I haven’t had the opportunity to build a proper house, and despite my being 75 years old, I own a donkey and a cart only. My one wealth is the forest I planted.”
Janine Yazzie of Sixth World Solutions, a consultancy for communities of the Native American Navajo tribe, expanded on why indigenous ways of managing land seem to work so widely and so well. “A key part of our success is communal management and the traditional ecological knowledge that we’ve carried forward for generations, to maintain those practices of living in balance and honoring our relationship to all life within our ecosystems,” she said. And these indigenous communities comprise individuals whose practices go beyond just being sustainable, she emphasized; they’re meaningful.
While projects from external organizations often have heavily thought-out frameworks for monitoring and assessing any landscape changes, indigenous communities have long had their own ways of doing so, said Celia Witehera, of the Te Kopu Pacific Indigenous and Local Knowledge Centre of Distinction.
Witehera described the resurgence of indigenous Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand using traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to approach contemporary challenges, such as the invasion of a new plant pathogen that affects the native kauri tree. She also emphasized that integrating TEK into national policies and planning is not a question of taking that knowledge for others to use, but “acknowledging that it is there… and allowing a door for dialogue, because [indigenous people] are the intellectual property right holders of that knowledge, and only they can provide it.
“This is our language of science, which we have created for us, by us,” she said.
SENSE OF SECURITY
But despite indigenous peoples’ successes at managing their land, gaining and maintaining legal rights to do so is extremely challenging, said Yazzie. Fifty percent of Earth’s total land area (excluding Antarctica) is in the hands of indigenous peoples and local communities, according to a recent study by the Rights and Resources Institute – but only 10 percent of that is legally recognized.
What’s more, said scientist Anne Larson during the discussion forum, at least a third of the carbon stored in tropical and subtropical forests is on lands informally owned by local communities but not legally recognized as belonging to them. “So right there we’ve got an issue,” said Larson, who works for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “We have to go back to this question of securing rights. And especially the rights to land, territory and resources.”
However, securing these rights is not as simple as getting them down on paper, Larson noted. In Latin America, where she does a lot of her work, land titling is an important step. “But there’s always a backlash, there’s always somebody who wants access to those resources, access to that land,” she said. “So the only way to defend rights is to not only give titles, but build the social movements and advocate for real rights and security for indigenous peoples.”
Ensuring meaningful participation is one piece of the puzzle. According to Larson, there’s already a whole repertoire of participatory processes that could build on, but “sometimes I don’t think we’re actually taking some of these lessons from the past into these new places,” she said. Genuine participation requires a power shift: “There’s a real difference between bringing someone to the table, and bringing them to the table with the power to actually make the decisions,” said Larson. “And that means undoing the institutions of inequality.”
Katherine Mana-Galido of NTFP-EP Philippines cited an indigenous leader in her country who asked government bodies during a recent conference: “Why do you keep inviting us to the discussions about projects, but at the end of the day it will not be up to us to decide what projects will be implemented?”
Nathan Makuregye of Pro-Biodiversity Conservationists in Uganda added that it has been challenging to adapt development and restoration programs so that indigenous people in his country can participate in them. Most are illiterate and not well-versed in technology, which often puts them ‘on the back foot’ in discussions and negotiations.
He also said that sometimes traditional practices get in the way. In Uganda, women and young people are traditionally excluded from decision-making and ownership, despite the fact that women in particular engage in the majority of forest and land management in the area.
However, this is not to say that more inclusion isn’t possible. Zipporah Matumbi, a Kenyan community leader who successfully mobilized people to plant 300 hectares of degraded lands in her local Mt. Kenya forests, overcame customary ideas that only men could plant trees and own land. In her case, simply bringing women into her restoration work from the get-go – and then proving success – was effective. “When the leadership in my area found out about my success in restoring degraded areas, they started inviting me to their meetings to discuss about the environment,” she said.
Local communities will never be able to drive restoration forward, though, if they can’t support themselves and reap the benefits of their work. In this vein, governments must help remove obstacles for local enterprises to prosper, said Mana-Galido. She works with indigenous Filipinos to develop and strengthen sustainable community-based enterprises based on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as honey, resin, rattan and medicinal plants. But despite traditionally owning these resources, communities are still required to get official government permission to access them, and the permits are expensive to acquire and renew.
Makuregye also described the complex of issues confronting indigenous communities in his country, such as cross-border migration, rebel groups and gold smuggling.
“We cannot address climate change without addressing the political, social, environmental and economic inequalities in our communities,” echoed Yazzie.
Larson noted the tendency of some large-scale international initiatives to try to avoid engaging with “messy” local and national politics. “But those politics are often the very things constraining the outcomes we are trying to achieve,” she said.
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