Cañete Valley, Peru. CIFOR/Bruno Locatelli

Restore Indigenous land rights to unlock traditional knowledge and repair ecosystems

Centuries old Indigenous knowledge must be acknowledged and nurtured

Despite general acceptance by scientists, governments and investors that traditional knowledge is as important as scientific knowledge in addressing the climate change crisis and other environmental concerns, Indigenous land rights are still not adequately recognized, said Joan Carling, co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG).

Indigenous traditional knowledge is integral to the land and cannot be considered in isolation or used outside of that context, Carling said. It is bound up with and emanates from centuries of relations and interactions with the environment, territories and natural resources, she said.

“They are willing to talk about traditional knowledge, but not how to secure the base of that traditional knowledge in relation to the rights of Indigenous groups, the knowledge holders, the knowledge practitioners,” she said.

“If you want to make use of it – if you want Indigenous peoples to provide the solution, then you have to first respect, recognize and protect our rights, she added, stating that there is currently little political will to do so. “Then we can build on that in the spirit of partnerships that will make use of and enhance traditional knowledge in finding solutions.”

Carling was speaking in the context of concerns addressed at the 18th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in New York last month. The focus was on Indigenous languages and knowledge. Much of the conversation was centered on how Indigenous lands are being misused, often in the name of sustainable development or climate change.

Of paramount concern is that the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), goes unrecognized by many governments, resulting in criminalization of Indigenous people who speak up against violation of their rights when their lands are appropriated.

“Take the case of Canada, which came to the last permanent forum and made the big announcement that they will integrate the UNDRIP international laws,” said Carling, who was awarded the 2018 Champions of the Earth lifetime achievement award by UN Environment. “They’ve undertaken this reconciliation process. They’ve taken all these initiatives, but at the same time they’re still giving the lands of Indigenous peoples to pipelines, to mining. They’re saying one thing and doing another.”

Any goodwill has to start from rights and not about traditional knowledge in the abstract or in the vacuum, Carling added.


Most people interested in merging or integrating Indigenous or traditional knowledge and Western science want to jump in at the end of the process, said Reynaldo Morales, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison who was also at the permanent forum. His research specialization includes Indigenous knowledge in relation to agroecology and agrobiodiversity.

Morales, originally from Peru, posits that Indigenous peoples were formerly connected through a global system, which was shattered during the process of European colonization, fragmenting Indigenous knowledge and supplanting it with Western science.

“Western science has been dissecting and promoting a compartmentalization of Indigenous knowledge as if different peoples existed in separate realities and never had contact with each other,” Morales said.

“This coincides with the very colonial processes of isolating Indigenous societies to avoid and to prevent any forms of unity. That isolation and compartmentalization that has been very pervasive through all these years of colonization is also pervasive through our education institutions and our research paradigms.”

As a society, we attribute a certain authority to science, associating it with knowledge, when it is not, he said, adding that Western science and education have been used to alienate and separate Indigenous peoples from their own realities.

“‘Science’ is a product of industry and it’s a product of colonial political dominance and control of trade systems, control of intellectual property, control of all life systems, food systems, and medicine systems,” Morales said. “Science is not just neutral, friendly, apolitical.”

In less than 300 years Europeans have ruined what Indigenous peoples built over thousands of years, he said. “It’s a tragedy — we have to deal now with the consequences of a problem that was not created by Indigenous peoples.”

Supplanting traditional knowledge with Western science meant that although Indigenous peoples had to develop mechanisms to deal with the effects of colonization, they were also often transformed into agrarian cash crop societies, leading to biodiversity loss, diminishing their capacity to govern, their knowledge systems and gender relations, Morales said.


Universities should offer programs that can provide support to indigenous research studies and across a range of subjects, including medicine, economics, health, political studies, architecture and science, he said, adding that science offers positive contributions.

“It’s a process of mutual learning, but we need to start with acknowledging what Indigenous peoples are doing now,” Morales said. “They’re recreating their world — restoring their world and they cannot involve scientists in that process.”

Ultimately new paradigms must be developed and goals aligned, he added. The 18th session of UNPFII was focused on language and culture, but there are many urgent topics to be discussed, he said.

“This is not a happy encounter,” he said. “We need to embed this in a civil, productive relationship.”


In addition to threats to land from agriculture, extractive industries, infrastructure developments, hydroelectric dams and logging, Indigenous peoples are often forced off their land when government conservation laws define their livelihood activities as illegal.

In 2018, human rights watchdog Global Witness reported that almost 1,000 environmental defenders have been killed since 2010 and that in 2017 at least 207 land and environmental activists – almost half of them Indigenous – were targeted and murdered for defending their land against destructive industries.

During the UNPFII session, a campaign to stop the criminalization of Indigenous peoples for protesting against governments and corporations in defense of their traditional lands was announced by Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Tauli-Corpuz said the new Global Campaign Against the Criminalization and Impunity of Indigenous Peoples will address the global crisis which is putting Indigenous peoples at risk.

Both Tauli-Corpuz and Carling have been criticized for their work by their government in the Philippines, which has unjustly accused them of being terrorists.

“Certainly it’s good that the U.N. is now acknowledging the urgent need for frontline defenders — including Indigenous peoples — that they need to provide some kind of protection,” Carling said.

“By securing our rights to our lands and resources, we’re also securing that we can sustain the remaining resources,” she said.

“We can continue to protect biodiversity. We can contribute a lot to restoration. So how do we address the challenges like these attacks on land rights defenders? By putting the narrative in a better context so that we’re not seen as the problem but the solution, that we come with solutions,” she added.

Read Landscape News stories from the 18th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues here.

Learn more at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in Bonn, Germany, 22-23 June 2019.

Indigenous youth explore human rights challenges in ‘Through Their Eyes’ book

Celine Cousteau’s ‘Tribes on the Edge’ puts battle for Amazon Indigenous rights in limelight

A conversation with Mbororo advocate Hindou Oumaru Ibrahim: ‘We need sustainable sharing’

Leaders unite in appeal to protect rainforests as deforestation accelerates

Uphold human rights of Indigenous peoples, allow traditional knowledge to lead land decisions, U.N. delegates say

U.N. to launch global campaign against criminalization of Indigenous peoples

U.N. urges end to murders, attacks on Indigenous peoples defending forests



…thank you for reading this story. Our mission is to make them freely accessible to everyone, no matter where they are. 

We believe that lasting and impactful change starts with changing the way people think. That’s why we amplify the diverse voices the world needs to hear – from local restoration leaders to Indigenous communities and women who lead the way.

By supporting us, not only are you supporting the world’s largest knowledge-led platform devoted to sustainable and inclusive landscapes, but you’re also becoming a vital part of a global movement that’s working tirelessly to create a healthier world for us all.

Every donation counts – no matter the amount. Thank you for being a part of our mission.

Sidebar Publication

Related articles

Related articles