New Study Highlights Importance of Collaborating With Indigenous Communities to Protect Species

One million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction right now – and that number is only growing.

Ecological decline on this scale has never been seen before, with scientists and policymakers rightly concerned as to what this means for our collective future. But the solution to protecting biodiversity on this planet could lie with Indigenous communities.

This new finding was highlighted by the UN in a landmark report last year from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). IPBES chair, Sir Robert Watson, says the report “presents an ominous picture,” as humans “are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The ringed plover and red salamander are two species that have more than 50 per cent of their distribution in Canada fall within Indigenous-managed lands.


Let’s face it, the figures are bleak – two-thirds of the marine environment and three-quarters of land-based environment have been significantly altered. Two-thirds of the world’s wildlife has been lost since 1970. However, among it all, there are some statistics which should both give us a sense of optimism and force a major rethink in how we tackle the biodiversity crisis.

The report found that in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities (non-indigenous people considered to have strong ties to the land) the ecological decline was far less severe – and in some cases, had been avoided altogether.

Indigenous-managed land is critical to species’ survival

Around a quarter of global land area is owned, managed, used, or occupied by Indigenous Peoples. These territories are located across the world, with a particular concentration in the Americas. A study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) expanded on the findings of the UN report, examining how Indigenous-managed lands “play a critical role in helping species survive.”

The research team at UBC focused on three of the world’s biggest countries, Australia, Brazil and Canada, analysing land and species data across the nations.

They observed that the highest concentration of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles was consistently found on lands managed or co-managed by Indigenous communities.

“This suggests that it’s the land-management practices of many Indigenous communities that are keeping species numbers high,” says lead author Richard Schuster. “Going forward, collaborating with Indigenous land stewards will likely be essential in ensuring that species survive and thrive.”

This sentiment is echoed by co-author Nick Reo, himself a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario tribe of Chippewa Indians. Reo explains, “Indigenous-managed lands represent an important repository of biodiversity in three of the largest countries on Earth. In light of this, collaborating with Indigenous governments, communities and organisations can help to conserve biodiversity as well as support Indigenous rights to land, sustainable resource use and well-being.”

The ringed plover and red salamander are two species that have more than 50 per cent of their distribution in Canada fall within Indigenous-managed lands.


What are these communities doing to protect biodiversity?

There is no single action being undertaken by Indigenous Peoples to protect the environment; their success derives from a series of factors, practices, and efforts. Worldwide, these communities have been able to safeguard lands and species through a combined approach, including monitoring species-rich landscapes and fighting against land degradation.

Observing and tracking ecosystems is vital to conservation efforts, and Indigenous Peoples have a significant role in long-term monitoring. In part, this is because some of the most remote areas in the world are home to these communities – such as in the Amazon or the Arctic.

“That monitoring role can be really important, particularly where we don’t have a long-term scientific presence,” Pamela McElwee, one of the lead authors of the IPBES report, told Scientific American.

“It’s really these communities that are collecting the data, often through everyday experiences, so they can report back trends for species, population numbers over time, interactions between species, and noticeable declines.”

The IPBES report also noted that Indigenous communities create landscapes which are far more diverse than land typically used for agriculture, often combining wild and domestic species in gardens to create vital habitats. Plus, these groups are often using their unparalleled understanding of that environment to restore degraded lands.

Using indigenous knowledge to reverse land degradation in Angola

With financing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the participation of indigenous communities and their ancestral knowledge, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has helped strengthen the capacity of agro-pastoralists in south western Angola to reduce the impact of land degradation and to increase the rehabilitation of degraded lands.

Angola has a total land area of about 1 247 million km² of which 43 percent is under permanent meadows and pastures. Indigenous groups such as the Herero, the Khoisan and the Muimba, who rely on their traditions for the management of their pastoral and agro-pastoral systems, live in Angola’s southern provinces. Continuous drought occurring in the past years, overgrazing and other elements are forcing them to adapt to the new reality.

Improved pasture management is currently ever more crucial in order to provide enough feed for the animals, which are the socio-cultural capital and economic reserve of indigenous communities.