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Why traditional knowledge and Indigenous Peoples’ rights must be integrated across the new global biodiversity targets

Krystyna Swiderska
16 Aug 2021

Biodiversity policymakers negotiating the new international framework at the upcoming global biodiversity summit (CBD COP15) must ensure traditional knowledge and the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC) are integrated across all post-2020 targets aimed at saving the world’s biodiversity.

Most of the earth’s biodiversity is located on the territories of the world’s half-billion Indigenous Peoples, who manage about a quarter of the world’s land. Yet only four out of 21 of the proposed biodiversity targets – setting out urgent action to stem biodiversity loss by 2030 – mention Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC) or traditional knowledge.

Unless the rights and responsibilities of local biodiversity stewards are recognised, the targets are unlikely to be achievable in practice. Policymakers can no longer ignore the vast body of evidence that the traditional knowledge of IPLCs is critical for addressing the crisis of biodiversity loss.

Evidence (PDF) across the world shows that lands characterised as ‘natural’, ‘intact’ or ‘wild’ have long histories of human use. Hunter-gatherers, subsistence farmers and pastoralists have created biodiversity-rich cultural landscapes and sustained them for millennia. Respecting IPLC rights and knowledge (PDF) leads to better and more cost-effective and equitable conservation outcomes.

However, protected areas that exclude IPLCs remain the dominant conservation model. Such areas have severely impacted some of the world’s poorest people and evicted them from their lands.

Many protected areas are losing biodiversity. Yet proposed target 3, which aims to conserve 30% of land and sea through protected areas, will require a huge expansion of protected areas.

Living in harmony with nature

New research by IIED and partners working with Indigenous Peoples in Peru, Kenya, India and China explored whether Indigenous worldviews and cultural values promote or hinder sustainable and equitable development.

The findings show that the Global Biodiversity Framework’s (GBF) vision of ‘living in harmony with nature’ is deeply embedded in the core values, religious beliefs and customary laws of Indigenous societies. The research examined four cultures: the Andean Quechua in Perú, the Mijikenda in coastal Kenya, the Lepcha and Limbu in the Indian Himalayas, and the Naxi-Moso in Yunnan, southwest China.

According to the worldviews of all these cultures, three worlds must be in balance to achieve wellbeing: the human, the wild, and the spiritual.

For Quechua people, balance between these three Ayllus results in Sumaq Kausay or holistic wellbeing – these concepts remain deep in the Andean mindset. In Kenya, the Kaya elders’ worldview is founded on the Mudzini concept that to achieve holistic wellbeing, the spirits, wildlife, and humans and domesticated beings must coexist in harmony.

In these cultures, all living beings have spirits. Religious worship is not done in churches, but in fields, mountains, lakes and rivers through rituals and prayers to nature-related gods and goddesses. These sacred sites and their rich wildlife are strictly protected.

According to Naxi-Moso people, ‘humans and nature are half-brothers’. Naxi and Moso mountain communities along the Jinsha river still protect forests and water sources through customary laws. For the Lepcha and Limbu people in north Bengal, wisdom is based on ‘wholeness’, where human actions are accountable to the natural world, ancestors and spirits.

Resilience to climate change and COVID-19

The research shows that across Indigenous cultures, everyday life is guided by core values of reciprocity, balance, solidarity and collectiveness with nature and in society. These core values provide flexible normative principles for biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and confronting new environmental and societal challenges.

These Indigenous values also play an important role in addressing Sustainable Development Goal 2 – ‘Zero Hunger’. In all four case studies, these values were found to promote biodiversity-rich agroecological practices and sustainable wild harvesting, supporting nutritious diets and climate resilience. In coastal Kenya, cultivating diverse traditional crops that tolerate drought, pests and disease has ensured substantial yields despite climate change.

In all four cases, Indigenous values and agroecological food systems provided food security in their communities despite lockdowns enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the Quechua people of the Potato Park donated a ton of potatoes to people in need in Cusco, based on the principle of solidarity.

Inspiring equity

The research also showed how principles of solidarity and equilibrium promote equity. 

The Quechua in Lares and the Moso in China are descended from matriarchal societies. In Lares, women oversee traditional barter markets which integrate nature, economy and nutrition.

Where cultural practices exclude women – such as inheritance of land in Kenya and certain rituals in China – these core principles can be used to re-evaluate practices to enhance gender equity.

Calling for system overhaul at COP15

This study adds to recent research showing that the main drivers of biodiversity loss are not IPLCs but intensive land-use driven by mainstream economic policies. It shows that these same policies are also eroding Indigenous knowledge and values that are so critical for conserving biodiversity.

Achieving the GBF’s vision of living in harmony with nature calls for a revolution in thinking. It requires the integration of Indigenous knowledge across policies for environment, development, agriculture, food and education. National policies rarely integrate traditional knowledge due to colonial legacies and racism against Indigenous Peoples.

Policymakers from governments across the world heading towards the Convention on Biological Diversity summit (COP15) must recognise that IPLC leadership and traditional knowledge – not only science – are critical for success.

They must ensure that IPLC rights to land, resources and self-governance are fully recognised and protected across the biodiversity targets, including target 3 on protected areas. And they must work with Indigenous Peoples to develop alternative economic models that are in harmony with nature.

The study discussed in this blog is part of a project funded by the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme, supported by the UK government's Global Challenges Research Fund.

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