How indigenous knowledge can help prevent environmental crises

Nemonte Nenquimo has spent years fending off miners, loggers and oil companies intent on developing the Amazon rainforest.

The leader of Ecuador’s indigenous Waorani people, she famously fronted a 2019 lawsuit that banned resource extraction on 500,000 acres of her ancestral lands — a court win that gave hope to indigenous communities around the world.

But Nenquimo, a 2020 United Nations Champion of the Earth, isn’t only hoping to save the Waorani. By protecting the Amazon, an important store of greenhouse gases, she’s hoping to save the planet.

“If we allow the Amazon to be destroyed… that affects us as indigenous peoples, but it will also affect everyone because of climate change,” says Nenquimo. “The struggle we do is for all humanity.”

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, experts say governments must learn from the environmental examples set by indigenous communities, some of which have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Otherwise, we risk accelerating the triple planetary crisis the world faces of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

“Biodiversity loss and climate change, in combination with the unsustainable management of resources, are pushing natural spaces around the world, from forests to rivers to savannahs, to the breaking point,” says Siham Drissi, Biodiversity and Land Management Programme Officer with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “We absolutely need to protect, preserve and promote the traditional knowledge, customary sustainable use and expertise of indigenous communities if we want to halt the damage we’re doing – and ultimately save ourselves.”

An ailing Earth

The planet is home to more than 476 million indigenous people living in 90 countries. Together, they own, manage or occupy about one-quarter of the world’s land. It is territory that has fared far better than most of the rest of the Earth.

A landmark 2019 report from the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that the natural world is declining at a pace unprecedented in human history. Some three-quarters of the planet’s dry land has been “significantly altered” by human actions, which has imperiled crucial ecosystems, including forests, savannahs and oceans while pushing 1 million species towards extinction.

While environmental decline is accelerating in many indigenous communities, it has been “less severe” than in other parts of the world, the report found.

Experts say that is due in part to centuries of traditional knowledge and, in many communities, a prevailing view that nature is sacred. This knowledge, “encompasses practical ways to ensure the balance of the environment in which we live, so it may continue to provide essential services such as water, fertile soil, food, shelter and medicines,” says Drissi.

Conservation leaders

In many parts of the world, indigenous communities are at the forefront of conservation, according to a recent report supported in part by UNEP. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Bambuti-Babuluko community is helping to protect one of Central Africa’s last remaining tracts of primary tropical forest. In Iran, the semi-nomadic Chahdegal Balouch oversee 580,000 hectares of fragile scrubland and desert. And in Canada’s far north, Inuit leaders are working to restore caribou herds, whose numbers had been in steep decline.

Including indigenous peoples and local communities in environmental governance and drawing from their knowledge enhances their quality of life. It also improves conservation, restoration, and the sustainable use of nature, which benefits society at large.

Indigenous groups are often better placed than scientists to provide information on local biodiversity and environmental change, and are important contributors to the governance of biodiversity at local and global levels, the IPBES report noted.

Despite that, indigenous groups often see their land exploited and dispossessed and struggle to have a say in what happens in their territories.

“Governments need to recognize that cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities significantly contribute to conservation and can enhance national and global action on climate change,” says Drissi.

A key part of that process, she added, is recognizing indigenous land claims and embracing traditional ways of managing land.

Mounting threats

Because their lives are often intimately tied to the land, indigenous communities have been among the first to face the fallout from climate change. From the Kalahari Desert to the Himalaya Mountains to the Amazon Rainforest, droughts, floods and fires have beset communities already struggling with poverty and incursions onto their land. That makes it all the more imperative for the outside world to acknowledge the rights and practices of indigenous communities, said Nenquimo.

“The extractivists, the capitalists, the government – they say indigenous people are ignorant,” she says. “We, the indigenous people, know why climate change is happening… [humanity is] damaging and destroying our planet. As indigenous people, we must unite in a single objective: that we demand that they respect us.”

UN Environment