In the culture of the Maori people of New Zealand, humans are deeply connected with nature; the two are equal and interdependent, even kin. The idea is reflected in the Maori word ‘kaitiakitanga’, which means guarding and protecting the environment in order to respect the ancestors and secure the future.
The Maoris’ intimate relationship with their lands and the natural world is shared by many other indigenous peoples around the world, and highlights why these often marginalized groups are gaining recognition as vital stewards of our environment and its fast-depleting resources.
The world’s 370 million indigenous people are only 5 per cent of the total population but they officially hold 18 per cent of the land and lay claim to far more. Their home areas across 70 countries from the Arctic to the South Pacific include many of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots.
Their traditions and belief systems often mean that they regard nature with deep respect, and they have a strong sense of place and belonging. This sustains knowledge and ways of life that match up well with modern notions of nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.
Unsurprisingly, indigenous peoples have been stout opponents of development imposed from beyond their communities. They defend their lands against illegal encroachments and destructive exploitation, from mega-dams across their rivers to logging and mining in their forests.
That can make them ideal custodians of the landscapes and ecosystems that are also central to efforts to limit climate change and adapt to its effects. But it also makes them targets. Communities who stand up against powerful economic and political interests remain under intense pressure in many parts of the world.
According to the campaigning group Global Witness, 185 people across 16 countries were killed defending their land, forests and rivers against destructive industries in 2015 alone, many of them from indigenous communities.
Among the subsequent victims was Berta Cáceres, a campaigner against the construction of dams in the lands of her native Lenca people in Honduras, who was murdered in March 2016. In December, Cáceres was recognized posthumously with the UN’s highest environmental award.
“No one should fear for their life because they call for the Earth’s resources to be used carefully and in a way that respects their communities,” Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, said at the time. “Everyone has the right to stand up for their environment.”
After decades of discrimination and neglect, the role indigenous peoples play as custodians of the land and the traditional knowledge that underpins it, is gaining recognition along with their rights to ancestral lands and the resources they contain.
For example, in Canada, this year’s host country for World Environment Day, indigenous ‘First Nation’ communities have in recent years taken back control of an expanse of boreal forest to the east of Lake Winnipeg. Along with the provincial and national governments, the First Nations this year asked UNESCO to recognize the 29,000 square kilometre area, known as Pimachiowin Aki or “The land that gives life”, as a World Heritage Site.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in March that creating indigenous protected areas were a way for Canada to meet its goal of conserving 17 per cent of its land by 2020 and also to respond to “the desire of indigenous peoples to determine how best to create healthier, more prosperous communities while protecting their land."
In Kenya, community-led conservation programs such as the Il Ngwesi conservancy in the Laikipia region have succeeded by reserving part of commonly held lands for wildlife, and using them to support eco-tourism ventures. The extra income more than offsets the restrictions on animal herding and increases the resilience of their land.
A report by the World Resources Institute last year identified securing the land rights of indigenous people and other local communities in the Amazon region as a low-cost way to counter global deforestation and climate change.
For example, deforestation rates inside tenured indigenous forests were 2-3 times lower than outside in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia from 2000-2012. Yet indigenous peoples and communities globally have secured tenure for only a fraction of their lands, the report said.
Many indigenous peoples and local communities “cannot imagine their life divorced from nature and their interest in the sustainable use of resources is strong," said Eva Müller, Director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Empowerment of these groups combined with their knowledge and long-term planning skills is essential to ensure the survival of future generations - of both humans and wildlife," Müller said on this year’s World Wildlife Day.
This critical role has not always been acknowledged.
Applying a model rolled out in the United States’ famed national parks, indigenous peoples have been excluded from ancestral lands across the planet in the name of protecting nature. Leading conservation groups who backed this approach stand accused of creating millions of “conservation refugees.”
Since then, conservationists have come to understand that the landscapes they considered ‘wildnerness’ have been influenced and protected by local and indigenous communities, and that these groups have useful knowledge on how to manage them.
The rights of indigenous people are now enshrined in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, now approaching its 10th anniversary, and reflected in the policies of governments and the strategies of conservation organizations.
Many of those peoples want more say in how to address the environmental challenges that we all face.
“We have been here forever and we know the natural cycle of things,” said Maori leader Catherine Davis. “We know when there is a blip, we know when there is a glitch. We know when something is going down in terms of sustainability. So we need to be heard more clearly.”