Lost tribes or global stewards?

forest‘At the heart of biodiversity stewardship is the opportunity to build a new relationship between indigenous peoples and Nation States…’

 Brazilian photographer Salgado’s new exhibition Genesis aims to highlight “the animal species that have resisted domestication” and the “remote tribes whose ‘primitive’ way of life is largely untouched”. Salgado hopes that by highlighting this “uncontaminated world” it will be preserved and, where degraded, restored. His vision is that development need not be synonymous with destruction*.

While Salgado rightly sees degradation of the environment underlying many of the issues of social inequity and sustainability of our times, his yearning for an untouched age, to be preserved, seems to be rooted firmly in the past of Christian Europe; particularly the Arcadianism of the 18th century when European navigators, path-finding the emergence of the European empires were encountering exotic peoples as they travelled the globe. Initially they were regarded as ‘noble savages’, the last vestiges of a golden age of innocence. History tells us that Arcadian notions were soon replaced by missionary zeal and notions of ignoble savages to be saved from their ignorance.

Today around 12% of our planet still retains forest cover, and in many parts they are occupied by indigenous peoples who live in and have customary rights to them. Other indigenous peoples live in the more remote bio-diverse ecosystems; be they semi-desert or wetlands around the globe. Until this century many of these locations were of limited interest to settlers, although there is a history of tension between these peoples and the colonial and post colonial Nation States which emerged to encompass their traditional lands. Often these States did not recognise these peoples as citizens and in many cases they saw fit to oppress, marginalise and usurp their resources; often by encouraging colonists and land squatters to move into the territories; cutting native forest , extracting minerals and converting native ecologies to the production of cash crops.

The United Nation’s recognition of indigenous peoples and their entitlement to customary rights has been significant in a process which over recent decades has begun to see the emergence of a better accommodation between states and indigenous peoples in many parts of the world; although this is far from universal. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, from its inception, recognised that many indigenous peoples were the custodians of traditional knowledge on biodiversity. This traditional knowledge is significant, especially in relationship to genetic resources to support emerging biotechnical developments in medicine and other areas. Enshrined in the treaty was the intention that indigenous peoples should benefit from the exploitation of their knowledge and of the natural resources which have been the foundation of their cultures over the centuries. Its article 8J states: Each contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate: Subject to national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge innovations and practices.

In 2010 the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits was agreed in which the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signatory countries supported the right of Nation States to legally entitled to benefit from the exploitation of biodiversity knowledge and resources taken from within their boundaries; implicit in the protocol is that at local level, communities, including indigenous peoples, should be direct beneficiaries.

While there may remain perceptions of indigenous peoples being vestiges of some idyllic past which needs to be preserved (and indeed there are some peoples who prefer to avoid contact with the wider world), there are other perspectives too. In many cases, indigenous peoples are also seeing the potential, through their own self-determination, of engage with the outside world while they remain committed to protecting their identity, their traditional lands and their customary practices. For example, the Kaxinawá live in the Brazilian state of Acre in the Amazon. Kaxinawá elders are working with the state government to ensure official recognition of and compensation for their traditional stewardship of the forests. Elsewhere in Ecuador the Huaorani, whose lands are under threat from logging and oil interests, are using geographic information system (GIS) technology alongside traditional knowledge to map areas for potential tourism and conservation, creating a community resource for planning and negotiating.

With the signatory countries to the CBD committed by the 2020 targets to increasing the area of land under protection the rights of indigenous peoples have other significant implications. At an international level the global assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services highlight how these ecosystems bring far-reaching benefits – everything from carbon sequestration to help mitigate climate change; to influencing regional climate and weather patterns; to providing resilience to sudden extreme weather events and ensuing water security and soil fertility. However recent research by Christoph Nolte et al suggests in the Brazilian Amazon that the one significant prerequisite for effective conservation measures is resolving land conflict. Nolte has commented that ‘[States] must evict illegal occupants, compensate any occupants who have legal rights, and re-draw boundaries when occupants have inalienable land rights, if conflicts are not solved… [the consequences].. will significantly hinder the effort to protect the land.’

Almost without exception the traditional practices of indigenous peoples is far less damaging than any introduced system; as these inevitably focus on production of particular commodities rather than maintaining the multiple benefits of the natural ecosystem. In this regard the case for maintaining wilderness areas for ensuring vital Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services also provides a strong argument why indigenous peoples; by remaining on their tradition lands, can help nation states meet their international obligations. Furthermore their traditional knowledge can contribute to monitoring forest health and support large scale forest protection offsetting schemes such as those emerging under international climate schemes  such as REDD(+) where the transfer of carbon credits from industrial nations help protect forest and thereby Reduce (carbon) Emissions from Forest Degradation and Deforestation.

There are efforts in many countries to move this agenda forward, it is far from perfect and particularly from the perspective of indigenous peoples there are concerns that they are not sufficiently involved as stakeholders in the process.  What is clear is that at the heart of today’s questions of biodiversity stewardship is the opportunity to build a new relationship between indigenous peoples and nation states. The imperative to preserve the natural environment to ensure its vital services gives a common interest and the possibility of a common cause were indigenous peoples could be encouraged and compensated to be stewards of their lands, bringing wider benefits for the states that their traditional territories fall into and for the wider world.

*This blog coincides with: A Monochrome Eden, a review of Genesis; the exhibition by Salgado, by Bob Bloomfield. Nature Magazine 496, 04 April 2013.

Monochrome Eden - A review of Salgado's exhibition Genesis Nature Magazine April 4

Monochrome Eden – A review of Salgado’s exhibition Genesis Nature Magazine April 4

2 responses to “Lost tribes or global stewards?

  1. Pingback: This week in review … Blog post focuses on indigenous peoples and their stewardship of ecosystems | Traditional Knowledge Bulletin·

  2. Pingback: Citizens, mobile coms and bio-diverse engagement coming of age | bioDiverse·

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