Although Indigenous Peoples represent less than 5 percent of the global population, they own or manage at least a quarter of the world’s land, about 40 percent of which is protected. Because of this “remarkably persistent and resilient” relationship, new research published in Nature Sustainability suggests Indigenous Peoples should play a key role in shaping sustainable decisions about the environment.
Researchers used publicly available geospatial resources from 127 data sources in order to map where and how the lands belonging to Indigenous Peoples overlap. Spread over 38 million square kilometers (14.5 square million miles) in 87 countries, Indigenous Peoples use or own land on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica.
In total, Indigenous Peoples influence land management decisions across at least 28.1 percent of the world’s land area. The authors note that lands with strong Indigenous connections aren’t changed as much by development, and as much as two-thirds of indigenous lands remain “essentially natural”.
“Understanding the extent of lands over which Indigenous Peoples retain traditional connection is critical for several conservation and climate agreements,” said study co-author Stephen Garnett in a statement. “Not until we pulled together the best available published information on Indigenous lands did we really appreciate the extraordinary scale of Indigenous Peoples’ ongoing influence.”
These findings show that Indigenous Peoples and their traditional lands could be essential in meeting conservation goals, such as those outlined in the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals.
Countries with indigenous populations is highest in Africa and lowest in Europe and West Asia.
“In many countries Indigenous peoples are taking an active role in conservation. What this new research shows is the huge potential for further collaborative partnerships between indigenous people, conservation practitioners and governments,” said study co-author Neil Burgess. “This should yield major benefits for conservation of ecologically valuable landscapes, ecosystems and genes for future generations.”
Around the world, the nature of these collaborative relationships vary. Australia and Canada are among a handful of nations who have made strides in working alongside Indigenous Peoples. The UN has gone so far as to make it a goal to partner with Indigenous Peoples in future land-oriented decisions.
“Whereas [governing bodies] look at the landscape holistically, elders and traditional owners have an in-depth understanding of the ecology of a cultural landscape,” Genevieve Carey, a community archaeologist with Applied Archaeology International who was not involved in the study, told IFLScience. “Land management needs to be looked after in this way. Pieces of the landscape do not work independently of each [other], they work together and this understanding is at the core of many traditional cultures.”
The authors suggest that future government initiatives listen to Indigenous voices and perspectives to fully encompass best environmental practices.
“What these new maps show us is that understanding Indigenous perspectives and indigenous contributions to conservation are essential when negotiating local or global conservation agreements,” said study co-author Zsolt Molnár.