Three years ago, an international team of researchers set out to find out just how much land the world’s indigenous peoples controlled.
After pulling together data from 127 sources, including state records, census data, public maps and other studies, they published the first reliable data on the topic in the journal Nature Sustainability. The new paper estimates that indigenous peoples, who make up approximately 5 percent of the world's population, use or have management rights to more than a quarter of the earth’s surface—roughly 14.7 million square miles of land in 87 political regions. What’s more, the authors suggest that empowering these people to make more decisions about land use could be a big step in conserving, restoring and protecting ecologically valuable habitat around the globe.
“Understanding the extent of lands over which Indigenous Peoples retain traditional connection is critical for several conservation and climate agreements,” lead author Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin University in Australia says in a press release. “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.”
That influence is usually for the best when it comes to conservation. Co-author James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society says that indigenous-controlled lands are usually more ecologically sound than other areas. “We found that about two thirds of Indigenous lands are essentially natural,” he says in the release. “That is more than double the proportion for other lands.”
Writing in the Conversation, the authors estimate a whopping 40 percent of government-sponsored conservation lands around the globe are already located on indigenous lands. While Mongabay.com points out that the researchers do not clarify in the paper who has legal right over indigenous land that also enjoys government protection, the paper suggests that partnerships between indigenous peoples and conservationists could be a powerful tool for implementing conservation goals.
However, the authors warn that these partnerships are not one-size-fits-all and indigenous methods and control must stay at the forefront. "[T]here is danger in making assumptions about the aspirations of Indigenous peoples for managing their lands,” they write in the Conversation. “Without proper consultation, conservation projects based on Indigenous stewardship may be unsuccessful at best and risk perpetuating colonial legacies at worst.”
A recent article in Foreign Policy by Alexander Zaitchik illustrates just how this scenario can play out. In 1970, the government of Ecuador created Cayambe Coca National Park. While it placed restrictions on the Cofán inhabitants of the area, it failed to enforce other park regulations. So as wildcat miners tore up the land and polluted streams with impunity, the locals were often subject to strict environmental laws about how they could hunt, fish or practice traditional agriculture.
Like many other indigenous communities whose ancestral homes sit inside state-sanctioned conservation zones, the Cofán are victims of a sort of green colonialism. Cayambe Coca and parks like it may have been founded with the best of intentions: to safeguard endangered biospheres. But the way these protected areas have been established and maintained has damaged the lives of the indigenous peoples who live within their borders, forcing them into what is effectively a landlord-tenant relationship with the state that deprives them of control over their land. Because the local governments often lack the will or resources to prevent industry encroachment, many such arrangements also end up undermining their creators’ explicit goal: conservation. This double failure is part of the complicated legacy of the modern conservation movement.
For the Cofán, part of the solution has been to create indigenous eco-guards who try to keep trespassers off ancestral land. While that solution might not work—or be legal—everywhere, it speaks to the ideas propagated by the new paper: let indigenous peoples use, protect and manage their own lands.
Update, July 24, 2018: The wording in this story has been updated to reflect that the piece refers to the world's indigenous peoples not a specific indigenous population group.