Indigenous People: Pioneers in Nature Preservation

When we think about environmental protection and the preservation of oceans and forests, we often ignore the communities and populations that inhabit the land and the crucial role they play in supporting their conservation. This should come as no surprise, after all, it is their home.

Most Indigenous communities believe the natural world is sacred and should be protected for generations to come. Their traditions and belief systems mean they look at nature with deep respect and great sense of belonging; perceiving themselves to be one of the main components of the natural world, not central to it.

LandMark, the Global Platform of Indigenous and Communities Lands, declares that “50% (of the land represented on their website) or more is held by Indigenous Peoples and communities globally”. Their service to the world should not be underestimated: a third of global forests are primarily managed by indigenous peoples, local communities are fundamental in the global curbing of gas emissions and they protect around 80% of the world’s biodiversity, which is essential to global food security. Furthermore, lands managed by indigenous communities have considerably lower rates of deforestation and provide optimal protection of endangered species.

Indigenous populations have such rich knowledge of the natural world that they are able to provide an important perspective — one that compliments modern approaches to nature conservation and sustainable development — when considering the impact of economic decisions on the environment.

For this reason, marginalized groups are beginning to gain recognition as key stewards of our environment given their capacity to coexist with the flora and fauna, with many of their agricultural and pastoral practices now used as examples of responsible development to teach countries across the globe how to preserve their natural resources and grow food. With environmental knowledge developed over centuries spent observing and understanding their natural habitat, it is safe to say that they can teach us invaluable techniques in respect of utilising natural resources and coexist with the environment in which we live.

AMAZONIA: The “Lungs of the World”

Sustainable harvesting in the Amazon jungle

Sustainable harvesting in the Amazon jungle


Because indigenous tribes adapted to survive in extreme climates, they have developed ways to grow crops in very harsh environments. An excellent example of sustainable forest management is traditional agroforestry practice in the Amazon forest, where the communities optimize land space in order to grow multiple crops and raise livestock simultaneously. If grown correctly, coffee, for instance, has proved to be a particularly sustainable plant since it is very easy for others to grow underneath it, allowing indigenous communities to exploit the space effectively. Meanwhile, in herding lands across Latin America, pastoral communities practice sustainable cattle grazing and cropping that preserves the rangeland’s overall biodiversity, and in the highlands, indigenous communities have developed systems to preserve soil, reduce erosion, conserve water and minimize the risk of natural disasters.

SAVANNA: Sustainability, Poaching and Scarce Resources

Baka pygmies collecting herbs for medicine

Baka pygmies collecting herbs for medicine


The Ba’Aka pygmies of Central Africa are a good example of how indigenous peoples are involved in environmental sustainability, specifically the crucial role they play in the management of flora and fauna in nature reserves: something recognised in few African countries. Hunting only in one area at the time so that animals can slowly repopulate, parts of the local rivers, streams and forests are considered sacred, meaning fishing or hunting in these areas are banned entirely thus allowing fish and small game to breed. They often grow fruit trees on their farms and around the village, reducing their impact on the land and damage caused to wild plants.

Working with the government, they also collaborated to restrict gun usage and limit hunting during rainy seasons, however by far their most important role today is as official guardians of the wildlife. Establishing youth groups that control poaching — groups that regularly monitor the reserves and the report situations to either local organizations or the village’s chief — their activism is serving to dramatically increase the control of illegal hunting in the area.

Rhino poachers

Rhino poachers


By no means the only such case in Africa, in Northern Kenya the Lakipiak Maasain tribe — meaning "People of Wildlife" — are custodians of the only community-owned rhino sanctuary in the country. Controlling the presence of wild animals, they enable local tribes to continue hunting for food by strategically reducing bush cutting that guarantees more fodder for wildlife without disrupting the fragile local ecosystem.

SIBERIA: Harsh Climates and Nature Conservation

Chukchi reindeer herders

Chukchi reindeer herders


On the other side of the world, in Siberia, the Chukchi people have herded reindeer for hundreds of years: over time, developing numerous mechanisms for controlling the herd size based on moss resources. And they’ll breed small herds with large ones in order to reduce the numbers in the latter so they don’t grow beyond their resources.

OCEANIA: Tradition and Modern Times

Another great example of traditional sustainable practices can be found in the Māori communities of New Zealand. If we take the Māori word ‘kaitiakitanga’, which means protecting nature to respect descendants and future generations, we begin to understand the way in which the Maori people consider humans to be equals with nature; both belonging to the same kin. The Māori communities make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s farming economy and legally own many lands, giving them the power to protect and preserve them. Several national projects have included the application of traditional environmental knowledge, and more recently, the New Zealand’s central government has expressed an interest in preserving ecosystems through environmental programmes. In addition, Māori health and wildlife management are both now fully integrated into the sustainable management of natural resources and monitoring of the environment.

THE ABORIGINAL: Indigenous Peoples and Bush Fires

Bush fire, Victoria, Australia. 

Bush fire, Victoria, Australia. 


Australia’s Aboriginal people use “cool burns” to eliminate select plants and trees in order to keep balance in the landscape and allow new ones to grow. This means that when a natural fire occurs due to the exceedingly high temperatures or a lightning strike, the destruction can be easily controlled. After Australia was colonized and fire management practices in Australia shifted to adopt non-indigenous methodologies, there was a noticeable increase in both the size and frequency of such fires.

BALI: Millennial Rice Terraces

Rice terraces, Ubud, Bali

Rice terraces, Ubud, Bali


Built over thousands of years by the locals, the sophisticated irrigation system — or “subak” of Bali’s rice terraces acts as a natural drainage basin, with an underground canal system bringing mineral dense water from the volcanic soil to naturally fertilize the rice. For this reason, the terraces remain one of the most biodiverse and productive rice-growing soils in the world.

Sadly many communal lands are not legally recognized by national governments, who are instead investing in the construction of new roads or involved in other unsustainable forestry businesses in their territories. Oil corporations and mining companies often offer money to indigenous families knowing that they don’t have the financial means to provide for their children, and today, indigenous communities are fighting illegal invasion, destructive exploitation, logging and mining in their forests, and the building of mega dams across their rivers. After decades of discrimination and neglect, the official role of indigenous peoples remains as guardians of nature and crucial protagonists in the efforts to mitigate climate change, however unfortunately, they are also becoming targets, with some excluded from their ancestral lands and forced to become ‘conservation refugees’ in other countries. Fortunately, the rights of indigenous people are now protected in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and even reflected in government policies and the conservation programmes of some organisations, which are in turn investing more and more in the protection of indigenous culture.


Cover photo: Rice terraces Bali iStock.com/SAKDAWUT14