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UNEP: Tapping into indigenous knowledge to protect nature


In the Peruvian city of Ayacucho, the indigenous Quechua people have a tradition known as chirapaq. As the red-orange glow of the setting sun gives way to a deep blue twilight, the Quechua look to the heavens in the hopes that two stars will collide to birth a sparkling, star-filled skyscape.

For some Quechua, the celestial renaissance is an allegory representing the hope that indigenous cultures around the world will return to prominence, in many cases after generations of repression.

There’s a growing realization among environmental advocates that the spread of indigenous practices is also crucial to the planet’s future. An emerging body of research suggests that traditional techniques, some millennia old, for growing food, controlling wildfires and conserving endangered species could help arrest the dramatic decline of the natural world.

“We must preserve and strengthen indigenous practices, which contribute to sustainable environmental management and provide leadership in combating climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste,” says Siham Drissi, a Programme Management Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “It must be preserved and enhanced.”

This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, to be held on 9 August is expected to cast a spotlight on the importance of traditional knowledge in environmental management and the role that indigenous women have in preserving indigenous culture.

The world’s indigenous population comprises some 476 million people living across 90 countries and representing 5,000 different cultures. They manage an estimated 25 per cent of Earth’s land mass, which accounts for 40 per cent of all ecologically intact landscapes.

Yet indigenous peoples are arguably among the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups due to systemic marginalization. They’re almost three times as likely to live in extreme poverty than non-indigenous people, and they account for 15 per cent of the world’s poorest.

Despite that, in many parts of the world, indigenous communities are at the forefront of conservation, according to a 2021 report supported in part by UNEP. Many are specialists at living in fragile ecosystems and managing limited biodiversity.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the Bambuti-Babuluko community is helping to protect one of Central Africa’s last remaining tracts of primary tropical forest. In Iran, the semi-nomadic Chahdegal Balouch oversee 580,000 hectares of fragile scrubland and desert. And in Canada’s far north, Inuit leaders are working to restore caribou herds, whose numbers had been in steep decline.

In areas like Australia and South America, indigenous land management, including slow-burning and purposefully set brush fires are considered key to preventing large-scale wildfires, which in many places could become more common as the climate becomes hotter and drier.

“Indigenous fire is about burning in a way that supports healthy culture, ecosystems and society,” says Oliver Costello, Director of the Jagun Alliance Aboriginal Corporation in Australia. “More socio-political change and investment is required to properly implement indigenous fire and land management in Australia and beyond to realize the potential of indigenous custodianship and knowledge in practice.”

Tending to traditional knowledge

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, requires all entities to obtain free, prior and informed consent from indigenous peoples before engaging in activities that impact their rights, survival, dignity and well-being. The declaration posits that interactions must occur on indigenous peoples’ time frames and in indigenous languages.

To that end, 2022 marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Indigenous Languages, which emphasizes the importance of enabling indigenous languages in justice systems, the media, labour and health programmes. Given the importance of oral traditions in passing down environmental management practices and indigenous knowledge, experts say the preservation of language and customs is of the utmost importance.

At the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly earlier this year, Member States adopted a key resolution that focuses on deploying nature to find solutions for sustainable development. The resolution calls on UNEP to support the implementation of such solutions, which safeguard the rights of communities and indigenous peoples.

UNEP also has a policy that aims to protect environmental defenders through denouncing attacks, torture, intimidation and murder while advocating for better protection of environmental rights.,

Recognition and respect

“Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge has informed how to practically ensure the balance of the environment in which they live so it may continue to provide essential services – such as water, fertile soil, food, shelter, medicines – to all life forms,” says Drissi.

The Stockholm+50 conference in early June strongly positioned indigenous peoples, who produced a declaration calling for “an effective and immediate mainstreaming of [indigenous] scientific knowledge into all relevant decisions and actions to address” the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.

The declaration also highlights the plight of indigenous women, who have particularly high levels of poverty, limited access to health and economic services, and often suffer from institutional, domestic, political and sexual violence.

“Indigenous women face a triple risk: being a woman, being indigenous and being an environmental defender,” said Drissi. “They safeguard the biodiversity of our ecosystems and transmit ancestral and indigenous knowledge, languages and worldviews. However, indigenous women and girls are too often stigmatized, harassed, criminalized, tortured or killed for defending their land and rivers, their cultural heritage, life in their territories and beyond.”

Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechua activist from Ayacucho who’s dedicated over 30 years to defending and advocating for indigenous cultures and peoples, says stronger action and recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights is needed.

“It is critical that indigenous women are recognized in our full capacities, above all, as bearers of knowledge and in our role of producers within indigenous families,” says Rivera. “The violence that comes from outside has much to do with the denial of our collective and individual human rights.”

Such mainstreaming requires the development of true partnerships, experts say.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), a professional body that ensures funds of Norwegian development aid contribute to global development, was among the participants in discussions with indigenous peoples at the Stockholm +50 conference.

“Indigenous peoples must be at the center of the table in the climate and environment debates, because indigenous peoples are the real experts,” says Stig Ingemar Traavik, Director of Climate, Energy and Environment at Norad. “They already have many of the solutions we are looking for, and we need to listen and learn.”

The Dushanbe Declaration, adopted this year as part of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, upholds the critical role of women, youth, indigenous peoples, local communities, and other major stakeholder groups in water governance at all levels.

“We must increase recognition of such practices and foster respectful dialogue in an ethical space between scientific and policy spheres with indigenous peoples,” says Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous Affairs Officer at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). “Such ethical space is where indigenous knowledge can be appropriately shared and carefully handled and received. If this space is never created, the erosion of indigenous knowledge will continue.”

But increased recognition must be complemented by action. For Rivera, that takes the form of training a new generation of indigenous women leaders.

“There is always optimism and a lot of hope to achieve respect based on rights, and we put all our efforts into it,” she says. “With information, training and access to appropriate tools, I am sure that the new generation will achieve greater things and understand that global decisions have implications in local contexts.”

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