Indigenous Peoples: The unsung heroes of conservation

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There are approximately 370 million indigenous peoples in the world. They own, occupy or use up to 22 percent of the global land area, which is home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Often overlooked by governments, their role in safeguarding territories from environmental degradation has largely gone unnoticed and undocumented until now.

Areas managed by indigenous peoples are the oldest form of biodiversity conservation, and often the most effective. The global coverage of Indigenous Community Conserved Areas has been estimated at about 13 percent of the terrestrial surface of the planet, including 400-800 million hectares of forest. If these estimates were fully documented they would at least double the area recognised as being managed for nature. 

The role of Indigenous Community Conserved Areas in helping to conserve critical ecosystems and threatened species was in the spotlight for over two weeks in Cancun, Mexico where several thousand people gathered to help identify the most efficient means of fast-tracking efforts to achieve the 2020 Global or ‘Aichi’ Biodiversity Targets.

By the close of the meeting at 5am on Sunday December 17, 167 countries had agreed to a variety of measures that will intensify the implementation of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Among them was a set of guidelines for the repatriation of traditional knowledge that will assist governments in developing mechanisms at the national level to guard against the unlawful appropriation of traditional knowledge.

Francisco Rilla, a biodiversity expert working on environmental governance issues at UN Environment said, “Governments see that there’s a lot more to this than species conservation and natural resource management. Many communities who have inhabited these territories for thousands of years derive their livelihoods and their cultural identity from the lands they conserve. We’re talking about the economic well-being of millions of people around the world.”

“We often hear of indigenous communities taking a stand against destructive development, something they’ve been doing for hundreds of years and most recently at The Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota. Their understanding of the environment is based on sophisticated collective ecological knowledge and capacities that enable them to manage their land in a way that protects livelihoods and ensures that natural resources continue to support them.“

UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, in partnership with the Indigenous Community Conserved Areas Consortium, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Development Programme, is expanding the Protected Planet so that it can accurately represent protected areas where the people making the decisions are local communities including indigenous peoples. This will be achieved by building closer links between the Indigenous Community Conserved Areas Registry (an online information platform for indigenous peoples and communities engaged in conserving areas) and the World Database on Protected Areas.

Naomi Kingston, Head of Protected Areas at UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre said, “We are engaging non-governmental organizations and others who work closely with indigenous peoples and local communities. By engaging these groups, we hope to gather data from communities who have consented to having this information included in the Protected Planet.”

Giovanni Reyes of Philippine Association for Intercultural Development , who represents the Indigenous Community Conserved Areas Consortium in the Philippines said “the UN Environment recognition provided by the Indigenous Community Conserved Areas registry meant that the park managers respected the traditional governance of the ancestral domains and provided funding to support their effective management as a result”.

According to Dr Kingston this is very important because Indigenous Community Conserved Areas all over the world are often not recognised or respected for their contributions to conservation, despite the fact that documenting these areas would fill many of the gaps left by formal protected areas. It is hoped that by documenting these areas in Protected Planet the dual aims of providing these communities with appropriate recognition and clarifying progress towards international biodiversity targets will be achieved, especially Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, which requires 17 percent of the world’s land area and 10 percent of its sea to be protected by 2020. Measuring progress towards this target demands an understanding of all types of protected areas.

For more information please visit the registry:

For further information please contact niamh.brannigan@unep.org