Indigenous communities across the country are stewarding their ancestral lands in ways that reflect an understanding of a holistic worldview. Their stewardship practices align with their spiritual, economic and cultural obligation to air, land and water.
This resurgence is empowering Nations to develop the leadership, economic opportunities and knowledge systems needed to meet global conservation goals. It’s also catalyzing reconciliation.
In a time when the global conservation effort faces unprecedented challenges, a new approach is needed. Rather than attempting to impose “islands” of conservation on an increasingly unruly world, it is time to return stewardship to those who have maintained traditional relationships with nature for millennia.
Indigenous Peoples steward or hold tenure to more than one quarter of the planet’s land area and, as research shows, they have long been essential to the preservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in many regions. This reality should provide a foundation for a new generation of collaborative partnerships that build upon the centuries-old stewardship practices, knowledge and values of Indigenous communities, with approaches informed by Western science.
Among other things, these collaborations should reframe conservation as an obligation to the air, land and water, and include a multilevel governance process that reflects Indigenous and local community stewardship in conjunction with supportive agents of government and an ethical suite of civil society actors working for and with community stewards. Such a community-centered approach will reframe the role of protected areas in the context of reconciliation, as well as address broader ecological goals of global concern.
A promising example of this reframe came recently in California, where the non-profit conservation organization Save the Redwoods League gave 523 acres of land back to the intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council for the purpose of protecting the lands that the tribes have historically stewarded (MacDonald & Udofia, 2012). This gift was part of the larger work of connecting environmental restoration and climate change efforts with Indigenous-led social and ecological justice initiatives.
While there are limits to the number and total area of protected areas that can be established, it is clear that the world needs a more expansive vision for the future. The emergence of Indigenous-led PAs, like Canada’s Tallurutiup Imanga in the Arctic and its proposed successors nationwide, is an important step toward this goal. In these new PAs, Indigenous communities have the lead in defining the goals and methods of conservation, reflecting the vision they articulate for their own social-ecological futures.
As the name suggests, community-based monitoring is ecological monitoring that involves communities and/or citizens as participants. This type of monitoring often aims to engage local people in the development and implementation of data collection methodologies. The process is typically iterative, whereby community members and resource managers jointly develop protocols that are based on scientifically sound research methods. The data collected then provides the foundation for conservation decisions.
In many instances, developing community-based monitoring in lieu of scientist-managed programs is the best fiscal option or, due to severe budget constraints, the only viable option (Plummer and Fitzgibbon 2004). In these cases, citizen groups are engaged in a variety of activities that would otherwise be beyond the scope of an institution’s resources. Wildlife ecologist Susan Morse, for example, leads workshops in which she trains volunteers to locate tracks, scat, and sign of a number of common mammal species throughout their core habitat areas.
These projects are designed to achieve specific conservation outcomes – such as an increase in the population of endangered black rhinos, which play an essential role in shaping ecosystems that countless other species depend on. The results of these efforts are then used to determine the most effective conservation strategies for the target species and other land-use activities in the region.
The benefits of community-based monitoring go far beyond simply engaging local communities in environmental data collection and management. These initiatives are also a powerful tool for addressing the “local knowledge problem,” in which service providers lack a strong understanding of the information needs of local residents and may be at risk of providing services that do not meet these needs. By involving communities in the monitoring process, these efforts provide a level of public oversight that increases accountability and enhances the quality of service delivery.
Ultimately, a resurgence of Indigenous stewardship on traditional lands could catalyze the achievement of global conservation goals in an unprecedented way. This is particularly true in regions where Indigenous communities manage or hold tenure to a significant portion of the land area and have demonstrated centuries-old practices for sustainable use of natural resources.
Indigenous peoples steward 22 percent of the world’s land. Their lands also protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and provide the most important carbon sinks.
Yet, this stewardship work often goes unrecognized or undervalued. This is especially true when it comes to a new kind of conservation that seeks to engage communities in achieving ecological, economic and social outcomes. This is called Indigenous-led conservation.
This approach is based on the understanding that a strong relationship with nature is essential to life and well-being. It is not an optional extra — it’s the foundation of sustainable economic development and cultural revitalization. The Indigenous-led conservation movement is growing rapidly. Nationwide, there are plans for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) based on traditional laws, governance and knowledge systems to conserve over 500,000 square kilometers.
IPCAs are not only about preserving species and landscapes; they support decolonization and the preservation of ancestral wisdom. In Nunavut, for example, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association is working with the federal government to establish a 109,000 square-kilometer marine conservation area in the Seal River watershed, home to narwhals, polar bears and beluga whales. In Manitoba, the three First Nations of the Seal River Watershed plan to protect their lands from industrial activity.
These Indigenous-led conservation initiatives are creating jobs, strengthening communities and reducing harm to the environment. This is the future of conservation.
The MacDonald-Laurier Institute has been working to advance this movement for years through our Community Land Stewardship Initiative. The program offers support to local Aboriginal communities by promoting and supporting community-based monitoring and restoration projects. We also help them develop sustainable economies by fostering partnerships with private and public sector funders and leveraging their expertise to build capacity, create job opportunities and develop training programs.
In fact, this is the kind of work that is essential to meeting our global climate commitments. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications found that areas stewarded by Indigenous peoples and local communities store more carbon than those stewarded by governments and private owners.
It’s time to recognize the value of this approach, and get the work it does right. To that end, the Circle is urging Toronto City Council to ban pesticides in High Park, and take steps to protect our natural spaces from this harmful chemical dependency.
Good land stewardship includes an ongoing relationship with the land and all its inhabitants. This can be as simple as listening to frogs calling in the springtime, watching wild turkeys foraging in grassy meadows, or keeping track of bird migration patterns. By engaging in these activities, you can learn a great deal about your land and its natural resources and how to best care for them for future generations.
By combining traditional Indigenous stewardship practices with modern conservation approaches rooted in Western science, there is a significant opportunity to advance the global biodiversity conservation effort. Research shows that lands managed by Indigenous Peoples have sustained natural resource and wildlife populations for centuries in many parts of the world. However, this stewardship must interact with the varied polycentric needs of modern Indigenous communities, as well as with the reality of resource development.
In the case of emerald ash borer (EAB), we see an opportunity to work with local landowners to preserve forests while also reducing the need for chemicals by enlarging quarantine zones and encouraging land stewardship, which could include planting native species. In the end, this will benefit all parties – and reduce EAB’s impacts on urban and rural economies.
For Indigenous peoples, a strong spiritual relationship with the land is an essential aspect of their wellbeing. Thousands of years of experience mean they have a deep understanding of how to nurture and sustain their lands. And in today’s climate crisis, that understanding has become even more important.
That’s why the San Francisco Foundation has supported projects to strengthen Indigenous stewardship of their lands. This is about harm reduction as much as it is about climate action, and it’s a key part of our vision for a healthy Bay Area.
Our goal is to help the next generation of leaders and stewards build their relationships with the land and their communities, and bring them together through collaborative partnerships. This is why we support the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which works to honour Native Nations’ responsibility to protect and steward their lands and waters.