A new study published by the journal Nature Sustainability shows that Indigenous people own or have tenure rights over at least a quarter of the global, inhabited land surface, reaffirming their important role in nature conservation and the fight against climate change.
This might be the first study to aggregate and analyze spatial information on Indigenous lands at a global scale. Using publicly available information, the research team found out that Indigenous people administer at least 38 million square kilometers in 87 countries on all continents. The areas intersect with about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas and intact landscapes (such as boreal and tropical forests, savannas and marshes).
"Understanding the extent of the lands over which Indigenous Peoples hold a traditional connection is critical to several conservation and climate agreements", said Professor Stephen Garnett, of Australia's Charles Darwin University, who was part of the team that designed the maps of the global indigenous territory.
The right of indigenous peoples to own and decide over the territories to which they have been historically linked is safeguarded by the International Labour Organization's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.
The convention, also known as C169, states that governments should take measures in co-operation with the peoples concerned, whether they are indigenous or tribal groups, to “protect and preserve the environment of the territories they inhabit.”
According to the convention, indigenous peoples should be consulted by governments on every issue concerning their territory using their own traditional methods. That means that if an indigenous group opposes to a mine or a hydroelectrical dam in their territory, the government shouldn't carry on with the project.
The study, called “A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation,” shows there are currently about 370 million people who define themselves as indigenous, people that lived in their territory before the most recent colonization processes. According to the study, the continent with the largest indigenous population is currently Africa.
The C169 defines indigenous peoples as those who “on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.”
In many cases, the presence of indigenous groups is the last legal defense against extractivist and other projects that threaten extensive regions. An extreme case is that of the Piripkura, a nomadic tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.
The last three members of the Piripkura were contacted by the National Foundation of the Indian of Brazil (FUNAI) in the 1980s. Their group was massacred by loggers trying to get rid of the indigenous population. Now only two of them remain in their territory, constantly moving in search of food and shelter.
Their presence was recognized by the FUNAI and the institute prohibited all economic activity in their territory as long as they can prove they're both still alive and using their land.
When they're gone, the territory will most likely be open again to loggers.
Of course, indigenous groups may agree to mines, wind farms, highways or other projects in their territory, but experience shows the opposite is what usually happens.
"In many countries, indigenous peoples are playing an active role in conservation. This should generate important benefits for the conservation of ecologically valuable landscapes, ecosystems, and genes for future generations”, said Niel Buergess, from the United Nations Environment Conservation Monitoring Center.
The study stresses the importance of “understanding the scale, location and nature conservation values of the lands over which Indigenous Peoples exercise traditional rights” in the implementation of global conservation and climate agreements.
However, new property schemes on land tenure and social organization often collide with traditional forms of ownership by indigenous groups. Lands that were considered collective property are sometimes divided into sections of individual property, becoming vulnerable to acquisition by companies and governments.
Taking into account these differences and developing policies aiming to protect traditional forms of tenure and administration might be helpful in the global environmental struggles.
“Our results add to growing evidence that recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land, benefit sharing and institutions which is essential to meeting local and global conservation goals,” says the study.