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Indigenous Peoples Control One-Quarter of World's Land Surface, Two-Thirds of That Land Is 'Essentially Natural'

- A new study makes a significant contribution to the growing body of research showing that recognizing the land rights of and partnering with indigenous peoples can greatly benefit conservation efforts.

- An international team of researchers produced a map of the terrestrial lands managed or owned by indigenous peoples across the globe, which in turn allowed them to assess “the extent to which Indigenous Peoples’ stewardship and global conservation values intersect.”

- The researchers determined that indigenous peoples have ownership and use or management rights over more than a quarter of the world’s land surface — close to 38 million square kilometers or 14.6 million square miles — spread across 87 countries and overlapping with about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas on Earth.

A new study makes a significant contribution to the growing body of research showing that recognizing the land rights of and partnering with indigenous peoples can greatly benefit conservation efforts.

“The dearth of reliable data on Indigenous Peoples’ lands in many parts of the world has implications not only for securing their rights but also for the conservation and management of a significant proportion of terrestrial global biodiversity,” the authors of the study, led by Professor Stephen Garnett of Charles Darwin University in Australia, write in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Garnett and team sought to address this knowledge gap by producing a map of the terrestrial lands managed or owned by indigenous peoples across the globe, which in turn allowed them to assess “the extent to which Indigenous Peoples’ stewardship and global conservation values intersect” and “provide a first estimation of the overlap between Indigenous Peoples’ terrestrial lands and protected areas.”

While recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and waters is increasingly coming to be seen as an ethical obligation, the authors of the study say their results provide evidence that it is also essential to meeting local and global conservation goals and that more collaborative partnerships between indigenous peoples and governments would yield substantial benefits for efforts to conserve high-priority landscapes, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

About 370 million people around the world “define themselves as Indigenous, are descended from populations who inhabited a country before the time of conquest or colonization, and who retain at least some of their own social, economic, cultural and political practices,” according to the study. The researchers determined that indigenous peoples have ownership and use or management rights over more than a quarter of the world’s land surface — close to 38 million square kilometers or 14.6 million square miles — spread across 87 countries and overlapping with about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas on Earth.

“Our results show that Indigenous Peoples have rights to and/or manage at least 37.9 million [square kilometers] of land in nearly all mainland countries in the Americas, around the Arctic, throughout most of the forested lands of south and Southeast Asia, across Africa particularly in rangelands and deserts but also forests, and throughout countries in Oceania, including many small island nations,” Garnett and his co-authors write in the study. The map they created shows that Africa has the highest proportion of countries with indigenous peoples and Europe-West Asia the lowest.

“Understanding the extent of lands over which Indigenous Peoples retain traditional connection is critical for several conservation and climate agreements,” Garnett said in a statement. “Not until we pulled together the best available published information on Indigenous lands did we really appreciate the extraordinary scale of Indigenous Peoples’ ongoing influence.”

The researchers used 127 data sources to compile the map, including records of state-recognized indigenous lands, publicly accessible participatory mapping, census data, and scholarly publications. “We are not surprised this has never been done before,” Dr. Ian Leiper of Charles Darwin University, who assembled much of the mapping data, said in a statement. “It has taken three years to track down credible sources of data from around the world.”

Study co-author James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and University of Queensland in Australia said that one particularly remarkable finding of the research was the extent to which lands controlled by indigenous peoples have remained untouched by development. About half of the global terrestrial environment can be classified as human-dominated, the study states. Based on that measure of human influence, the researchers estimated that indigenous peoples’ lands account for 37 percent of all remaining natural lands on Earth.

“We found that about two thirds of Indigenous lands are essentially natural,” Watson said. “That is more than double the proportion for other lands.”

The data the research team relied on did not shed light on the legal context of the 7.8 million square kilometers of indigenous peoples’ land that overlaps with protected areas, nor what indigenous peoples use those lands for. But the authors note in the study that “It does indicate, however, that the scale of spatial overlap positions Indigenous Peoples as important global actors in protected area management.”

The researchers add that while the contributions of indigenous peoples to national protected area networks have sometimes been provided with free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), in many regions “protected areas have been imposed over Indigenous Peoples’ lands without consent, sometimes leading to conflict, social disadvantage and displacement.”

That helps demonstrate how important it is for governments and conservation NGOs to partner with indigenous peoples, according to Neil Burgess, a study co-author and researcher with the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre in the UK. “What this new research shows is the huge potential for further collaborative partnerships between indigenous people, conservation practitioners and governments,” he said in a statement. “This should yield major benefits for conservation of ecologically valuable landscapes, ecosystems and genes for future generations.”

But partnership agreements must be made quickly, because many indigenous lands are under severe pressure to be developed. For instance, co-author John E. Fa of the Center for International Forestry Research and Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK said: “Where I work in central Africa, Indigenous Peoples are synonymous with tropical rainforests in the best condition. But change is happening fast. Empowering Indigenous Peoples will be key to conserving these forests.”

Zsolt Molnár of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said that the maps of indigenous lands would help inform efforts to assess status and trends of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and sustainable development. The IPBES, Molnár added, has specifically been looking for an overview of indigenous peoples’ influence on nature and conservation.

“What these new maps show us is that understanding Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous contributions to conservation are essential when negotiating local or global conservation agreements,” Molnár said.

Posted with permission from Mongabay.

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