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Indigenous Communities are the Planet's Best Guardians

Updated: May 31, 2021

Jonny Rogers explores how Indigenous communities are maintaining vital environmental conservation efforts, and what traditional knowledge can teach everyone.

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Photo by Ibadah Mimpi

In 2019, it was estimated that around one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction, many within the next few decades. However, the same report also discovered that land which is owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous populations is generally declining less rapidly than elsewhere.

A study from the University of British Columbia found indigenous-owned territories in Australia, Brazil and Canada contain the greatest biodiversity, or the highest total numbers of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Accounting for the management of at least a quarter of the world’s land and 80% of its remaining biodiversity, it is clear that indigenous populations play an important role in mitigating the negative effects of industrialisation on the planet.

As of April this year, indigenous-lead projects have been included in the Canadian Government’s $2.3 billion investment in nature conservation. As Valérie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, concludes:

“This Budget confirms that the Government of Canada recognizes Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Guardians as central to achieving biodiversity and climate commitments.” 

At the same time, however, the effect of climate change, large-scale agricultural production, ecotourism and disease outbreaks are threatening the survival of the same indigenous cultures that the future of the planet is currently dependent upon.

The Importance of Indigenous Knowledge

The term ‘indigenous’ refers to a wide range of ethnicities, traditions and systems of belief around the world, accounting for an estimated 370 million people across 70 countries. Although the UN does not currently adopt any official definition, ‘indigenous’ primarily refers to people belonging to communities with a strong historical link to pre-colonial times, though self-identification is underlined in a number of human rights documents.

Many indigenous populations are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow only what is needed for their families and communities. As such, indigenous territories are often more diverse than land used in industrial agriculture which depends on monoculture practices that are more cost-effective but generally result in greater soil degradation and deforestation.

Indigenous populations play an important role in long-term ecosystem monitoring in remote areas such as the Arctic and Amazon rainforest. This does not require sophisticated technology or recording equipment, as communities with intimate knowledge of their surroundings are better able to track animal populations and changes to the environment through eye-witness reports. The Local Environmental Observer network, for example, was established to share knowledge from a range of communities witnessing unusual animal, environmental and weather events.

In Angola, the Herero, Khoisan and Muimba communities were able to share ancestral knowledge with the Global Environment Facility to help rehabilitate land that had been devastated by drought and over-grazing. Tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest of the United States continue to play an important role in land restoration and conservation efforts.

The Threat to Indigenous Communities

The intimate connection between indigenous territories and their surroundings means that damage to biodiversity and environments has a proportionately larger impact on indigenous peoples. Over the past few decades, for example, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, based on the Louisiana Gulf Coast island, has been displaced by climate change related hurricanes and flooding which have reduced the island from 34.5 square miles in size to only half a square mile.

Even ‘conservation’ efforts have been used to justify pushing people out of their homeland. In 2017, thousands of members of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania were displaced and imprisoned after their homes were burned to attract more tourists by a U.S.-based conservation company and a UAE-based luxury hunting organisation.

Furthermore, government-funded infrastructure projects designed to meet the demands of growing populations also encroach on indigenous territories. In Ethiopia, the construction of the 240-metre tall Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River has upended famers, cattle herders and fishermen who depended on the environment for their survival.

Smaller communities without established health services or government support have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Tragically, however, many believe that Ebola epidemics in recent decades were connected to deforestation in West Africa, and some speculate that habitat loss might also be related to the outbreak of coronavirus.

What Everyone Can Learn

In the 1970s, Keep America Beautiful launched a popular anti-littering campaign featuring a Native American man devastated by the sight of a landscape overwhelmed with pollution. Make no mistake, this was a product of industrial greenwashing; not only was the Native American played by an Italian-American actor, but it was founded by beverage and packaging companies to promote ways of shifting the responsibility to manage waste onto consumers rather than changing their systems of production.

However, if the campaign did get anything right, it’s that we have a lot to learn from how indigenous populations relate to the world. Intuitively, communities whose traditions, culture and knowledge relate to their immediate surroundings have a deeper and richer understanding of their local ecosystems. As such, indigenous populations are better able to put into practice what should be evident to everyone the knowledge that abundant and sustainable resources depend on healthy ecosystems.

Due to rapid developments in technology and transportation over the past century, many of us now only have a loose connection with where we live. Some people journey across the entire country for work every day, while others hardly need to leave their bedroom. We might even spend years dreaming of the time we can escape the glum greyness of Britain to fall asleep on tropical beaches.

Our separation from our surroundings undoubtedly explains why many people don’t think twice when buying strawberries in winter or when topping our salads with Mexican avocadoes. Having become so accustomed to buying whatever we want whenever we want it, we have fooled ourselves into living as if our food, water, clothes and luxuries are plucked from thin-air. Because we don’t see most of the processes that sustain our lifestyles, we can afford to ignore the effect of our actions and habits.

Building on thousands of years of careful observation, by contrast, indigenous wisdom better understands how human practices can align with the interests of healthy and diverse ecosystems. Mitigating the impact of climate change and environmental degradation does not require us to outright disregard scientific discoveries and modern technology, but entails a careful and compassionate effort to form alliances between communities, cultures, charities and countries working to understand and respond to our rapidly-changing planet.

“As a global community, we have lost our way; we forgot what it means to have a relationship with the land […] Indigenous peoples have mastered the art of living on the Earth without destroying it.” – Jon Waterhouse, Indigenous Peoples Scholar at the Oregon Health and Science University


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