World Indigenous Day: Harnessing the Power of the Five Percent

World Indigenous Day is August 9 and we’re talking to Gina Cosentino, Global Director for Indigenous and Communal Conservation at The Nature Conservancy. One of Gina’s top priorities is to align conservation practices with the rights of Indigenous peoples, resulting in smart and sustainable conservation which improves the quadruple bottom line for Indigenous peoples, government, corporations and nature.


Conservancy Talk: The United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed on August 9 each year to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. This event also recognizes the achievements and contributions Indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. Why is this day important for anyone interested in conservation?

Gina Cosentino: This day draws attention to what we all should be doing every day of the year; that is to respect and recognize the important contributions Indigenous peoples make to our human and planetary well-being and support and promote their rights to their lands, territories and natural resources. Our work with Indigenous peoples is a key global strategy for The Nature Conservancy since the conservation movement would not be successful without their significant knowledge, experience and stewardship.

Indigenous peoples represent five percent of the world’s population, but they own, occupy or have claims to nearly 25 percent of the world’s lands and waters. And that 25 percent represents 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Some of the most important lands and waters around the world are intact as a result of Indigenous peoples’ commitment and efforts related to environmental stewardship. This is not a coincidence. In short, Indigenous peoples are essential for conservation.

Conservancy Talk: This year the theme focuses on building alliances and honoring treaties that recognize Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands. How does this theme relate to our mission?

Gina Cosentino: Indigenous peoples have specific human rights related to their lands, territories and natural resources — this includes the right to make decisions related to conservation and development and to be able to access the lands and waters they own or traditionally used. We recognize that Indigenous peoples have jurisdiction over their territories and resources and this ought to influence our conservation practices.

The Conservancy upholds international human rights standards as part of its core guiding principles, and our policies and practices aim to be consistent with the highest standards and good practices in international law such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our global strategy is also premised on building meaningful and effective partnerships and alliances in conservation.

Conservancy Talk: Who exactly are the world’s “Indigenous peoples?”

Gina Cosentino: There isn’t one overarching definition, but Indigenous peoples are generally those who self-identify as Indigenous peoples and often maintain distinct social, economic, cultural and political systems and have a right to maintain these systems. They have both individual and collective rights to exist as peoples. Indigenous peoples also tend to have a strong historical link to their lands and territories and surrounding natural resources.

In post-colonial countries, Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of places like Canada, the United States, Australia, Brazil and others. In Africa there is a different understanding of the term generally associated with systemic discrimination, lack of access to decision-making, livelihoods, culture, and resources. The term Indigenous peoples is internationally recognized, but in some countries First Peoples, Aboriginal people, tribal peoples, pastoralists, hunter gatherers, herders, among others are used as well as the name of the specific peoples such as Maya, Saami, Guarani, Blackfoot, Chickasaw, and Maori. There are approximately 370 million Indigenous peoples worldwide, living in about 90 nation-states.

Indigenous peoples are among the world’s most marginalized and impoverished and consequently are the most adversely affected by threats to their environment, as they often have the least ability to respond to problems that weren’t created by them in the first place.  This is where the Conservancy can help — building effective partnerships by blending our scientific expertise with their vast experience and knowledge to create innovative conservation solutions.

Conservancy Talk: What are some of the specific environmental and conservation challenges Indigenous peoples face?

Gina Cosentino: Climate change, uncontrolled natural resource development, inappropriate conservation practices, and lack of access to their resources are big ones. These are some of the same issues the Conservancy is working to address through sustainable conservation solutions, so Indigenous peoples are of course natural partners in this work. They are inhabitants of some of the planet’s most biologically important ecosystems and are at the frontlines of ecological change. Working towards sustainable development in line with their cultural values, human rights, internal priorities and needs is the only way to conserve the environment to achieve lasting results, as Indigenous Peoples are the first stewards of their territories and waters.

Within international law, Indigenous and tribal peoples are recognized not simply as stakeholders — but rights holders. This means they must participate in decisions about what happens to their lands, waters, and natural resources. They must also be included in decision-making about climate change, food security, food sovereignty, water security and planned development on or near their territories. In the last couple of decades, conservationists are increasingly recognizing the importance of respecting and aligning conservation with the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Gina-CosentinoConservancy Talk: What does indigenous and communal conservation look like in action?

Gina Cosentino: We collaborate with Indigenous peoples to help them meet their conservation priorities, assist with developing tools for sustainable natural resource management, and enhance their participatory and decision-making capacity. Our work together varies depending on regional needs, from climate mitigation and land management in the Amazon, to coastal fisheries cooperatives in Tanzania and fire management strategies in Northern Australia. It’s a global effort based on catalyzing local action and local voices.

Our initiatives respect and recognize rights to lands, territories and natural resources, so that Indigenous peoples have full access to decision-making regarding conservation practice. That’s another great strength of the Conservancy — we can bring corporate, Indigenous and government leaders around a table to bridge differences and design innovative solutions for sustainable resource management.

Conservancy Talk: Science is at the core of The Nature Conservancy’s conservation work. How can traditional knowledge play a role in achieving conservation results?

Gina Cosentino: There is a significant body of literature which demonstrates how effective conservation can be when conservation practices incorporate traditional knowledge systems and current innovations of Indigenous peoples. Traditional knowledge encompasses the vast data, experience, observations and know-how accumulated across generations of Indigenous peoples related to their flora and fauna, climate, food systems, water, and medicinal properties of plants.

Conservation hasn’t historically recognized or integrated the important scientific contributions Indigenous peoples have made through climate change adaptation and mitigation and other conservation strategies. Indigenous peoples have a long history serving as effective stewards of important ecosystems — this vast experience coupled with contemporary conservation science can help foster more resilient natural and human communities.

[Top image: 2013 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at NYC UN headquarters. Bottom image: Gina Cosentino]

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