Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation

This booklet and companion map produced by Terralingua and WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature examines an integrated approach to conserving the world’s biological and cultural diversity.

Executive Summary

July 2000

Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion-Based Conservation:

An integrated approach to conserving the world’s biological and cultural diversity

by Gonzalo Oviedo*, Luisa Maffi† and Peter B. Larsen*

* W.W.F. International – People and Conservation Unit

†Terralingua: partnerships for linguistic and biological diversity

W.W.F. has devised a new approach to its conservation work called Ecoregion-Based Conservation (E.R.B.C.). In developing this approach, it has mapped out 874 ecoregions of the world, and has found 238 of them to be of the utmost importance for biodiversity.

In collaboration with the international N.G.O. “Terralingua: partnerships for linguistic and biological diversity”, W.W.F. carried out an exercise to map all identifiable indigenous and ethnolinguistic groups of the world on the G200 map. The results show a very significant overlap of the biodiversity-richest areas of the world with high concentrations of distinct cultures.

W.W.F. works with indigenous and traditional peoples in all regions of the world. It supports sustainable wildlife management with indigenous communities in the Arctic. In Northern Russia, it works with the Itelmen, Even, and other peoples to help them protect their territories. In Thailand, W.W.F. supports the Karen people to gain recognition of their rights to live in and co-manage the Thung Yai Naresan Wildlife Sanctuary. In Southern Africa, W.W.F. supports training with traditional communities for wildlife management in the Campfire project. W.W.F. works in the Arafura Sea region with aboriginal communities of Northern Australia, Southern Papua New Guinea and South West Papua, Indonesia, for the conservation of the freshwater and coastal wetlands and surrounding savannah landscapes. In Nicaragua, W.W.F. supports the Management Committees of the Miskito people in the Cayos Miskitos Marine Reserve. And so on.

As a conservation organization, W.W.F. is concerned about the loss of biodiversity and the degrading quality of the world’s environments. But it is also increasingly concerned about the loss of cultures and knowledge. Traditional peoples have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge in their long history of managing the environment; and such knowledge is embodied in languages. With language extinctions, associated traditional ecological knowledge is lost as well, especially since in most traditional cultures this knowledge is not recorded and is only passed on to other groups or new generations orally. The loss of local languages means the loss of the main means of knowledge transmission.

Nature conservation does not have to harm people’s legitimate aspirations to development. In the case of indigenous and traditional peoples, W.W.F. does not propose freezing cultural traditions and knowledge, but recognizes the right of those peoples to self-development, i.e., to development options that are culturally determined and not imposed from outside. There is here a crucial rôle for W.W.F. and other conservation organizations: to support indigenous and traditional peoples in finding ways to develop and strengthen their cultures and societies while sustainably managing their resources. This is a difficult and complex challenge in times of globalization and expanding economic and market forces; a task that requires co-operation and alliances, both locally and globally.

W.W.F.’s Ecoregion-Based Conservation (E.R.B.C.).

The central feature of W.W.F.’s Ecoregion-Based Conservation (E.R.B.C.) strategy is the selection of the ecoregion as the basic unit for conservation. In W.W.F.’s definition, an ecoregion is “a relatively large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions”. The ecoregional approach is meant to address the following goals of biodiversity conservation:

  • Representation of all distinct natural communities within a network of protected areas and areas managed for biodiversity conservation;
  • Maintenance of ecological and evolutionary processes that create and sustain biodiversity;
  • Maintenance of viable populations of species;
  • Conservation of blocks of natural habitat large enough to be resilient to large-scale periodic disturbances and long-term change.

E.R.B.C. aims to address the fundamental causes of biodiversity loss by looking across whole regions to identify the actions needed to secure long-term conservation and results that are ecologically, socially and economically sustainable. To achieve these goals, E.R.B.C. relies on a set of principles that include:

  • The full range of the ecoregion’s biodiversity must be conserved and, when necessary, restored.
  • Human development needs must be reconciled with conservation actions.
  • A long-term commitment is required.
  • Emphasis must be given to developing partnerships, and to collaboration and co-operation.
  • Adapting through learning: putting experience into practice.

Based on the principles of representation theory, W.W.F. identified 238 ecoregions out of an estimated total of 874 world ecoregions. These 238 ecoregions, known as the “Global 200 (G200)”, were chosen as highly representative of the Earth’s terrestrial, freshwater and marine major habitat types, on the basis of a set of criteria of “biological distinctiveness”, including species richness, species endemism, uniqueness of higher taxa, presence of unusual ecological or evolutionary phenomena, and global rarity of major habitat types.

W.W.F. and Indigenous Peoples.

In 1996, W.W.F. issued a Statement of Principles on Indigenous Peoples and Conservation, intended to guide partnerships between W.W.F. and indigenous peoples’ organizations in conserving biodiversity within indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, and in promoting sustainable use of natural resources. Also in 1996, I.U.C.N.’s World Conservation Congress passed eight resolutions on indigenous peoples, on issues such as protected areas, traditional biodiversity knowledge, forests, marine and coastal areas, and mining. The fact that these two organizations, the largest of their kind in the world, have taken this step shows the importance they now assign to working with indigenous peoples in their conservation activities.

The concept underpinning W.W.F.’s approach to working with indigenous peoples is the need to establish lasting partnerships with them, based on a solid understanding of the interlinks between biological and cultural diversity, a genuine appreciation for indigenous peoples’ contribution to biodiversity conservation, and the recognition of their legitimate rights and interests. W.W.F. also recognizes the wide diversity of situations — not only culturally, but also in social, political, economic, and geographic terms — in which indigenous peoples live, and thus that the definition of strategies, methods, plans, and actions requires a flexible, adaptive, and sensitive approach. W.W.F.’s position is that partnerships with indigenous peoples should be sought whenever conservation of indigenous peoples’ lands and resources coincides or overlaps with W.W.F.’s own conservation priorities and with its guiding philosophy that the earth’s natural systems, resources, and life forms should be conserved for their intrinsic value and for the benefit of future generations. At the same time, W.W.F. undertakes to seek partnerships also with other groups that share W.W.F.’s commitment to conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of resources and pollution prevention.

E.R.B.C. and Indigenous and Traditional Peoples.

Recognition of the relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity (represented mostly by the world’s indigenous, tribal, and traditional peoples), and of the relevance of this relationship for conservation, prompted the People and Conservation Unit of W.W.F. International to undertake a project aimed at bringing these issues to bear on implementation of the E.R.B.C. approach. The project aimed at cross-mapping indigenous peoples onto the G200 map, under the assumption that this analysis was likely to show a strong correlation between areas of high biodiversity and areas of high cultural diversity. The assumption here was that a significant presence of indigenous peoples in the G200 should make working in collaboration with indigenous peoples an important consideration for W.W.F. in the planning and implementation of the E.R.B.C. activities in these priority ecoregions.

In carrying out the cross-mapping of indigenous peoples onto the G200 map, the main operational criterion was reference to the concept of “ethnolinguistic group”. This concept has been used in the literature to define a human social unit that shares the same language and culture and uses the same criteria to differentiate itself from other social groups. While in reality one cannot expect to find human societies perfectly matching this theoretical construct, in many cases — especially in small-scale indigenous and tribal societies and other traditional local communities — actual social units do approximate the theoretical ethnolinguistic unit. Linguistic affiliation is commonly one major and salient component of ethnic identification (including self-identification) — although not the only one, and not invariably. Often (though by no means always), this coincidence of ethnicity and language is marked by a people calling themselves and their language by the same unique name.

For the purposes of the present project it was considered that adhering to the concept of ethnolinguistic group (as also done in previous studies mentioned above) would provide a reasonable, if not infallible, means of identifying indigenous and tribal societies, as well as ethnolinguistically distinct traditional communities. At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge the degree of indeterminacy implied in concepts of language and ethnicity for the reasons indicated above, and therefore that data elaborated on such bases should be taken as approximations.

In its current version, the G200 map only shows the G200 ecoregions, colour-coded according to major habitat type, while the remaining areas of each continent are not divided by ecoregions and are left blank (except for state boundaries and a few salient geographic features). In carrying out the cross-mapping, it was decided to mark the locations of ethnolinguistic groups world-wide, both in the G200 and elsewhere, in the expectation that the global map showing the full 874 world’s ecoregions will soon become available. Cross-mapping ethnolinguistic groups (E.G.) on the full-fledged map of world’s ecoregions (E.R.) will allow for better gauging the global import of overlap between cultural and biological diversity. On the other hand, the current mapping serves its designed purpose of highlighting the extent of presence of ethnolinguistic groups in the G200.

A total number of 4,635 EG in 225 E.R. (out of the total 233 E.R. of the G200 identified at the time of the commencement of this cross-mapping) was found, which represents 67% of an approximate world total of 6,867 E.G. The breakdown by biogeographical realm shows that Afrotropical, Indo-Malayan, and Australasian realms contain the highest numbers of E.G.

Tropical rainforests are known to be the areas of the world richest in biodiversity. Covering just 7 per cent of the planet’s land surface, tropical moist forests are home to at least 50 per cent, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, of the world’s species. These ecosystems are perhaps also the most culturally diverse regions, harbouring at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples (Commission Européenne 1994), if areas under current forest cover are considered, and about 2,500 if the original extent of tropical moist forest ecoregions is included; this represents 54% of the total number of E.G. in the G200, and 36% of the total number of ethnolinguistic groups of the world. The total figure for all tropical forest ecoregions, including mangroves, mounts to 2,880 E.G., which represents 62% of all E.G. in the G200, and 42% of all E.G. in the world.

Correlations between the G200 ecoregions as reservoirs of high biodiversity, and areas of concentration of human diversity, are clearly very significant, and unequivocally stress the need to involve indigenous and traditional peoples in ecoregional conservation work. Furthermore there is evidence from many parts of the world that healthy, non-degraded ecosystems are often ones inhabited only by indigenous and traditional peoples, such as dense, little disturbed tropical rainforests in places like the Amazon, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

The research report describing the background, the methodology, and the results of this exercise has been prepared. The report contains also summary guidance for E.R.B.C. practitioners on working with indigenous and traditional peoples at ecoregional level.

A map showing the distribution of E.G. in the world’s G200 ecoregions, and a corresponding database, are also available separately. Finally, the People and Conservation Unit of W.W.F. International has also prepared a short compilation of conservation projects involving indigenous and traditional peoples in all continents, with the view to showing the range of approaches it uses in its work.

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