Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. For Indigenous Peoples' Day, Conservation News is highlighting three stories covering Indigenous knowledge and expertise — and its importance for conservation.
1) A historic rainforest and other lands have been returned to Indigenous Australians
Indigenous peoples will help manage vast tracts of Australian wilderness, including the world’s most ancient rainforest.
The story: In northeast Australia, the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest was returned last month to its Indigenous custodians, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, following a four-year negotiation with the government. The 130-million-year-old rainforest is a major travel destination with “extremely important” biodiversity, including nearly 370 bird species, according to UNESCO. It is one of four parks on 160,000 hectares (395,000 acres) of land handed back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji, who have lived in the area for more than 50,000 years.
For now, the parks will be jointly managed with the Queensland government, reported Jaclyn Diaz for NPR. Eventually, they will be solely managed by the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. The goal: to create opportunities in “a wide range of skilled trades, land and sea management, hospitality, tourism, and research so that we are in control of our own destinies,” Chrissy Grant, a representative of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji negotiating committee, said in a statement.
The big picture: From the mid-1700s, Indigenous land was taken by British colonists under the premise that it belonged to no one. In a statement, Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon recognized Australia’s “uncomfortable and ugly” history and called the land handover “a key step on the path towards reconciliation.”
Now, the Australian government is attempting to right the wrongs of its past. In northern Queensland, the government has returned more than 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) of land to Indigenous owners, creating 32 Aboriginal-owned and jointly managed national parks.
In the Pacific Ocean, an Indigenous legend unlocks clues to an island’s geologic history.
The story: For generations, Indigenous Micronesians have passed down stories to explain how three massive boulders came to rest on the shores of Kiribati’s Makin Island. One version tells the tale of an angry king who sent three giant waves, each carrying a boulder, to punish the islanders. Now scientists believe the tale could be “a geomyth — a legend that encodes true information about an area’s geological past,” wrote Chris Baraniuk for Hakai Magazine.
Based on the scale of the boulders — one of which is as big as a school bus — and the energy required to move them, scientists think a tsunami may have snapped them off a coral reef. This hypothesis aligns with different versions of the Indigenous legend, in which huge waves come out of nowhere, as they would during a tsunami. Using an analysis of the uranium in the boulders’ coral, scientists estimate the tsunami likely occurred in 1576.
The big picture: Over centuries, Indigenous peoples have cultivated traditional knowledge about their lands that is often rooted in long-standing cultural or spiritual values, and an intimate understanding of nature’s cycles.
“Highlighting the critical history and knowledge of those who live closest to the lands and waters on which the world depends” could help guide environmental efforts, according to a recent report co-authored by 30 Indigenous communities, human rights experts and environmental organizations — including Conservation International.
A variety of challenges could threaten Indigenous communities — and the nature they conserve.
The story: In global environmental negotiations, there is a growing acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples' knowledge, rights and the crucial roles they play in helping to protect biodiversity. But these communities have often been sidelined from environmental efforts — and, in some cases, have even been removed from their territories in the name of conservation.
In an interview with Conservation News, Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous group in the Philippines, shed light on the challenges Indigenous peoples face with regard to nature conservation.
“I’d say the biggest [challenge] might be the loss of their lands, either because of natural causes, such as sea-level rise, or because of encroachment due to aggressive development,” said Degawan, director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program.
“Globally, Indigenous peoples call for the recognition and respect of their land rights over their territories because their lands define them — without the land, they cease to be Indigenous,” she added. “Their knowledge systems, cultures and governance systems are all rooted on their lands.”
The big picture: Indigenous communities are custodians of more than a quarter of Earth’s land and seas and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Their lands are proven to have less deforestation and more well-managed natural resources. Yet they face increased pressure from development, mining and farming.
Officially recognizing Indigenous territories by establishing formal, legally binding land rights and ensuring access to resources such as funding and technical support for Indigenous communities is crucial to maintaining these lands — and meeting goals to conserve the planet’s biodiversity.
Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.
Cover image: A man in Kiribati, where traditional knowledge has helped scientists determine how three massive boulders came to rest on the shores of this island nation. (© Ciril Jazbec)