Learning from indigenous communities–the guardians of biodiversity

Indigenous people are fighting to protect the planet — we need their voices to be heard, writes Dr Markus Fraundorfer, Lecturer in Global Governance at the University of Leeds School of Politics and International Studies.

Indigenous people holding their hands together above their heads in ceremony

Indigenous peoples have an intrinsic relationship with nature; a relationship that many representatives of the modern world lost a long time ago.

The COP Climate Change Conference is dominated by policymakers that regard nature as a thing to be managed and controlled, a commodity to be used and exploited. This vision of nature as a thing is the root of the global climate crisis.

Indigenous peoples offer an alternative vision that regards forests, rivers and non-human animals as kin, part of an extended family. In this vision, humans are intrinsically interconnected with nature. We are just one element in a complex ecosystem, ultimately depending on the survival of other species such as whales, birds and bees.

Without bees and their pollination efforts, plants will die out, and staple foods will disappear (and are already disappearing), causing dramatic changes in how we grow our food. Birds plant seeds, fertilise the soil and make forests grow and flourish. As massive vessels for carbon storage, whales have a significant impact on the cooling of the oceans and the diversity of ocean ecosystems.

An ocean without whales is a graveyard. A forest without the chirping of birds is a dead forest. A field without the humming of bees is a wasteland. Every single animal and plant species on this planet going extinct will make a climate breakdown more likely.

Since the start of international climate negotiations at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, world leaders and policymakers have been trying to negotiate effective solutions to global climate change. Many of them have failed.

The deforestation of the world’s last rainforests is accelerating, natural habitats are fast disappearing, and we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet — the first one caused by human activities.

Indigenous communities are affected most by these environmental disasters. After all, most of the planet’s biodiversity lies in indigenous peoples’ territories. Sadly, in many countries indigenous communities are treated as second-class citizens, wasting away in poverty, at the receiving end of structural injustice, traumatised and grief-stricken after hundreds of years of persecution and ethnocide at the hands of modern societies.

The survival of indigenous peoples’ cultures and livelihoods is closely connected to healthy ecosystems. Indigenous peoples are the true guardians of our planet’s biodiversity.

Over the past thirty years, indigenous peoples have gradually become a international force in global environmental governance, forming united voice against oppression at home, fighting for land reform and protecting themselves against dispossession and the constant violation of their human rights.

Indigenous communities have built a range of transnational platforms to meet and exchange ideas. They are represented by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous people’s mobilisation efforts reached an unprecedented milestone in 2007 with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And through the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, indigenous leaders have been present at COP conferences, expressing their dissatisfaction with the outcomes of these meetings — which world leaders have continuously ignored.

If we continue to ignore indigenous peoples’ wisdom about protecting our ecosystems, we do so at our peril.

Dr Markus Fraundorfer is a member of the Global Food and Environment Institute.



The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store