“There are promising examples of co-management or Indigenous-led conservation schemes”

Nature conservation initiatives such as protected areas or REDD+ have been criticized for severely limiting indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ access to their commons and, at worst, dispossessing them from their ancestral territories and resources. However, successful examples of innovative governance schemes also exist, as CDE scientist Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel will show at the IASC Conference in Nairobi.

“Indigenous knowledge can’t be kept in a museum”: Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel. Photo: Video still

Interview: Gaby Allheilig *

The UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December 2022 placed the creation of more nature reserves high on the global agenda. Many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are located in areas which are inhabited by indigenous or other local communities. How are they affected by this pressure on their land?

This very much depends on the particular type of nature reserve or protected area to be established, and to what extent it will restrict a community’s access to local resources. Although many of these communities rely on multilocal livelihoods – for example, through family members who have moved to a city or migrate temporarily for work – most of them still depend directly on their land resources. If the establishment of a protected area severely restricts their access to the land they have traditionally used, it can have a dramatic impact on their livelihoods.


“There has been a move away from the ‘fortress conservation’ approach”


Beginning with the world’s first national park, Yellowstone in the US, protected areas around the world have time and again become stories of dispossession. Many indigenous communities have been displaced from their ancestral lands. What gives you hope that things will be different in the future?

This is indeed a very serious issue of environmental and social justice. Fortunately, we’ve seen some progress in the area of nature conservation over the last decades. There has been a move away from the “fortress conservation” approach, and it is increasingly recognized that local stakeholders – including local communities and indigenous peoples – must have a say in protected area management. Of course, much remains to be done. But there are also interesting and promising examples of co-management or indigenous-led conservation schemes.


“It’s important to investigate promising examples and the potential they offer”


Such as?

I’m thinking, for example, of the Peruvian Amazon, with schemes such as the Communal Reserves, which are jointly managed by indigenous communities and the state, or the “Amazon Indigenous REDD+”. This is an attempt to integrate indigenous peoples from the Amazon in an equitable way in initiatives under the REDD+ programme – an international programme to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. These examples are not yet well known. This makes it all the more important to investigate what potential they have, what barriers exist, and how they could be better supported and taken up elsewhere.

It seems that you would be well positioned for that.

We’ve actually started a research project to study innovative indigenous-led conservation governance schemes in the Peruvian Amazon. Working with the Wyss Academy for Nature, we aim to derive lessons learned for applying such schemes in forest frontier areas elsewhere in the world, for example in Madagascar or Laos.

In addition, in our second MRD Talk, we brought together researchers, indigenous representatives, policymakers, and other stakeholders for a public dialogue online. We jointly explored how indigenous mountain communities and their knowledge can be better recognized and included in conservation initiatives.


“We can learn a lot from indigenous communities, also in science”


Doesn’t the need for such events and discussions show that conservation initiatives are often still dominated by Western perspectives?

Indeed, nature conservation is guided largely by the way we understand biodiversity in Western-based science and in the global North. However, instead of viewing nature as something separate from humans, we need to reconcile biodiversity conservation with livelihood goals. In other words, we need a systemic – or even holistic – approach.

What exactly do you mean by that?

Indigenous communities usually understand nature not as something separate from human society, but as something of which humans are part. In the Andean worldview, for example, human society is perceived to be in a relationship with the natural and spiritual worlds. And these relationships come with values and responsibilities. Adopting a systemic or holistic approach means taking account of all these interconnections, so it will actually go quite deep into changing the way we relate to nature. And I think that’s where we can learn a lot from indigenous and other local communities, also in science.


“Biocultural diversity is an interesting concept”


How can we best do that – learn from indigenous or local communities?

I think there’s been encouraging progress on how to include different types of knowledge in the research process, especially in the field of transdisciplinarity, where the focus is on including the knowledge of non-academic actors. These experiences could offer approaches to acknowledging different ways of relating to nature and understanding nature conservation, too.

And then there is ethnobiology, a discipline that is not very well known but also has a lot to contribute to this debate. Simply put, it’s the study of the relationships between human societies and the elements of their natural environments. An interesting concept that has emerged from this field is the concept of biocultural diversity, which recognizes the intrinsic links that exist between biological and cultural diversity.


“The strength of indigenous knowledge lies in its capacity to adapt”


In 2022 you became president of the International Society of Ethnobiology...

Yes, and we are very concerned about the loss of traditional, local, and indigenous knowledge and the impact it has on biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. There is evidence that significant links exist between this knowledge, along with the values and worldviews attached to it, and biological diversity. If we want to conserve biodiversity, we need to understand these connections and tackle all these dimensions together.

At the same time, it’s important that we don’t see indigenous knowledge as something static that can be kept in a museum. The strength of indigenous knowledge lies in its capacity to adapt, include new elements, and respond to changes.


* This interview first appeared in a CDE Spotlight on the occasion of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in December 2022.

IASC Conference 2023

The XIX Biennial IASC conference “The Commons We Want: Between Historical Legacies and Future Collective Actions” puts the commons at centre stage. The conference combines a future-oriented research and practice perspective with a look back, as many legal and structural legacies predetermine possible development pathways. This look back helps to position the commons debate in the context of the 2030 Agenda and contributes to making the transformation towards the SDGs a more commons-oriented, participatory endeavour.