'Custodians of biodiversity': Panel discusses forest preservation in an Indigenous context

As a new decade begins, Canada’s international commitments to forest conservation accelerate the urgency of conversations around sustainability. Indigenous communities are a key aspect of these commitments, from Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD’s) 2030 agenda to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

A webinar held on Thursday, June 25 by UBC’s Canadian International Resources and Development Institute offered insight on the contributions that global Indigenous people provide in safeguarding their natural environments.

“Why Local Indigenous Voices are Essential to Global Forest Commitments,” a live panel hosting UBC community members and international conservation experts, analyzed approaches to Indigenous-focused conservation from different corners of the world.

From the Malinau Forest region in Indonesia to the Serengeti ecosystem in Kenya, the panel discussed topics including fostering the legitimization of Indigenous knowledge, cultural outreach and traditional management of land.

Fostering Indigenous knowledge, communication

Indigenous communities are acknowledged in the CBD’s biodiversity agenda as “important custodians of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge.”

Panelist John Scott, a senior programme manager for the CBD secretariat, noted as an example that “wildfires under traditional management were much better managed” among local communities in Australia. Controlled, “cool” burns practiced among Indigenous Australians reduced the impact of wildfires in a way that modern governments have not been able to utilize.

“Indigenous Australians have managed their land since time immemorial,” Scott said during the panel. “Traditional knowledge and burning practice must be practiced well to form more resilient landscapes.”

However, communication gaps between Indigenous people and neighbouring regional governments can hinder sustainability efforts.

Panelist Helina Jolly, a PhD candidate at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, recounted a period of Indian governance during which protected forest areas restricted human activity — including that of Indigenous people. The policy was only recently overturned by Indigenous advocates.

“Forest-dwelling communities have a right to the land,” Jolly said, adding that human-nature interactions have been irrevocably shifted as a result of governmental policies over time.

Nations with decentralized governance methods can also offer contradictory guidance. Panelist Dr. Musonda Mumba, head of the UN Environment’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Team, met challenges with local Kenyan governments when policies on tree-cutting differed between the Ministry of Waters and Ministry of Forests.

“The conversation [is] fragmented across sectors at the community level,” Mumba said.

Integrating infrastructures at all levels of governance is a step in the right direction: an important aspect of the job is “beginning to share from the top town the policies that are crafted at the national level,” she noted.

Developing interdisciplinary outreach methods

Mumba also saw difficulties in communicating these convoluted policies to Indigenous people. It is especially important to “translate to communities who are unaware of these policies,” she said.

In addition to traditional communication methods, some innovators are looking toward art and interdisciplinary media to establish common ground between Indigenous people and surrounding communities.

Panelist Agni Klintuni Boedhihartono, an associate professor at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, uses the art of mural-making as a form of communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators in environmental discussions.

Her work developing murals on what participants consider to be an “ideal future” have facilitated international discussions at the United Nations Environment Program and other institutions.

“[Visualizations are] useful and simple, and they can reach a lot of people,” Boedhihartono said during the panel. “They can be shared among different stakeholders to reach the same goals on landscapes.”

Indigenous decision-making and agency

These novel methods of communication primarily serve to further a common goal between the panelists: fostering true Indigenous agency over their ancestral lands.

“Even in one landscape, there may be eight different languages, eight different cultures,” said Boedhihartono. Reaching consensus between a diverse range of individuals requires nuance and a spirit of compassion: Mumba emphasized three key elements of respect, relevance and reciprocity in her work.

Host Jaime Webbe, COO and Director of International Programs at CIRDI, summarized the conversation as one “about recognition and respect.”

“If we approach this challenge [of Indigenous agency in forest preservation] with the notion of friendship, I believe we will get there,” she said.