To Decolonize Nature is to Conserve It

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES PROTECT 80% OF THE WORLD’S BIODIVERSITY DESPITE ONLY MAKING UP 5% OF THE GLOBAL POPULATION. LAND CONSERVATION EFFORTS LOOK TO TRADITIONAL INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE TO MEND HUMANS’ DYNAMIC WITH THE EARTH.

West of Yellowknife, toward the southwestern area of the Northwest Territories, we enter the ancestral lands of the Dehcho First Nations—a region full of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, home to over 250 species of flora and fauna. At the heart of the Dehcho region is Horn Plateau, or rather, what the Dehcho people prefer to call Edéhzhíe (eh-day-shae). Amidst these mountainous boreal forests, we might spot the elusive woodland caribou—commonly dubbed as the grey ghosts of the woods. Not just because they are shy and flighty, but also because their species is disappearing at a rapid rate.

The woodland caribou is listed as ‘threatened’ under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.1 This is due to habitat deterioration, which often involves human activities such as industrial development, resource extraction, deforestation, and hunting or poaching.

In Edéhzhíe, however, the woodland caribou are better protected. They survive best in vast, undisturbed forest lands where they can readily access their food sources and avoid predators. Twice the size of Banff National Park, Edéhzhíe is 14,249 square-kilometres of land that the Dehcho people safeguard from excessive human interference.

According to Dehcho elders like Jonas Antoine, Edéhzhíe is considered their people’s breadbasket due to its natural richness.2 The region is composed of a unique blend of ecosystems—wetlands, forests, lakes, and rivers that house a wide range of wildlife. Aside from the woodland caribou, it is also home to other endangered animals, like the wood bison. The area is also a migratory refuge for tundra swans and snow geese, and it protects the headwaters for most of the territory’s watershed.

These assets make Edéhzhíe a national touchstone of biodiversity, which is especially made possible by Indigenous land stewardship. Recent conservation research also shows that other Indigenous-managed lands across the world thrive similarly, making Indigenous-led land conservation key to holding off the wildlife extinction crisis. Preserving the environment could depend on decolonizing nature.

In October 2018, Edéhzhíe became Canada’s first Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).3 The Dehcho First Nations, in collaboration with the Canadian government, will assume leadership in the protection and management of Edéhzhíe’s ecological integrity. The Dehcho people will use their traditional knowledge and connection with the land to uphold healthy ecosystems. This includes patrols, research projects, and youth mentorship programs that were developed by the Edéhzhíe board. This declaration protects the area from economic exploitation.

The IPA formalizes the knowledge and work that the Dehcho people have been applying to Edéhzhíe for years. Similarly, groups across the world have been doing the handiwork in sustaining the natural world. Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite only making up 5% of the global population.4 This finding is especially significant, given plenty of Indigenous people have been displaced from their land in favour of Western economic developments.

Dahti Tsetso, a resource management coordinator for Dehcho First Nations, says making Edéhzhíe a protected area is not just about preventing industrial development. “From the perspective of the Dehcho Dene, they want to have Edéhzhíe to help strengthen their relationship to the land.”5

According to a 2019 study led by UBC, lands managed by Indigenous people have shown the highest degrees of biodiversity.6 The researchers analyzed spatial data of land masses in Canada, Australia, and Brazil—three countries that have practiced Indigenous land stewardship. They found that lands under Indigenous tenure preserved the highest and most diverse organisms. “Indigenous land management practices have often been shown to result in higher rare and native species richness and less deforestation and land degradation than non-Indigenous practices.”

This means conservationists and ecologists may have to look to Indigenous knowledge in order to innovate worldwide land conservation ideals. The nature research journal, Nature Sustainability, cited some of the reasons why ecosystems flourish under Indigenous stewardship. “Indigenous peoples’ unique ties with nature and their extensive Indigenous knowledge are providing pathways to re-evaluate existing conservation frameworks.”7

“Wildlife and resource management is augmented if local people provide their knowledge and experience,” says Steve Kallick, the director of Pew’s land conservation program.5 As a collaborator with the Edéhzhíe initiative, he says “the Western scientific world does not have access to the land and traditional knowledge of Indigenous communities.”

“Protected areas established based upon European wilderness ideals,” denotes Nature Sustainability, “typically prohibit Indigenous peoples from exercising their customary land uses and forcibly removed many Indigenous groups from their homelands.”

This also goes for areas not officially designated under Indigenous land stewardship. “Even for localities where Indigenous people are still in the process of regaining their land rights… a significant share of the planet depend on the institutions and actions of Indigenous people.”8

The biggest obstacles to fulfilling Indigenous land stewardship have to do with the lack of resources and unwilling collaboration. Government collaboration on Indigenous-managed lands “represent one potential route to achieving global targets for conservation and simultaneously advancing Indigenous rights to land, sustainable resource use, and human well-being.”

In 2010, Canada pledged on a slate of global biodiversity goals known as the Aichi targets9 (named after a convention in Aichi Prefecture, Japan). Canada’s Target 1 reads:

 

“By 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”

 

It is now 2020, and achieving this target seems unlikely.

The Indigenous Circle of Experts then published a report detailing their recommendations to achieve this target. They stress that the involvement of Indigenous environment leaders is necessary.10 It calls for a paradigm shift in land management away from colonized practices. However, due to colonization and the dispossession of lands they historically protected, many groups feel reluctant to collaborate with governments.

In this case, the Indigenous Circle of Experts advised implementing an ethical space—a collaborative venue that recognizes all knowledge systems; the purpose of the space is to facilitate the implementation of Indigenous ways in these processes. Through this, the circle advises that this space would enable them to work with governments to achieve their common goal of conservation.

Edéhzhíe is only the first to be recognized by Canada as an Indigenous Protected Area, but based off extensive research and the recommendations of Indigenous experts, it is advisable for more areas in the country to be declared the same. For species like the woodland caribou, the survival of their kind depends on the people’s handling of the land. Often, curbing animal endangerment rates is a matter of stopping environmentally damaging human activities. This can be enhanced by Indigenous people retaining governance of their ancestral lands. Not only is it a key step to reconciliation, but for the next generations of all species, the future would look more sustainable if we decolonize environmental movements and allow Indigenous activists to take charge.

 

“INDIGENOUS LAW STEMS FROM NATURAL LAW, WHICH IN TURN CAME FROM HIGHER UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES CONNECTED TO OBSERVATIONS IN NATURE AND THE PRINCIPLE OF PEACEFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE REST OF CREATION IN TERMS OF DUTY, RESPONSIBILITY, AND GUARDIANSHIP OF LANDS AND WATERS.”

-Indigenous Circle of Experts


1 Nature Canada. 2019. Woodland Caribou.

2 Boreal Conservation. 2018. Edéhzhíe: Canada’s New Indigenous Protected Area. October 16.

3 Government of Canada. 2018. Edéhzhíe Protected Are.

4 The World Bank. 2017. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES.

5 Boreal Conservation. 2019. Edéhzhíe | Indigenous Protected Area Profiles. May 22.

6 Shuster, R et al. 2019. “Vertebrate biodiversity on Indigenous Managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas.” Environmental Science and Policy 1-6.

7 Garnett, Stephen, John Fa, Neil Burgess, and Alvaro Fernandez-Llamasarez. 2018. “A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands in conservation.” NatSustain 369-374.

8 Garnett, Stephen, John Fa, Neil Burgess, and Alvaro Fernandez-Llamasarez. 2018. “A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands in conservation.” NatSustain 369-374.9 Government of Canada. 2018. Edéhzhíe Protected Are.

9 Convention on Biological Diversity. 2018. Aichi Biodiversity Targets. May 11.
10 Indigenous Circle of Experts. 2018. We Rise Together: Achieving Pathway to Canada Target 1. Report and Recommendations, Yellowknife: Gathering on Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

Ali Pitargue is a self-described adventurer and storyteller. As a journalist with a special interest in social justice, she is eager to unearth fresh perspectives to share with the world. If she's not writing, she's either watching Star Trek, reading high fantasy novels, or doing self-study on Baroque and Renaissance art.

apitargue@gmail.com