The soil on which we live, from which we feed ourselves and where we base our entire existence is one of humanity’s most precious assets that we cannot afford to lose.
To satisfy our needs, we ought to recognize the interconnectidness of land with other natural resources. We should also recognize the rights and the obligations of the communities living in this land, such as the indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples have two unique characteristics, and that make them key agents in soil conservation.
First, their economic dependence on natural resources and ecosystems. Second, their exceptional tradition and their ancestral knowledge, which are real assets for the sustainable management of our Natural Resources.
Therefore, indigenous peoples present unique characteristics in terms of sociopolitical, economic, and environmental conditions.
Indigenous peoples are approximately half a billion people in the world (most likely underestimated). From the economic point of view, they are accounted among the poorest in the world.
However the reality is that they are among the richest, when you account their natural capital. Representing only 5 per cent of the world's population, they protect 22 per cent of the earth's surface area and 80 per cent of the planet's biodiversity.
Clearly, something is wrong in our business model. You manage the land, you protect earth for the benefit of all, but you are marginal. You don’t get access to health, education and social protection. Decisions are made on your behalf, including when it comes to exploit the natural resources you have managed for millennia. Is that good governance?
In the American continent indigenous peoples are established ranging from Patagonia to northern Canada, passing through different geographical areas such as Amazonia, the Andes, the Caribbean islands, and Mesoamerica.
I am sure you know all of that. The few times IPs are being talked about, people think first and foremost about the Amazon Forests. Thankfully, there has been a substantive amount of work on IPs in forests.
There is less, much less knowledge about the Bejas in Namibia, the Sans in the Kalahari Desert, the Berbers of North Africa, the Fulanis of West and Central Africa, or even the Aborigines of Australia. How much do we know about the economy of the Bedouins of the Arabic Deserts? Do we know much about the Indigenous knowledge of the Kurds, the Balushs and the Minorities of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia in China? Or the Masais of Eastern Africa?
IPs in arid lands are even more vulnerable than their peers in forest areas. Shortage of water and food, especially when there is not enough rains, or sometimes when there is too much rains, as floods can also be as damaging.
Droughts are more recurrent in Arid Lands. With climate change, we see more frequent, and more severe droughts. IP in arid lands are generally pastoralists. Their life and their economy are closely associated with those of their domestic animals: camels, cows, and some times small ruminants. Unfortunately, the rate of loss of animals due to drought is very high. Food production becomes erratic. IPs economy in Arid Lands is therefore extremely vulnerable.
Similarly, dry areas are naturally subject to frequent wildfires. What we saw last year in Australia was exceptional in intensity and size, but not in occurrence. Scientists predict more frequent and more severe cases in the future. Uncontrolled fires destroy pastures and again, affect IPs local economies and wealth.
The legacy of inequality and exclusion has therefore made IPs more vulnerable to natural hazards.
Then came COVID-19 and its consequences. One of the unexpected consequences of the lockdowns is the impact of border closures on IPs in arid lands. Animal herders practice transhumance; pastoral lands know no political border. Lockdowns are not easy to apply to human beings. They are even less practical for animals. Yet, political borders were closed when it was most critical for animals to migrate to greener pastures. This was a serious challenge which caused unexpected consequences on already vulnerable and marginalized communities. Transhumance corridors were not sufficiently anticipated to allow this vital migration to happen.
Furthermore, the situation of poverty is repeated, among indigenous communities in most regions of the world, were they are being deprived of the biological resources that have been providing them with essential services of the environment to live, to feed, to be inspired and to heal.
These socio-economic and environmental impairment factors have transformed land protection into a relevant issue, as it is indigenous peoples who live on these lands that are the first ones to call for action.
As they are at the front line in protecting this increasingly vital resource, they have an active role in the conservation and recovery of degraded land, thus avoiding the processes that lead to desertification.
Therefore, the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples and how they have adapted over the centuries, applying agroecological and regenerative practices, are essential to keep the land healthy and ensure the food productivity.
Just as nature offers a varied ecology, indigenous peoples developed various cultures and systems adapted to those means while caring for and preserving them.
To survive in usually adverse conditions, indigenous peoples adapted their way of life, occupations and ancestral knowledge to manage and protect their environment, and their main resource: the land.
As an example, several cases can be cited worldwide. The communities of the Andes, developed agricultural terraces. In North America, the Hohokam communities turned arid soils into green production using traditional irrigation techniques.
In Iran, the Qashqai communities employ sophisticated early warning and exploration systems to predict droughts. In South Africa, the Bantu tribes prohibit logging and agricultural practices on sloping lands to reduce the risk of soil erosion.
Thanks their traditional knowledge, IPs have an exceptional role to play in land management, ranging from prevention to restoration.
But this is not enough!
IPs should be more valued and considered as powerful agents of change. They must be empowered and granted access to creative options and opportunities, including financing. They can, they must implement and evaluate sustainable policies and measures aimed at combating land degradation. On the other hand, while cherishing and keeping their knowledge and traditions, IPs should move forward and cease some of the new opportunities and the new realities the world presents. They can not leave in the past. They risk being left behind.
Finally, Governments from all over the world should have the humility to learn from, and value, the traditional knowledge of their IPs. For science to be truly universal, it ought to value Indigenous Knowledge as a complement to scientific peer reviews. The best informed policy decisions are those that combine modern science with traditional knowledge. Only then will we be able to say that no one is left behind.
By empowering our indigenous peoples and unleashing their energy and their knowledge, we will expand our scope of solutions to environmental problems, and better address the threats posed by climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification.