Biodiversity Nepal
For the Future Generation

Indigenous People: Protectors of the World’s Biodiversity


Biodiversity gives our earth life. It ensures our existence. Every species of plants & animals plays an important role in nature. But today, about one million species are on the brink of extinction primarily due to human negligence and impacts.

Who are indigenous people? 

Toledo defines indigenous people as the descendants of the original inhabitants of a territory; ecosystem people; who practice small-scale labor-intensive rural production; who do not have centralized political institutions; who share a common language, norms & beliefs. They are a specific group of people who pose a particular worldview, such as a non-materialist attitude to land & natural resources; & are oppressed by dominant culture & society. 

The lands where they have been living for decades, often host the world’s significant natural resources. So these people have a wide range of knowledge on how nature functions. They nurture, manage & conserve natural resources. Traditional knowledge practised by them is the form of scientific, agricultural, technical & ecological knowledge which not only helps them to sustain their life but also is an essential source of biological diversity.

Masai women in Kenya. Photo by Joan de la Malla

There are over 475 million indigenous people making up 6.2% of the world population who live in every region of the world protecting about 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The contribution of their traditional knowledge & practices to the sustainable use of resources & maintenance of ecosystems has been supported by science.

A report from Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that the land managed by indigenous people is declining at lower rates than anywhere else. Also, indigenous people are involved as the forefront in the conservation programs with the use of their knowledge.

We can take an example of shifting cultivation which they practice. The ‘slash & burn’ practice often offends people but scientific findings have proved that clearing the forest for growing crops for a limited time & moving to new sites to allow recovery of the forest is sustainably & ecologically sound.

Potato celebration in the Potato Park, Peru. Photo by Andes

In the Amazon, with the use of traditional techniques, farmers & indigenous people of Xingu have planted millions of native trees which have improved the ecosystem of  that region  & also could tackle climate change as diverse native forest absorbs more carbon. In the Potato Park of Peru, 650 native varieties were produced with the help of the indigenous community.  

National Overview 

In Nepal, indigenous people make up to 36% of the total population. Traditional knowledge like use of medicinal plants, shifting cultivations, traditional water mills, use of biological pesticides, local irrigation system, soil fertility management, improvement of native breeds are still practised by indigenous communities in our country. 

One fine example is conservation of endangered red pandas by indigenous people of Illam through traditional practices. They do not hunt this animal due to religious views & also have been protecting its habitat from wildfires & drought. We also might have heard about religious views of Himalayan community towards endangered snow leopards as god which have contributed to the species conservation. 

Local people participation in snow leopard monitoring in Nepal. Photo by WWF

Indigenous People under Threat Worldwide

However, indigenous people are facing threats & challenges in protecting their culture, traditional knowledge & native lands. Nature managed by indigenous people is under threat  by increasing resource extraction, commodity production, mining, transport & energy infrastructure. Plus, climate change is threatening their livelihood. Social injustices against them have created challenges to conserve the nature they depend upon. 

Conservation approaches even seem to be against indigenous people. From all around the world, they have been displaced from their lands for ecotourism & natural resource protection. “At least 50% of the world’s protected areas have been established on lands originally occupied by indigenous people”, says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous leader from the Philippines. 

Injustice: An Incident from Nepal

Park-people conflict is a common issue in Nepal. Recent incident with the Chepang community reflect how conservation policies can devastate indigenous communities. The Chepangs, one of the marginalized indigenous communities have been living adjacent to Chitwan National Park (CNP) for a long time. On July 18, huts of Chepang people living near Kusum Khola were burnt down by CNP authorities.

A scene of Kusum khola after incident. Photo by Rabin Sharma

Chepangs do not own lands & are dependent only upon natural resources for their survival. But Government’s conservation policies have restricted their access to natural resources & have mercilessly vandalized their rights multiple times. Incidents of social injustices against indigenous people in Nepal are not new & are raising questions on national conservation approaches.

Assurance of indigenous people rights to land, territories & resources is essential for their wellbeing just as for addressing global challenges, such as climate change & environmental degradation. Governments should recognize the essentiality of participation of indigenous people in decision-making, creating conservation models & equity sharing of protected lands for sustainable biodiversity conservation.

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