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Indigenous-led technology solutions can boost biodiversity and ensure human rights (commentary)

  • The United Nations Development Program recently carried out an assessment of claims that the human rights of Baka hunter-gatherers are being violated by conservation guards around Messok-Dja park in the Republic of Congo.
  • But there is an alternative: to put the Baka and other Indigenous peoples and local communities at the heart of decision-making.
  • Such decisions are increasingly being informed by technology projects designed with, or alongside, Indigenous peoples and local communities.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Over recent years there have been high profile legal challenges, investigative articles in the media, and important reports on the relationship between conservationists and Indigenous peoples.

In the latest of these, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) carried out an assessment of claims that the human rights of Baka hunter-gatherers are being violated by conservation guards around the new WWF-led Messok-Dja park in the Republic of Congo. The UNDP’s findings, in agreement with those documented by non-governmental organizations, seemingly puts to rest any doubts over whether serious maltreatment is taking place, from forced evictions to physical abuse and confiscation of wild meat.

Those concerned about the magnificent but threatened biodiversity of the central African rainforests might retort that making sacrifices is necessary. And what’s the alternative? That we allow gorillas and forest elephants to go extinct?

But there is an alternative: to put the Baka and other Indigenous peoples and local communities at the heart of decision-making. For millennia these groups have been the primary managers of their environments, maintaining them as areas of rich socio-biodiversity until their custodianship was taken over by national governments. It is a common Euro-American view that areas of rich biodiversity should be left devoid of all humans. In practice, there are few examples (Antarctica and parts of the Arctic) of major terrestrial world ecosystems that have not been shaped in part by human actions.

As has been well described by academics and Indigenous and local communities themselves, a militarized approach to conservation is self-defeating in that it is generally more, not less, likely to drive local people into illegal activities, and it actively rejects and suppresses Indigenous knowledge and the systems in which they are embedded. This knowledge and the associated practices are recognized by many scholars and practitioners alike as essential to protect and enhance the planet’s dwindling biodiversity, a fact becoming increasingly pertinent as studies show that Indigenous and local communities can be equally or more successful at safeguarding biodiversity than governments or protected areas.

Much of this safeguarding relies upon the web of beliefs, values, and relationships that make up local world views, and within which knowledge is upheld. The Baka, for example, support populations of forest elephants by replanting the heads of wild yams, a practice not directly for elephants but rather to ensure enough food for both themselves and the powerful forest spirit Ejengi to which elephants are closely linked.

A Baka woman digs up sāpà wild yams in southern Cameroon, a food-source which has allowed hunter-gatherers to thrive in Central African forests for millennia. Image courtesy of Simon Hoyte.

Embracing Indigenous peoples and local communities for their biodiversity protection alone is missing the point. Indigenous peoples, like all peoples, are safeguarded by universal human rights, and afforded additional protection of their unique heritages, languages, and traditional lands through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Exclusion, eviction, and abuse which result from conservation interventions must be denounced not just because of the value of Indigenous peoples for conservation, but because of their right to be alive, healthy, and feel secure like everyone else.

As outlined in a recent paper (co-authored by two of us), violation of the rights of local and especially Indigenous peoples are not always as direct as those reported by UNDP in Congo; they often take the form of imposing outside values, agendas, and ideas of what is right and wrong. The danger of this is all too obvious when we consider that over half of nearly 10,000 conservationists surveyed in one study are either neutral or agree that evicting communities to create people-free parks is acceptable – a seemingly clear case of conservationists valuing animals over people.

The cornerstone of UNDRIP is the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, to give or deny consent to projects that will affect their lives and livelihoods. This is termed as free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Unfortunately, in many circumstances FPIC is reduced to one or two questions and a simple box ticked on forms, allowing researchers, organizations, or industries to claim they have community consent and continue with pre-planned projects.

States and officials dependent on income from extractive industries often see FPIC as an impediment. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the only four countries to vote against UNDRIP in 2007 (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S.) are settler states who have strong capitalist ideologies and experience tension with their Indigenous peoples over resources.

Protecting biodiversity is often considered important by outsiders, but for Indigenous peoples and local communities, it can be a matter of life or death, both literally and culturally. For example, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation of British Columbia argue that the ongoing invasion of their territory in the pursuit of natural gas will “pollute our waters and destroy any future we have to be Wet’suwet’en.”

Respecting the rights of Indigenous and local communities in the context of conservation requires a shift in emphasis from outsiders’ concerns to local concerns and knowledge. Through long-term interactions with the landscape, these communities understand so-called ‘wildernesses’ as interconnected systems in which humans are a fundamental part. Their concerns are often based on holistic ecological thinking, something which many professional conservationists are increasingly adopting.

The Ashaninka of the Brazilian Amazon, for example, carefully organize and carry out reforestation of Indigenous trees to feed both themselves and forest animals, and breed Indigenous turtle species to repopulate local rivers in order to achieve harmonious relations with their environment.

See related: Indigenous-managed lands found to harbor more biodiversity than protected areas

Indigenous-led technologies

The question is, what is the best way of partnering with communities who are the frontline of ecocide to act on their concerns? This is where equitable partnerships and appropriate technology can play a role. In an active affront to top-down, often colonial methods, digital technology projects are now being instigated and designed, either by or alongside, Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves, led by, rather than contradicting, local beliefs, values, knowledges, and, indeed, technologies. Digital mapping is becoming an influential part of this since it acts as a bridge between disempowered communities and those in power.

In Ecuador, the Siekopai people approached the NGO Digital Democracy to help them map their ancestral land, an area encroached on by agribusiness and oil development leading to ecological disconnection and cultural erosion. Using offline satellite imagery and the Mapeo phone app, Siekopai youths and elders mapped important lakes and ancient sites rich with Indigenous stories and meaning. Interacting with these finished maps, produced in their own language, revitalizes the connection between the Siekopai and their land, and has stirred an increasingly strong resistance to its pollution.

Indigenous and local communities in Cameroon, Congo, Namibia, Kenya, Ghana, and Brazil are collaborating with the Extreme Citizen Science group (of which we are part), having communicated their concerns over issues as broad as wildlife crime, destruction of important foraging and hunting sites, land invasions, safeguarding of ethnobotanical knowledge, exclusion from fishing zones, monitoring climate changes, and abuse by forest guards. The open source software Sapelli is used to create icon-based apps designed from scratch by or alongside communities themselves, regardless of their level of digital or print literacy. Communities have chosen to use Sapelli to collect GPS-tagged data points, strengthened with photo and audio data, which can be presented to decision-makers and dominant authorities as interactive maps.

Maasai warriors in Narok County, Kenya, test the Sapelli software. Image courtesy of Megan Laws.

Participative projects extend far beyond mapping. In East Timor, local women are working alongside an NGO in the creation of a community marine protected area governed by their traditional laws (tara bandu). Through using the participative software Open Data Kit on smartphones, the women are actively managing their area by taking data on fish abundance and catch quantities, led by local values enshrined in tara bandu and providing for future generations.

See related: Maubere tribes revive customary law to protect the ocean

And in the Philippines the Ibaloi, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Kankana-ey peoples have adopted participative video making to create films about their experience of climate change, including the impact it’s already having on their lives and sharing advice on how to adapt. These films have now been screened by communities across the Asia-Pacific region, as well as at the UN’s COP16 climate conference in Mexico, influencing climate change policy.

It is clear that putting the rights of Indigenous and local communities first is not just a moral imperative, but a conservation one too. Cultural and biological diversity are mutually enhancing and enriching: one cannot be protected in isolation of the other. Efforts, therefore, for both environmental recovery and social rights will continue to fall short until this mutual relationship forms the heart of policy.

Whilst issues of funding cycles and true data sovereignty remain obstacles, emerging approaches of locally-led technology will be vital to protect and revive global biocultural diversity, and a genuinely sustainable planet may begin to be realizable.

The authors are members of the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group at University College-London. Learn more at their blog.

View Mongabay’s ongoing series Indigenous Peoples and Conservation here.

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