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What Indigenous knowledge can teach the world about saving biodiversity

  • Nearly 80% of the world’s biodiversity is stewarded by Indigenous peoples and local communities, each practicing their own traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK.
  • With the world facing twin biodiversity and climate crises, experts emphasize the need to recognize the land rights and sovereignty of Indigenous people from a human rights perspective to protect the planet’s wildlife and ecosystems.
  • On this episode of the podcast, National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan discusses his latest project that shares stories of Indigenous stewardship, “The Guardians of Life: Indigenous Stewards of Living Earth.”

Photographer Kiliii Yuyan joins the podcast to talk about the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in protecting the world’s biodiversity. Teaming up with previous guest Gleb Raygorodetsky and with support from the National Geographic Society and the Amazon Climate Pledge, their media project and campaign seeks to highlight five different Indigenous communities’ stewardship of life across the world.

Yuyan discusses his insights into the TEK of Indigenous communities he’s visited while working on this project, and what stories he still plans on covering for the campaign. He also shares with us his own reflections as a person with Indigenous ancestry doing this work, and what he wishes more journalists would do when telling the stories of Indigenous peoples and the knowledge they offer.

Listen here:

Indigenous peoples manage and protect 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. However, they do not have rights to nearly half of the land they manage. Research shows that where Indigenous land rights are recognized in tropical areas, deforestation is reduced. With several mounting environmental crises, NGO leaders and experts are calling for the protection of Indigenous lands, and the recognition of their rights.

Larry Lucas Kaleak listens to the sounds of passing whales and bearded seals through a skinboat paddle in the water. The sounds of bearded seals and bowhead whales are unique and distinctive, and can be easily heard in the vibrations of the wooden paddle. Image (c) Kiliii Yuyan.

Some Indigenous leaders and researchers also espouse the benefits of combining TEK with Western science in what is called “two-eyed seeing” and the potential this holds for conservation.

With a dip net, Karuk fisherman Ryan Reed searches for Chinook salmon under the watchful eye of his father, Ron, on California’s Klamath River at Ishi Pishi Falls in October 2020. The Reeds caught no fish—in stark contrast to earlier times. Before California became a state, the river saw about 500,000 salmon each fall, but last year just 53,954 mature Chinook swam up, a 90% decline. The nation now restricts salmon fishing to Ishi Pishi Falls, but with the slated removal of four dams, the Karuk hope the salmon will return. Image (c) Kiliii Yuyan.

While Indigenous leaders celebrated the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) last December — one target of which seeks to protect 30% of the planet by 2030 — advocates argue that this figure has already been achieved when accounting for the biodiversity already contained in protected areas and Indigenous territories, and suggest a more ambitious target would be to aim for 50%.

Portrait of the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Guardians in front of the Longhouse Cedar along the Meares Island tribal park Big Tree Trail, near Tofino, Canada. The Longhouse Cedar is a special tree that has been culturally modified- it has had a plank of wood removed from it to build a longhouse, without killing the tree, by the ancestors of the Tla-o-qui-aht, hundreds of years ago. Image (c) Kiliii Yuyan.

Related reading:

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Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo, Instagram, TikTok and Mastodon.

Related listening: Two Indigenous leaders on the U.S. West Coast discuss their communities’ conservation initiatives, listen here:

See related reading:

First ever U.S. Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area declared in California

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