Worldwatch Paper #112: Guardians of the Land: Indigenous Peoples and the Health of the Earth

December 1992
A. Durning
ISBN: 1-878071-13-0
62 pages

Human cultures, like plant and animal species, are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. In addition, the fates of cultural and biological diversity are closely linked, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute.

Of the world's 6,000 languages--representing approximately the same number of cultures--half will likely disappear within a century as their speakers are driven off their territories and assimilated into dominant societies, according to Guardians of the Land: Indigenous Peoples and the Health of the Earth.

"Far from a vestige of the colonial past, the extinction of cultures has accelerated in this century as the modern economy has scoured the globe for resources and markets," said author Alan Thein Durning.

As indigenous cultures vanish, so do vast numbers of animal and plant species unknown to Western science--as well as intimate knowledge of their use. Native peoples' homelands encompass many of the planet's last tracts of wilderness-- ecosystems that shelter millions of endangered species, buffer the global climate, and regulate hydrological cycles.

"Even without considering questions of human rights and the intrinsic value of cultures," said Mr. Durning, "indigenous survival is a matter of crucial importance. We in the world's dominant cultures simply cannot sustain the earth's ecological health without the help of the world's endangered cultures."

The report contains hopeful news as well: Native peoples are poised as never before to defend their resources and cultures. Hundreds of indigenous communities have joined forces to struggle for their rights.

Indigenous peoples encompass 4,000-5,000 cultures, and total between 200 and 600 million people, depending on how "indigenous" is defined.

Descended from the original inhabitants of an area taken over by more powerful outsiders, indigenous peoples remain distinct from their country's dominant group in language, culture, or religion. Their social relations are often tribal, and they commonly maintain strong ties to a subsistence economy. They are, or are descendants of, hunter-gatherers, fishers, nomadic herders, slash and burn farmers, or subsistence cultivators. Most consider themselves custodians and caretakers--not owners--of their land.

Whereas indigenous peoples exercised control over most of the earth's ecosystems as recently as two centuries ago, the territory they now occupy has shrunk to an estimated 12 to 19 percent of the earth's land surface. Whole peoples have disappeared: Brazil lost 87 tribes in the first half of this century alone.

"But around the world, where there are still indigenous peoples, you'll usually find healthy ecosystems. And where there are healthy ecosystems, you'll usually see indigenous communities," said Mr. Durning. "That's true from the coastal swamps of South America to the sands of the Sahara, from the ice floes of the Arctic to the coral reefs of the South Pacific."

In fact, native cultures remain the day-to-day stewards of an area of the earth larger than all the world's national parks and nature reserves put together.

Indigenous homelands also shelter a disproportionate share of the earth's biological diversity. Of the nine countries that together account for 60 percent of human languages, six are also what biologists call "megadiversity" countries-- those with exceptional numbers of unique plant and animal species.

Native peoples maintain a body of knowledge about nature that continues to astonish Western-trained experts. Their understanding of medicinal plants alone has aided billions of people elsewhere. One-fourth of prescription drugs dispensed by United States pharmacies are derived from plants; of those, three- fourths have similar uses in traditional herbal medicine.

Native peoples cultivate unique varieties of the world's major food crops. These varieties form the gene pool that Western crop breeders use to protect modern strains against pests and changing soil and climate conditions.

Women of the forest-dwelling Kpelle of Liberia are representative: They sow more than 100 varieties of rice, making their fields jigsaw puzzles of genetic diversity. According to the International Society for Ethnobiology, "native peoples have been stewards of 99 percent of the world's genetic resources."

Indigenous peoples are not hands-off preservationists. But the way they use forests, grasslands, farms, fisheries, and wildlife usually sustains those resources over the long term. Witness the stewardship techniques practiced by the Tukano people of Brazil's Rio Negro: Tribal law sets aside broad areas of the watercourse as fish sanctuaries, where fishing is strictly forbidden; the prohibition is backed up by the belief that the ancestors of the fish will kill one Tukano child for each fish caught in a reserved stretch of the river.

However, the study finds that when pressed by the cash economy, modern technologies, and encroaching groups--or, occasionally, by their own numbers-- native stewards are likely to find their traditional approaches collapsing.

Indigenous systems of ecological management persist in places where native peoples win legal control of their land and other resources, organize themselves to withstand outside pressures, and find allies in the dominant society.

"Progress has been slowest in securing land," said Mr. Durning. "Soaring consumer demand among the world's rich, and burgeoning populations among the poor, form a juggernaut that is driving into native peoples' territories. Loggers, miners, commercial fishers, small farmers, plantation growers, dam builders, oil drillers- -all come to seek their fortunes."

Indigenous peoples cannot stem this tide without legal backing. Yet native peoples now have rights to use at most 6 percent of the globe's territory, and in many cases those guarantees are partial, qualified, or unenforced.

Guardians of the Land points to several promising ways to aid indigenous peoples in the early nineties. These include:

  • demanding respect for basic human rights;
  • mapping and demarcating indigenous lands;
  • establishing legal aid groups to exploit unenforced pro-indigenous laws;
  • pushing for passage of a strong U.N. Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to establish a high standard for state actions;
  • pressing for implementation of indigenous peoples' policies already on the books at the World Bank and other development agencies.

Indigenous peoples may be the first to suffer, but no culture is safe from degradation of the global environment. The report concludes with the words of a Guarani elder from Argentina, "When the Indians vanish, the rest will follow."