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Indigenous leadership is the key to unlocking value in nature-based solutions

A new report lays out a set of principles to teach investors how to engage Indigenous peoples in conservation and restoration of landscapes. Image: Unsplash

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum
Guy Williams
Asia Pacific and Global Nature Lead, Deloitte
Professor Deen Sanders OAM
Integrity Lead and Indigenous Leader, Deloitte
Alice Bell
Science policy blogger, Guardian
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Embedding traditional ecological knowledge and empowering Indigenous peoples as co-investment leaders is key for long-term health of nature.
  • When Indigenous rights, cultural responsibilities and knowledge systems are not sufficiently recognised, investors introduce unnecessary risks.
  • A new report lays out a set of principles to teach investors how to engage Indigenous peoples in conservation and restoration of landscapes.

Indigenous peoples’ and local community lands cover a third of the earth’s territories. The fact that 91% of them are in good or fair ecological condition today is a testament to the effectiveness of long-term Indigenous stewardship in managing complex natural environments. Embedding traditional ecological knowledge and empowering Indigenous peoples as co-investment leaders in nature-based solutions brings value to both corporate action on nature and the long-term health of nature.

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Many current philanthropic and investor strategies focused on conserving and restoring landscapes to improve nature outcomes and address the climate crisis are failing to meet the true need and scale of action on nature. There is an insufficient pool of funds flowing, and the projects are too limited in their scope to deliver long-term, whole-of-ecosystem outcomes. Investment returns and environmental sustainability will improve when we shift the paradigm of who we listen to, and when and where we engage.

The history of a globalising community and the social, political, economic systems that underpin it have brought us all to the precipice of systemic collapse. The circumstances are more urgent, the context more complex, but just as it has always been, the answer lies in a better understanding of nature, and a better relationship with our landscapes. And just as it has always been, it is the responsibility and knowledge of Indigenous people, that is best placed to help everyone improve their relationship with nature, with our climate change future, with ‘Nayiri Barray’ – our shared mother.

Professor Deen Sanders (Worimi man)

While not all nature-based solutions take place on lands where Indigenous communities live, all land was once Indigenous land and therefore all nature projects would benefit from the Indigenous wisdom that gave rise to the sustained health of complex local ecosystems. When Indigenous peoples’ rights, cultural responsibilities and knowledge systems are not sufficiently recognised, investors introduce unnecessary risks:

  • Reputational risk: Greater potential for community opposition and negative media coverage.
  • Impact risk: Increased likelihood of developing a flawed solution that can even harm the landscape and reduce ecosystem-wide objectives.
  • Financial risk: The costs associated with projects that underperform, are delayed or ultimately unsuccessful (requiring write-offs).

Not only can these risks be mitigated by taking appropriate action, but when investors reimagine nature-based solutions and embed Indigenous knowledge, and empower Indigenous leadership, this paradigm shift gives rise to greater long-term investment and real community benefits, as well as positive nature and climate outcomes.

A framework to guide action: ALIVE

A new report puts forward a set of principles and practices to inform how investors should think and what investors should do to engage Indigenous peoples and their knowledge in conservation and restoration of landscapes.

These principles and practices can be understood through five domains – acknowledgment, leadership, insights, value and expertise (ALIVE). The ALIVE domains are intended to guide action rather than define an outcome. They guide a process by which nature investments can be conceived, designed, delivered and evaluated in alignment with Indigenous knowledge systems.


Before proceeding with any project, investors must first acknowledge the centrality of nature and landscapes to the cultural identity and integrity of Indigenous people, extending to both their rights and responsibilities.

Investors can make these acknowledgments by:

  • Ensuring the project empowers Indigenous peoples to carry out their responsibilities for sustaining landscapes, which will include cultural and spiritual practices.
  • Ensuring individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples are protected and respected, including those enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).


For a project to be “Indigenous-led” requires a deliberate effort to both lead through Indigenous knowledge and be led by Indigenous peoples.

Investors can lead through Indigenous knowledge by:

  • Embedding key cultural concepts that recognise the interconnectedness between all elements of nature, the multi-generational time horizon in which nature prospers, and deep localisation of ecosystems.

Investors can enable and empower Indigenous peoples to lead through:

  • Ensuring Indigenous leadership is in the design, implementation and valuation of the project, which may include building capacity and capability within the community to act as investor co-leads.


Taking the time to engage in deep listening and gathering insights is critical to relationship building and necessary to inform project design and governance.

Investors can seek to build trusted and productive relationships by:

  • Allowing sufficient time to invest in building a relationship slowly, as they would seek to build a friendship.
  • Prioritising process over outcome and creating a safe environment that supports Indigenous peoples’ choice as to when and how to share knowledge and experience.


The way that projects are designed to deliver value and the vehicles through which that value is understood, measured and managed needs to change in order to successfully embed Indigenous knowledge and achieve genuine whole-system outcomes.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

In defining the value of a project investors should:

  • Prioritise high quality, culturally biodiverse long-term outcomes that create greater ecosystem-wide benefits, including when this means reducing the short-term outcomes of speed and scale.
  • Design measurement and reporting of project impact and outcomes in such a way that minimizes the administration burden on Indigenous peoples and recognises milestones as tied to ecological events as opposed to pre-determined intervals of time.


The transactional knowledge exchange that is common within business, philanthropic and government systems often (perhaps unintentionally) disrespects Indigenous knowledge systems and those within communities who hold the Knowledge.

To respect Indigenous peoples’ time and expertise investors should:

  • Be aware of the cultural and identity burden Indigenous peoples carry when taking on roles and sharing knowledge. Reduce the burden with research and acceptance of personal responsibility.
  • Set aside funds to compensate knowledge-holders for their participation at every stage of the investment, including for any preliminary discussions prior to investment.

This shift in approach may be challenging, but it will ultimately unlock new models of long-term investment that align Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples shared ambition for nature and climate outcomes.

Embedding the ALIVE domains across the project lifecycle can give investors greater confidence in project success and outcomes that deliver positive impact, value and resilience in the long term.

To learn more about how data, regulation and Indigenous knowledge can spur investors to channel resources towards quality conservation and restoration at scale, listen to the AM23 session at 11:00 on 18 January, "Don't Let Greenwashing Fears Stall Credible Action".

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