Nature and Biodiversity

What centring Indigenous knowledge really means when it comes to nature-based solutions

Unless we seek Indigenous people's leadership, we could inhibit nature-based solutions for climate resilience.

Unless we seek Indigenous people's leadership, we could inhibit nature-based solutions for climate resilience. Image: Unsplash/Tobias Keller

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Professor Deen Sanders OAM
Integrity Lead and Indigenous Leader, Deloitte
Guy Williams
Asia Pacific and Global Nature Lead, Deloitte
Alice Bell
Integrity Director, Deloitte
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Climate and Nature

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  • Indigenous people should be considered the “voices of nature” due to their long-standing stewardship in managing complex natural environments effectively.
  • The development of corporate standards for nature has lacked Indigenous people’s leadership, which inhibits the development, assessment and promotion of nature-based solutions.
  • Corporations should look at scaling existing Indigenous practices rather than adding on their own criteria for emissions curbing.

Over the last decade or more, there has been a growing awareness that nature-based solutions – tackling societal problems by protecting, managing and restoring natural ecosystems – are crucial to climate resilience. With this realization, corporate guidelines, frameworks and standards have also proliferated to support the development, assessment and promotion of such actions.

Within that time, governance tools have evolved to include the rights and voices of Indigenous peoples in their criteria and indicators. However, at their heart remains an epistemological flaw: from whose standpoint and using whose knowledge system are these documents written?

Have you read?

Who speaks for nature?

In our recent report, Embedding Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Restoration of Landscapes, we asked, “Who speaks for nature?” We arrived at the view that the world’s Indigenous people are best placed to speak for nature.

Although Indigenous peoples account for just 5% of the world’s population, they effectively manage a third of the Earth’s landscapes. Indeed, this land coincides with areas holding 80% of the terrestrial biodiversity and about 40% of the protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes. The fact that 91% of their lands are in good or fair ecological condition today is a testament to the effectiveness of long-term Indigenous stewardship in managing complex natural environments.

Why, then, are the governance tools meant to describe nature use or encourage appropriate future nature-based solutions, not written from the standpoint of Indigenous knowledge and the people they represent?

At best, the omission is an error that ignores the deeply scientific ecological insights that Indigenous knowledge systems are founded on. At worst the omission is founded in racism relegating Indigenous peoples as just another a stakeholder group to be consulted at the end of a process, rather than positioning their input as central to building good governance in nature.

Indigenous peoples are few, busy with survival and powerless in the system, even though they are among the world’s most discerning experts on nature. For millennia, they have lived with its ebbs, flows and complex ecological responses.

The consequence of subtle exclusion – or non-mandatory leadership and inclusion – is to signal that Indigenous leadership or perspectives are only one of many compliance boxes to tick. It is difficult to comply with quickly or cheaply, so that box is often left unticked. This signalling then permeates the projects that draw on governance tools, magnifying the error of exclusion.

Gaps in corporate standards for nature-based solutions

The guidelines, standards and frameworks which seek to inform or report on nature-based solutions, at an industry-wide and cross-industry level, as a minimum, will typically include requirements developed from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to self-determination, a fundamental right of Indigenous peoples, without which they cannot fully realize many other collective and individual human rights, as well as free, prior and informed consent, one of many ways that self-determination is exercised in decision-making. These are both important and necessary.

While most Indigenous peoples have welcomed the recognition of rights, the shift of Indigenous peoples from stakeholders to rights-holders can also be problematic as it fails to adequately acknowledge the original custodial and cultural responsibility they hold for the landscape, which cannot be traded away through contract.

The biggest challenge most governance tools continue to face, however, in terms of their alignment to Indigenous worldviews, is arguably not in their construction of Indigenous rights or engagement inclusions. Instead, the challenge lies in their other “non-Indigenous” criteria, often at odds with Indigenous worldviews and practices. These include centring needs around humanity or society over the broader ecosystem, emphasizing scale over localization and the requirement for “additionality.”

While all Indigenous communities retain their unique philosophies concerning landscapes, most Indigenous worldviews are consistent on at least three things:

  • The ecosystem cannot be subject to the needs of any one species, least of all humans.
  • The maintenance of landscapes must be deeply localized.
  • Nature can only be sustained under continuing care.

The requirement for additionality in standards asks that emissions reductions or removals associated with a project be added because they would not have occurred without the incentive provided by project finance. Indigenous models of landscape care that rely on traditional cultural practice may already be providing the maximum environmental benefit to the landscape. Instead of introducing something “additional” that could threaten or usurp traditional practices, applying additional investment to sustain or scale existing practices would be more productive.

nature-based solutions: Kakadu mangroves in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Kakadu mangroves in the Northern Territory, Australia. Image: Rob Long

Indigenous-centric governance for nature

In the aforementioned report, we provided assessment factors that we repurpose here to indicate if a corporate governance tool has been developed with sufficient alignment to Indigenous knowledge principles. If the answer to any of the following questions is no, then the tool would likely benefit from additional development with Indigenous leadership:

  • Does the governance tool recognize that the health of the whole ecosystem should be privileged over the health of humanity or nature alone?
  • Does the governance tool require that a relationship be formed with any identifiable, geographically relevant Indigenous community?
  • Does the governance tool acknowledge the human cost of participation, consultation and leadership, requiring appropriate time, funding and resourcing to be allocated to the project?

Indigenous representation in the design of governance tools means more than appointing an Indigenous individual to lead an internal committee or simply consulting an Indigenous representative. It is important to recognize Indigenous worldviews to ensure that the “voice of nature” is a leader and participant in developing these tools.

As the crisis of climate and nature unfold, with reverberating consequences for natural landscapes and human populations worldwide, it is incumbent upon us to build on the best and brightest minds and wisdom to respond effectively. Indigenous peoples and the knowledge they hold have survived through prior disruption. They could be central to our response – to conserve and restore natural landscapes and avoid civilizational collapse.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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