Living with difference: indigenous peoples and biodiversity

Living with difference: indigenous peoples and biodiversity

20th Jun 2018

Thiago Cardoso

I recommend a reading. The report Knowing our Lands and Resources: Indigenous and Local Knowledge of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the Americas published by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)[1].

The report is the result of an intensive work of research and workshops carried out by the Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems Task Force of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which since 2012 has been collecting information on the contribution of indigenous peoples and traditional communities around the globe to maintain the diversity of life in times of intense socio-environmental transformations.

The goal of IPBES is to organize knowledge about biodiversity on the planet to support political decisions worldwide, something that has been done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in relation to the planet's climate. The IPBES includes the following commitment as one of its operating principles: "Recognize and respect the contribution of indigenous and local knowledge to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems"[2].

The interesting thing is that the documents produced contain the singularities of the countries in each region of the globe and will take into account not only what science says but all contributions of local communities to the conformation of biocultural landscapes and to the maintenance of biodiversity. In the case of the Americas, the document presents information from the experiences of forest restoration in the south of Mexico to the traditional knowledge and diversity of plants in the Amazon. There are also contributions on Lhama grazing in the Andes and management of animal life in northern Bolivia.

According to the Brazilian anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, one of the organizers of the report, "traditional and indigenous peoples are very well informed about the local climate and biodiversity - and therefore they can help scientists to better understand climate change and the problem of biodiversity loss". In addition, they "closely follow every detail that constitutes and directly affects their lives and are able to perceive more accurately changes in climate, agricultural productivity or in the reduction of the number of species of plants and animals", says the anthropologist[3].

In this sense, they must be supported and involved in their initiatives and in the decisions regarding global conservation efforts, overcoming the notion that indigenous peoples are threats to biodiversity and unable to formulate conditions for the proliferation of life.

 In the case of the peoples of the Americas, their historical contributions to the construction and conservation of landscapes, the use of land, animals and plants, their innovation and creativity in the proliferation of difference rather than homogeneity are noteworthy. This has been witnessed by archaeologists, anthropologists, ecologists and ethnobotanists for decades. Articles such as that of Claude Levi-Strauss highlights more than 20 genera of plants that have been widely used, providing among other things fruit, wine, oil, vegetables and fibers. Notes are also given on other plant species providing the natives with rubber, gums and resins, pigments and dyes, drinks, condiments, poisons, medicines and nuts and fruits[4].

Contemporary studies on the occupation of the Amazon have concluded that what we think of as virgin, unmanaged, wild forest is actually a large outdoor laboratory experimenting with ways of biocultural coexistence. The Amazon would be the fruit of the historical interaction between humans and other ways of life, of plants, animals, water and spirits, that in their daily practices perform the conditions for the existence of diversity. Plants and landscapes were, and have been, transformed in careful ways. Something very little recognized by governments and scientists.

Listening to the knowledge of the peoples of the forest is already on the right track. But rather than listening, studying and cataloging, as if indigenous knowledge were "treasures" to be discovered, or data to be stored and made available and used when desired, I provoke you to look at such knowledge as a living process and in progress, composed of forms of knowing that diversity is continually recreated and created.

Faced with the hecatomb of the colonial encounter and the current modernist economic development in various regions where indigenous peoples and local communities live, by governments of diverse political and ideological hues, we must ask ourselves about what kind of projects of world making we want to engage in, the ones that aim to "live with difference" or the ones seeking to annihilate it?

[1]                    Brigitte Baptiste, Diego Pacheco, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Sandra Diaz (eds.) In press. Knowing our Lands and Resources: Indigenous and Local Knowledge of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the Americas

[2]                    UNEP/IPBES.MI/2/9, Appendix 1, para. 2 (d)

[3]                    Source:


[4]                    Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The use of wild plants in tropical South America." Reprinted from Smithsonian Ins t., Bur. Amer. Eth. Handb. S. Amer. Ind. 6 (1950): 465-86.