Can Indigenous Leadership Help Save the Environment?

Indigenous people currently manage or have tenure on 40% of the world’s protected areas and remaining intact ecosystems. The deep connection to land and water that characterizes Indigenous cultures around the world suggests a natural alliance with conservationists working to protect those places. Mongabay. James Dinneen. Jan. 23, 2020

First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have a long tradition of living their lives in testimony to their sacred bond to the land as the bedrock of their relationship with their world. Despite more than 150 years of obsessive campaigns by successive governments to sever that relationship Indigenous people are still fighting back and are now winning. The current global fight to address the effects of climate change has amplified Indigenous voices to the point that the rest of the world has woken up to what success looks like from an Indigenous perspective.

Consider the following:

  • A study led by UBC in July 2019 examining land management practices in Australia, Brazil and Canada concluded that Indigenous managed lands in all three countries:
    • had the highest species richness in all focal taxonomy groups
    • had the highest threatened species richness
  • Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation is one of 10 winners worldwide of The Equator Prize – and the first from Canada – which recognizes Indigenous peoples and local communities innovating nature-based solutions to climate change and for sustainable development.
  • Indigenous Circle of Experts’ (ICE) Report and Recommendations for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas to provide advice and recommendations on achieving Canada Target 1: By 2020
    • at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and
    • 10% of coastal and marine areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.
  • Representative Indigenous Protected Areas
    • Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, Nunavut
    • Edehzhie Protected Area, NWT
    • Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata Indigenous Protected Area, NWT
    • Gwaii Haanas National Park, BC
    • Great Bear Rain Forest, BC
  • Indigenous Leadership Initiative: National Indigenous Guardian Network

What’s the evidence?

Indigenous Land Management Practices: Australia, Brazil and Canada

July 31, 2019 – More than one million plant and animal species worldwide are facing extinction according to a recent United Nations report. Now, a new UBC-led study suggests that Indigenous-managed lands may play a critical role in helping species survive. The researchers analyzed land and species data from Australia, Brazil and Canada – three of the world’s biggest countries – and found that the total numbers of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles were the highest on lands managed or co-managed by Indigenous communities.

The study, which focused on 15,621 geographical areas in Canada, Brazil and Australia, also found that the size of an area and its geographical location did not affect species diversity. “This suggests that it’s the land-management practices of many Indigenous communities that are keeping species numbers high,” said lead author Richard Schuster, the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University, who undertook the research while at UBC. “Going forward, collaborating with Indigenous land stewards will likely be essential in ensuring that species survive and thrive.”

Indigenous-managed lands represent an important repository of biodiversity in three of the largest countries on Earth, and Indigenous peoples currently manage or have tenure to roughly one-quarter of the planet’s land area,” said co-author Nick Reo, an associate professor of environmental studies and Native American studies at Dartmouth College and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“In light of this, collaborating with Indigenous governments, communities and organizations can help to conserve biodiversity as well as support Indigenous rights to land, sustainable resource use and well-being.”

Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation wins The Equator Prize
Indigenous GroupTerritorySize
Łutsël K’é Dene First NationNorthwest Territories26,376 sq. kms.

June 8, 2020 – is one of 10 winners worldwide of The Equator Prize, which recognizes Indigenous peoples and local communities innovating nature-based solutions to climate change and for sustainable development. The prestigious United Nations prize has been awarded for the First Nation’s 50-year-fight to save a giant swath of land that features boreal forest, tundra threaded with lakes, rivers and waterfalls and wildlife in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Parks Canada

It was selected from among 600 nominations in more than 120 countries, and it marked the first time a Canadian group has won. The N.W.T. First Nation was recognized for its work in establishing Thaidene Nëné or “Land of the Ancestors” National Park Reserve. Located on the east arm of Great Slave Lake, Thaidene Nëné was established August 21, 2019

“The leadership and determination of the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation to protect their way of life and their sacred homelands is precedent setting in Canada, and very deserving of global recognition. Hadley Archer, Executive Director, Nature United.

Indigenous Circle of Experts’ (ICE) “We Rise Together – Achieving Pathway to Canada Target 1”

Etuaptmumk: Two-eyed seeing refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of western knowledges and ways of knowing—and learning to use both of these eyes together for the benefit of all.”  Elder Albert Marshall of the Mi’kmaw Nation, Central Regional Gathering, June 2017

Mar. 28, 2018 – The report recommends the development of Indigenous-led protected areas and advises governments on how they can meet commitments on global biodiversity targets. The report emphasizes the need for a paradigm shift in land use and conservation in Canada through changing the way conservation areas are created and managed, fundamentally shifting the principles underlying our conservation system and our place within nature. It goes further in calling for Crown governments to engage in reconciliation to address wrong-doings in the creation of past protected and conserved areas.

“We can help address our international commitments to protect biodiversity and to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) through a new way of thinking about conservation from an Indigenous perspective,” said Marilyn Baptiste, ICE member.

The recommendations include expanded and shared responsibilities between Indigenous and Crown governments for protected areas through recognition and support for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). IPCAs are the lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. Culture and language are the heart and soul of an IPCA. IPCA’s generally share three essential elements:

  • They are Indigenous-led;
  • they represent a long-term commitment to conservation; and
  • they elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities.

In the Canadian context, IPCAs represent:

  • a modern application of traditional values, Indigenous laws and Indigenous knowledge systems,
  • an exercise in cultural continuity on the land and waters,
  • a foundation for local Indigenous economies,
  • opportunities to reconnect to the land and heal both the land and Indigenous people
  • an acknowledgement of international law, such as Canada’s Treaties, UNDRIP, CBD and other relevant instruments and commitments,
  • an opportunity for true reconciliation to take place between Indigenous and settler societies, and between broader Canadian society and the land and waters, including relationships in pre-existing parks and protected areas, and
  • an innovative expression of Section 35 (Constitution Act 1982).

Read the attached report for the 28 recommendations

Indigenous Protected Areas

Indigenous Protected Areas are places identified by Indigenous communities for conservation. They reflect Indigenous law and culture and ensure Indigenous Peoples can sustain our relationship with the lands. Many are created in partnership with Crown governments, and most are managed by Indigenous Guardians who care for the land on behalf of their communities. Support for Indigenous protected areas was a key recommendation of the Indigenous Circle of Experts’ report (PDF) released in March 2018 and a commitment made in Budget 2018.

Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area
Indigenous GroupTerritorySize
InuitNunavut108,000 sq. kms.

Aug. 1, 2019 – Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement signed by the Government of Canada and Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) is a major step toward completion of Canada’s largest national marine conservation area at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, and represents decades of work by Inuit to safeguard a culturally significant region crucial to their subsistence way of life.

The Agreement will protect more than 109,000 square kilometres of biologically rich Arctic waters. The new national marine conservation area will be co-managed by Parks Canada and Inuit under the agreement. An Inuit advisory board will be established to oversee Tallurutiup Imanga. Ottawa will also invest $190 million in the broader region to support new infrastructure, like small craft harbours, and employment opportunities, including an Inuit stewardship program, for the five Nunavut communities bordering the national marine park

Pond Inlet, Tallurutiup Imanga  (Photo: Diane Blanchard)

The Edéhzhíe Protected Area
Indigenous GroupTerritorySize
Dehcho First NationNorthwest Territories14,218 sq. kms.

The Edéhzhíe Protected Area is the first Indigenous protected area designated in Canada under Budget 2018’s Nature Legacy, Support for Indigenous protected areas was a key recommendation of the Indigenous Circle of Experts’ report (PDF) released in March 2018 and a commitment made in Budget 2018. The Indigenous protected area will encourage Dehcho Dene presence on the land and continuance of language, harvesting, and other aspects of Dehcho Dene culture. The Edéhzhíe Protected Area covers an area more than twice the size of Banff National Park.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is also working in collaboration with the Dehcho First Nations to formally designate the area as a national wildlife area by 2020. Establishing Edéhzhíe as a national wildlife area will complement the objectives of the Indigenous protected area by providing additional protection and stewardship measures. By joining the national network of national wildlife areas, Edéhzhíe will have even greater support to achieve results for the conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Landscape within Edéhzhíe Protected Area
Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata Indigenous Protected Area
Indigenous GroupTerritorySize
Sahtú Dene (K’asho Got’ı̨nę) and MétisNorthwest Territories10,060 sq. kms.

Nov. 26, 2019 – Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata near Fort Good Hope is an important cultural and spiritual area where wildlife is abundant and the Sahtú Dene and Métis hunt, fish and trap and live on the land as they have for generations. In this protected area, younger generations will continue to learn about their culture and history.

Located in the Ramparts River watershed of the Sahtú region, Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta is a critical wetland that provides key habitat for migratory birds and many species that are at risk, including grizzly bear, northern mountain caribou, wolverine, short-eared owl and boreal woodland caribou. Once established, Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta will be permanently protected and collaboratively managed by the K’asho Got’ı̨nę and the GNWT. Local people will be involved in the management and monitoring of the land, water, plants and animals of Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta.

Government of Canada: Environment and Natural Resources
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site
Indigenous GroupProvinceSize
HaidaBritish Columbia1,470 sq. kms.

In 1988, Canada and B.C. signed the South Moresby Agreement, which committed the federal government to create a protected area on the land and sea. The Archipelago Management Board is guided by the 1993 Gwaii Haanas Agreement and the 2010 Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement. These agreements describe how the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada will manage Gwaii Haanas together. The terrestrial area is a designated National Park Reserve and the marine area was designated a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve in 2010. 

he Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board (AMB) is taking a leadership role by creating the first land-sea-people management plan in Canada. This integrated plan is based on AMB direction and is informed by Haida Nation and Government of Canada priorities.

Gwaii Haanas is an ecological and cultural treasure. Home to over 700 documented archaeological sites, including tidal and subtidal sites, the record of human occupation dates back over 13,000 years. Ancient Haida villages including SGaang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcase world-renowned examples of Haida art and architecture.

The Gwaii Haanas area extends from mountain top, to coast, to approximately 10km offshore
Parks Canada, Stephanie Fung

Almost 6800 marine and terrestrial species have been documented in Gwaii Haanas, including 42 species at risk. Coastal temperate rainforests and underwater kelp forests support some of the most abundant ecosystems in the world.

Great Bear Rain Forest
Indigenous GroupsProvinceSize
26 First NationsBritish Columbia64,000 sq. kms.

The Great Bear Rainforest was established through land-use decisions announced in 2006. This globally unique area covers 6.4 million hectares on British Columbia’s north and central coast, and is home to 26 separate First Nations.

Stretching for more than 250 miles along the coast of British Columbia, the 21-million-acre wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest is sometimes called the Amazon of the North. The vast, sodden land encompasses 1,000-year-old cedars, waterfalls spouting off the sides of moss-covered mountains, granite-dark waters and glacier-cut fjords.

The land, sea and waterways are integrated and connected. Several elements of the environment – including old growth forests, grizzly bears, salmon streams, forest harvesting and tourism – are linked and impacted by human activities. The intent of ecosystem-based management (EBM) is to have fully functional and intact ecosystems while ensuring residents can continue to work and make a living in the area. This approach is key to the Great Bear Rainforest agreement and is based in science as well as traditional and local knowledge.

Government of British Columbia

The final Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was signed on Feb. 1, 2016 between First Nations and the British Columbia government, permanently conserving 19 million acres of Pacific coast between Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska. About 9 million acres are off limits to logging, with the balance managed under some of the world’s most stringent harvest standards. 

© Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute
Indigenous Leadership Initiative: National Indigenous Guardian Network

Indigenous-led Guardians programs empower communities to manage ancestral lands according to traditional laws and values.

Guardians are employed as the “eyes on the ground” in Indigenous territories. They monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites and protect sensitive areas and species. They play a vital role in creating land-use and marine-use plans. And they promote intergenerational sharing of Indigenous knowledge—helping train the next generation of educators, ministers and nation builders. The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is proud to have partnered with Dechinta Bush University in developing the Guardians Pilot Program, a training opportunity focused on core skills guardians need to conduct land use planning and other management projects.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is promoting a federally funded, Indigenous-led National Indigenous Guardians Network in Canada that supports development and employment of guardians across the country. This network has generated broad support, including from the Assembly of First Nations which passed a resolution in 2015 calling for a national Guardians program.

The movement to create a National Indigenous Guardians Network gained ground when the government of Canada included an initial investment of $25 million over 5 years in the 2017-2018 federal budget. While this investment will not enable new guardian programs to be established immediately, this seed funding will help develop the national network and prepare Indigenous Nations and communities to launch their own Indigenous Guardians programs.

A Proven Model

ILI draws inspiration from Australia’s Working on Country initiative. Since 2007, the Australian government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Indigenous ranger programs that protect cultural sites, foster biodiversity and manage fire. Research shows that for every $1 invested, ranger programs generate $3 in conservation, health and economic results.

Indigenous Guardians in Canada deliver similar benefits. An analysis of two emerging programs in the Northwest Territories found they create about $2.50 of social, economic, cultural and environmental results for every $1 invested. With support from a national network, researchers projected the value could increase to up to $3.70 for each dollar of investment.

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