Indigenous Lands Have Highest Biodiversity: 'We Must Manage a Larger Fraction of World's Area in Ways That Protect Species'

Lands managed by Indigenous peoples may be key to saving the planet's biodiversity, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy.

Currently, the Earth is in the grips of what scientists have dubbed the "Sixth Mass Extinction," with the global rate of species extinction at least "tens to hundreds of times higher" than the average over the past 10 million years, a recent, major United Nations report suggested.

Furthermore, around one million species "already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss"—which include factors such as land conversion, habitat loss and climate change.

In the midst of this ecological crisis, the authors of the latest study say that many countries are falling short of meeting even nominal targets for land protection. However, their research indicated that indigenous-managed lands represent one avenue through which targets can be met.

"We are currently facing a biodiversity crisis," Richard Schuster from Carleton University—formerly of the University of British Columbia (UBC)—said in a statement. "We need to work on protecting nature better, but our current protected areas might not be enough to get us there. Other forms of land management could help; one very important one is Indigenous peoples' land management practices."

Indigenous peoples currently manage or have tenure to roughly a quarter of earth's land area. In the other three-quarters, the impact of human activities tends to be much more severe, according to Schuster.

For the study, the researchers examined land and species data from three of the world's biggest countries.

"We compared the number of species present on Indigenous-managed lands, protected areas and random locations in Australia, Brazil and Canada," he said. "We used the best available data on the global distribution of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to do so."

The researchers found that lands which were managed or co-managed by Indigenous peoples tended to contain more vertebrate species than existing protected areas, such as wildlife reserves—which in turn had higher biodiversity than non-protected areas.

"The number of species present is equivalent or even slightly higher on Indigenous-managed lands than protected areas," Schuster said. "Both have higher numbers of species than random locations, indicating that Indigenous-managed lands and protected areas are better at protecting species than random locations, which in itself is a good sign."

"We think that these patterns might hold in other countries as well, but colleagues, led by Stephen Garnett, from Charles Darwin University in Australia, are actually working on this at the moment," he said.

According to the researchers, no previous study has compared biodiversity and land management across such a large geographic area. The findings suggest that working with Indigenous communities around the world may help to address shortfalls in global habitat protection, thus reducing the risk of biodiversity loss.

"Going forward, collaborating with Indigenous land stewards will likely be essential in ensuring that species survive and thrive," Schuster said in a statement.

Peter Arcese, a senior author of the study from the University of British Columbia, added: "Protected areas are a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation globally, but current levels of protection will be insufficient to halt the planetary extinction crisis," he said in a statement. "We must manage a larger fraction of the world's area in ways that protect species and leads to positive outcomes for people and the species they've relied on for millennia."

The previously-mentioned U.N. report published in May—known as the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005, put together by 150 leading experts from 50 countries.

At the launch of the report, Director-General of UNESCO—the U.N.'s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—Audrey Azoulay said the research highlighted the urgency of our current situation, noting that protecting biodiversity was "as vital as fighting climate change."

"Following the adoption of this historic report, no one will be able to claim that they did not know," she said. "We can no longer continue to destroy the diversity of life. This is our responsibility towards future generations."

The paper identified five main drivers that have significantly altered ecosystems and affected biodiversity over the past half a century. These are: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasion of alien species.

While coming up with solutions to prevent mass extinctions may be hard to comprehend, in 2017, an international team of scientists proposed an ambitious plan known as the "Global Deal for Nature," which aims to help conserve Earth's species, while also ensuring that climate targets are met.

Recently, these same scientists laid out a set of specific targets and milestones that they believe will help protect the Earth's biodiversity and avoid the collapse of ecosystems, in addition to mitigating the worst effects of climate change.

Eric Dinerstein, one of the authors of "Global Deal," previously told Newsweek that Indigenous communities were key to reaching conservation goals.

"Simply empowering and affirming the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, some of which is not titled, could also go a long way to help stabilizing the climate and saving nature, because often Indigenous groups are better stewards of the land and the sea than we are," he said.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Richard Schuster.

A Waiapi man looks at a boy picking fruits from a Geninapo tree at the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil on October 13, 2017. APU GOMES/AFP/Getty Images

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