Indigenous Led and Spiritually Informed: A New Conservation Paradigm

Indigenous-Led and Spiritually Informed: A New Conservation Paradigm

By Ocean Malandra

Indigenous-led conservation is the most natural and effective way to protect precious ecosystems and mitigate the global ecological crisis. It not only safeguards traditional cultures and the territories they have managed for millennia, but it is a way to preserve and strengthen spiritual world views that offer important and resilient alternatives to current conservation and public health models. 

According to the ICCA Consortium’s “Territories of Life” report, which was presented to the UN Biodiversity Conference of 2021, the estimated extent and value of territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities amounts to over one-fifth of the world’s land, much of it encompassing “Key Biodiversity Areas” (1). This area is nearly double the size of protected areas, like national parks, around the globe (21 percent vs. 14 percent).

But Indigenous people are not just protecting almost twice as much of the earth as formal reserves: In many cases, they are doing a better job of it.

The Monitoring of the Andes Amazon Project found both indigenous and protected areas effective at preventing forest loss in the Amazon Biome, but indigenous areas actually showed “a slightly lower deforestation rate” (2). A study that compared species density between indigenous and government managed parklands across Canada, Australia, and Brazil, found that indigenous managed territories “have equal-or-higher biodiversity” than protected areas. (3)

Despite their vital role as guardians of some of the world’s most important ecosystems, Indigenous people are often unrecognized and uncompensated. Worse, they often face existential dangers, both physically and culturally, that threaten individual lives, entire communities, the continuance of ancestral traditions, and therefore the ecological integrity of Indigenous territories. 

In 2023, a team of environmental scientists warned that nearly 60 percent of Indigenous lands worldwide are currently at risk due to industrial development (4). The team cite “vulnerabilities in rights, representation, and capital” of Indigenous peoples as driving the increase in risk of these areas being exploited and converted to industry. They also conclude that “support of Indigenous government and stewardship” can dramatically reduce this risk.

Indigenous led conservation is natural because it taps into systems already in place that have grown together with the environment. This also makes them more resilient. A 2017 report from OXFAM outlines how indigenous NASA communities in Colombia were able to use disaster preparedness funds to enhance and fortify existing land management practices that resulted in a higher degree of ecological resiliency than plans that did not include Indigenous guidance (5). According to the report, this guidance was spiritually informed. 

Empowering existing spiritual and social leaders and the networks they influence protects not just the technical skills and in-depth knowledge cultivated and passed down over generations, but the world views and spiritual practices that are behind the development of these cultural practices. And that may be the most valuable resource of all.

In an open letter published in the journal Nature, 80 top environmentalists from around the world claimed there is a “values crisis” underpinning our current worldwide multi-dimensional ecological mega-crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change, pandemic emergence, and socio-environmental injustice (6). This “values crisis”, they explain, is directly caused by the fact that “predominant conservation and development practices prioritize a subset of values, particularly those linked to markets, and ignores other ways that people relate to or benefit from nature”. 

When we speak of spiritually informed Indigenous led conservation, we are talking about not only protecting the territorial lands of Indigenous communities and the people themselves, but these “other ways that people relate to or benefit from nature” as well. We are not just preserving, but elevating, a value system that is not just different from but, in many ways, more effective at handling the ecological crisis than our current one. 

In 2023, researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona analyzed 52 different case studies of how indigenous people and traditional communities respond to climate change (7).  They found that despite often being marginalized due to historic and ongoing inequalities, Indigenous people exhibited a “rich and nuanced knowledge of climate change impact adaption models”. 

Because of this, the researchers recommended that Indigenous voices should have a “more central role in the scientific and political processes of understanding and adapting to climate change”. They called for institutions at every level of society – local, national, and international – to “incorporate indigenous people into decision making.”

Indigenous communities, their territories, their traditional knowledge, practices and forms of governance, as well as their world views and beliefs, together constitute a “bioculture”. Where biocultures utilize specific plant medicines like Peyote, Ayahuasca, or Iboga as part of their spiritual practice the importance of an Indigenous led approach to conservation efforts becomes even more pronounced.

Not only do these biocultures occupy and protect some of the world’s most important and endangered ecosystems, including the super biodiverse rainforests of both the Amazon and Congo basins, their traditional plant medicines are currently being adopted, employed, and in many cases appropriated into the modern medical system. Sometimes the original habitats of these plant medicines remain under threat even as the medicines themselves are exploding in popularity and hyped as mental health panaceas.

Part of the reason for this is that the modern medical system suffers from the same “values crisis”, as the modern conservation movement. Market-driven commercialization of these plants opens up a pandora’s box of ethical concerns and potential pitfalls. 

Emerging research shows keeping plant medicines within “traditional rituals involving communal use” may be wise guidelines when integrating them into the modern mental health field and that the “world views and meaning making systems” of the original culture should be respected. (8). 

While the landscape may seem complex, the way forward is straightforward: simply empower the existing spiritual and social leaders of indigenous communities and the networks they inform. By providing financial and logistical support and then letting these leaders and communities design, organize, and implement their own conservation projects, action emerges from the grassroots level and flowers through direct participation.

This is backed up by science. A 2023 study seeking to understand the role of spirituality and belief systems in “pro-environmental behavior” found that a majority of people (62 percent) said that they take conservation measures more seriously when their spiritual leaders give teachings on the subject (9). This explains why elevating Indigenous spiritual leadership, which contains deep ecological wisdom and promotes environmental stewardship, is a natural and effective conservation strategy.

In fact, supporting resurgent Indigenous governance has been identified by environmental policy analysts as having an “overlooked role” in “driving fast, socially just increases in conservation” (10). Empowering spiritual leaders also means that rituals involving plant medicines, rituals that are often core to Indigenous governance itself, are also preserved and fortified for generations to come. It also facilitates including their voices in the wider conservation and public health conservation in meaningful and authoritative ways.

From a holistic point of view environmental health, community health and personal well-being are indistinguishable from each other. This means spiritually informed, Indigenous led conservation is poised to impact the entire global community of humanity in profound ways.