Comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity. Their role is under discussion by world leaders this week.

Pushed forward by a chugging long-tail motor, an old dugout canoe carries us down the languorous Conambo River, a tributary of the Amazon, at the western edge of Ecuador’s Oriente region. We spend the day on the river, sometimes baking in the sun, other times getting drenched by cloudbursts of rain.

We are followed by a screeching pandemonium of scarlet and green-winged macaws, chased by flocks of prattling parakeets, monitored by stealthy guans, and surveyed by the occasional toucan. A harpy eagle swoops above us, looking for its lunch, most likely a woolly or howler monkey that we have heard chattering and whooping in the canopy.

Once in a while, our skipper pulls the boat up along a shady bank to snag some barbudo, a foot-long catfish, for dinner. Every time he lands one—the fish’s long barbels wriggling like giant earthworms—he expertly slaps his catch on the side of the boat, snapping off its spiky dorsal and pectoral fins to avoid getting stabbed by its sharp barbs.

In the afternoon, we come ashore to explore a large oxbow lake—a meander that got cut off from the main channel of the river. As we examine the birdlike tapir tracks imprinted in the bank, a large freshwater stingray glides past us through the murky waters. Back in the boat, our guide shares a foot-long, thumb-thick guaba seedpod called “ice-cream beans” for the sweet vanilla flavor of the cotton candy-like white pulp surrounding the large black beans. Sucking on the sweet flesh, I watch a giant blue morpho butterfly flicker in and out of the deep jade shadows of the rain forest.

We are in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth—the Napo moist tropical forest in northeastern Ecuador, made famous by Yasuni National Park. According to Kelly Swing, the director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, there are about 600 species of birds, 200 species of mammals, 500 species of fish, and 150 species of frogs in the park. “One hectare of Yasuni forest may contain up to 600 species of trees and over 100,000 species of insects,” says Swing. “Microbial diversity is overwhelming.”

Sápara men
For Ecuador’s indigenous Sápara people, being able to move around their traditional territory is essential to climate change adaptation.

Its estimated a million species, most still undiscovered, live in the New Hampshire-sized Yasuni, making it an icon of biodiversity. By way of comparison, only about 1.5 million species inhabiting our planet have been documented by science.

But, we are not in Yasuni. We are about 80 miles south of its boundary, on the traditional territory of the Sápara people or, as they call themselves, children of Aritiaku, the red howler monkey. “Both the Yasuni park and Sápara territory are located at the intersection between the Andean uplands and the Amazonian lowlands, and this transitional zone creates an astounding abundance of distinct life-forms,” explains Swing.

“The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have proven to be the best guardians of their traditional territories,” Swing adds. “The fact that the Amazon ecosystems are as rich as they are today is proof of how successful these cultures have been, in living in balance with their environment.”

About 200 Sápara live in Ecuador, with approximately the same number across the border in Peru. Together, they are all that remain of a once thriving nation that totaled between 20,000 to 30,000 and comprised more than 200 peaceful tribes, who differed in name, but shared a common tongue. Following the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, the Sápara, like other indigenous groups in the region, were decimated by epidemics of measles, smallpox, and yellow fever, among other European “gifts.” At one point considered extinct, the Sápara were officially recognized by the Ecuadorian government in the 1990s. This included setting aside over 320,000 hectares of the Sápara’s sacred Naku, or rain forest—a mere eight percent of their historical range—as the Traditional Sápara Settlement Area. In 2001, UNESCO recognized the endangered Sápara language as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

An orange tiger butterfly feeds on flower nectar in the rain forest of Ecuador.
A jaguar on the hunt trips a camera trap in Yasuni National Park.
Noisy night monkeys in a tree cavity in Yasuni National Park.
The trunk of a ceiba tree in the Amazon.
A male wire-tailed manakin on his display perch.
Vines snake through the forest understory.
A red howler monkey, the namesake for local indigenous people.
A katydid nymph explores a red flower in the jungle.
Many trees in the forest boast spikes for protection.
An equatorial saki climbs through the trees.
A ringed Kingfisher perched on a branch.
A stunning array of butterflies live in the forest.

An orange tiger butterfly feeds on flower nectar in the rain forest of Ecuador.

Such recognition, however, has done little to acknowledge the Sápara’s role in biodiversity conservation and reduce the growing external threats to their ancestral territory, according to Kevin Koeing, climate and energy director of Amazon Watch, an environmental NGO working with indigenous peoples to protect the Amazon. “The government of Ecuador continues to view peoples as an obstacle to economic growth,” says Koeing. “It is pushing for oil development in the region by auctioning off blocks of the Sápara’s Naku that it considers under-populated and under-utilized wilderness that must be tamed. It is time to flip this dominant narrative and acknowledge the role of the Sápara and other indigenous peoples in doing the most critical thing that could be done under the imminent threat of biodiversity loss and climate change—and that is looking after their sacred Naku.”

the sky over Yasuni National park

A glow in the sky over Yasuni from oil wells burning off gas. Such development in the highly biodiverse area is very controversial, and often impacts local people as well.


The story of the Sápara is not unique. Around the world, indigenous peoples have been displaced from their traditional territories in the name of ecotourism, like the Maasai in Tanzania, as well as conservation, as were the Sengwer and Ogiek peoples in Kenya. Indigenous peoples have had to abandon their livelihoods and ancestral lands because of large-scale development projects, such as Gibe III dam along Ethiopia’s Omo River; and, more recently, they have become climate refugees, like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana or the Inupiaq whaling community of Kivalina.

But as our collective understanding of the imperiled state of our planet grows—the 6th extinction, escalating climate change, and exceeding planetary boundaries—the global discourse and actions are shifting toward a greater acknowledgement of the role of indigenous peoples and local communities and their traditional territories in biodiversity conservation and climate change resilience. Recent research demonstrates that while the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the total human population, they manage or hold tenure over 25 percent of the world’s land surface and support about 80 percent of the global biodiversity.

This week, world leaders have an opportunity to tackle these issues head on. The Fourteenth Conference of the Parties (COP14) to the Convention on Biodiversity, held between 17-29 November in Egypt, gives leaders a chance to further assert the role of indigenous peoples. Among other issues, COP14 will assess global progress toward achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. In particular, Aichi Target 11 sets expectations for national governments to reach at least 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas to be conserved through protected areas and other conservation measures by 2020. And experts say indigenous stewardship may be a critical way to meet those goals.

A perfect storm

The evolution in thinking about the role of indigenous peoples as stewards of the Earth is the culmination of a number of trends. For one, the increasing sophistication of spatial analytical tools, such as the Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands or LandMark, the Protected Planet database, and the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Registry, has enabled a better documentation of the extent, as well as biodiversity and carbon storage values, of indigenous lands.

Indigenous rights to self-determination, well-being, traditional knowledge, and a healthy environment—as articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples–—have also been increasingly recognized by national governments and the conservation community. Philanthropic and development organizations are also increasingly supporting indigenous conservation projects, in part because they often see them as a win-win to help people and the planet.

In Australia and Namibia, countries with legally binding mechanisms to recognize indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights in managing natural resources, the contribution of those groups to conservation is considered equivalent to other types of protected areas.

Successful examples around the

Patrick O’Leary, senior officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback to Oceans Program, applauds the recent decision by the Australian government to extend its support for Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and the Indigenous Rangers programs through 2023 and 2021, to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to continue managing existing and creating new IPAs. Established in 1997, the IPA Program has contributed significantly to Australia’s efforts to protect and conserve its biodiversity, notes O’Leary. Currently, 75 IPAs cover approximately 68 million hectares, representing over 45 percent of Australia’s National Reserve System. Moreover, Australia’s IPAs provide many cultural, social, health, and economic benefits to local people, says O’Leary.

In Namibia, the recognition of community-based natural resource management under the Nature Conservation Amendment Act of 1996 has resulted in the establishment of 82 conservancies and 32 community forests. Today, conservancies cover about 20 percent of the country’s surface area. Some animal populations have been restored, others are recovering, while living conditions for local people continue to improve.

In Canada, the recent federal recognition of the Edéhzhíe Protected Area in the country’s northwest and support for the Indigenous Guardianship Program—in which indigenous communities are empowered to manage their territories according to traditional laws—are recent steps towards the acknowledgment of indigenous stewardship. “These important developments advance national biodiversity conservation goals,” says Eli Enns, co-chair of Canada’s Indigenous Circle of Experts. “This builds on the nearly three decades of indigenous-led efforts to assert their constitutionally protected rights to look after their traditional territories, beginning with the recognition of Gwaii Haanas and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks in the 1980s.”

In Europe, this shift has led to the recognition of the Havukkavaara forest in North Karelia in Finland. For Tero Mustonen, director of the advocacy group Snowchange Cooperative, Havukkavaara is an example of “a new style of community-based conservation that includes culture, history, and people to help sustain traditional lifeways and conserve the last vestiges of the old-growth forests south of the Arctic Circle in Finland.”

Defining indigenous stewardship on the global stage

Despite their rising profile, the precise role of indigenous territories in the Convention on Biological Diversity remains unclear—although that could change after the meeting in Egypt this week. In order to help meet the global biodiversity targets, leaders are arguing that qualifying lands under the convention need to be expanded to include “a geographically defined area, other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained outcomes for the in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem services and cultural and spiritual values.”

In other words, many leaders hope to clarify that the global biodiversity goals be met not only with traditional protected areas like parks—which have conservation as the primary objective of management—but also with areas that show conservation outcomes, rather than objectives. These latter areas would include indigenous-managed territories, such as the Sápara lands in Ecuador.

However, experts warn that recognizing the contributions of indigenous peoples is not as simple as drawing polygons on maps. It means going beyond traditional “fortress conservation,” of walling people away from nature. To work, such partnerships need to value holistic indigenous knowledge systems and ways of life.

As Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states in her report “Cornered by Protected Areas,” it means adopting rights-based approaches to conservation that bring justice for indigenous peoples and local communities, while enabling biodiversity conservation and climate action.

“The future of our planet lies in indigenous ways of living on the Earth,” says Jon Waterhouse, Indigenous Peoples Scholar at the Oregon Health and Science University and a National Geographic Education Fellow Emeritus and Explorer. “As a global community, we have lost our way; we forgot what it means to have a relationship with the land.”

To find it again, we have great guides, says Waterhouse. “Indigenous peoples have mastered the art of living on the Earth without destroying it. They continue to teach and lead by example, from the restoration of eel grass and salmon by the Samish Nation, to the bison reintroduction by the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, to the restoration of traditional 800-year old Hawaiian fish ponds. We must heed these lessons and take on this challenging task, if we want our grandchildren to have a future.”