In the spotlight

A landscape without people can be detrimental to biodiversity

NRC interviews Bas Verschuuren from the Forest Nature and Policy group at Wageningen University & Research. The following interview was published in the NRC on 14 October 2021. Bas argues that protecting nature on an increasingly populated Earth involves giving a greater role to indenous people.

‘Involve indigenous people in biodiversity’

How do you protect nature on an increasingly populated Earth? By giving a greater role to indigenous people. ‘We are nature.’

'By 2030, 30% of all nature on land and in the sea must be protected. This is one of the new objectives of the international Biodiversity Convention, discussed this week in the online edition of the UN top in Kunming, China. A clear goal, and one that raises questions concerning our approach to nature conservation in a world filled to the brim with humans. When the US government founded Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the army was called in to drive away the indigenous people who had lived and hunted in the area for thousands of years. In the 21st century, some African nature reserves are highly militarised; hunting by the indigenous population is seen as poaching and violently put down by the park guards. The only legitimate human activities are tourism and scientific research. But over the last decade or two, this type of policy has increasingly come under criticism as untenable. After nature preservation with respect for the rights of local people, scientists are now increasingly advocating ‘biodiversity pluralism’, which centres on the worldviews, knowledge and values of different cultures and groups. One of these scientists is Bas Verschuuren, who studies the relationship between indigenous people and nature at Wageningen University. ‘For most people, the word ‘nature’ evokes large, apparently wild areas,’ he says in a video interview. ‘But this ignores the fact that so-called wilderness has been cultivated by people, sometimes for thousands of years.’ Verschuuren defended his PhD in the research group of Bram Büscher, who developed the concept of ‘convivial conservation’. In short: rather than hermetically separating humans from the natural environment, we should aim for a more pragmatic model, in which humans and nature co-exist in harmony. ‘The fact that we can think about nature bypasses our relationship to it,’ says Verschuuren. ‘We are nature.’ According to UN reports, indigenous people are responsible for protecting 80% of biodiversity, on approximately 30% of the global surface. ‘Indigenous people often develop an intimate relationship with nature from childhood onwards,’ says Verschuuren. ‘And nature thrives as a result. Respect for the knowledge and worldviews of indigenous people can contribute to successful nature conservation.’

Removing people sometimes actually leads to a decline in biodiversity

Can you give an example?

‘In Northern Australia, people are born with a spirit – a personal totem animal. As a child, they spend their time closely observing this animal and the environment in which it lives. They also have many stories about the ancestral animals who created the Earth. These stories are told, sung, and danced, which helps people form a strong bond with nature. Australia is now not only giving land back to indigenous people, but also paying them for nature conservation on their own land. Instead of re-wilding, i.e. bringing wilderness back by removing humans, we could focus on re-culturing: re-instating indigenous people in their role as nature conservationists.’


So nature is not by definition better off without humans?

‘Not necessarily. In fact, removing humans can sometimes lead to loss of biodiversity. This is what happened in Greece and Italy, for example, as mountain villages became deserted. Without farmers walking the hills with their cattle, the landscape reverted to wilderness and certain plants and animals started to dominate, at the expense of others. In these landscapes, you can often find holy places, such as a rock chapel or a sacred piece of forest. Guess what? These places tend to have greater biodiversity than the neighbouring nature areas, because they’re cared for with more respect.’

Interesting that you should mention cattle ranching.Isn't that usually considered harmful for nature?

‘It’s a question of balance. A lot of damage results from economic pressure. Capitalism is always demanding more. In Kenya, traditional Masai shepherds resort to caring for the flocks of rich city families. Cows are a financial investment, but in large numbers they lead to overgrazing. In Europe, scaling-up after World War II transformed traditional farms into businesses. Prior to that, small-scale farming actually ensured that the countryside remained biodiverse.’

Do indigenous people have enough voice at the Kunming conference?

‘When global nature targets were first formulated, in 1992, indigenous people played a clear role. United in the Indigenous Caucus, they have tried to exert pressure ever since. But the international consultation structure is by definition an instrument for national governments, which clearly don’t always take the interests of indigenous people into account. As a result, their impact remains limited.’

What countries are most troublesome?

‘At the moment, I would probably say Brazil. Since Jaïr Bolsonaro has come to power there, the deforestation of the Amazon has accelerated. There are reserves, but they’re criss-crossed by gas and mining concessions. It’s precisely in overlap areas like these that we should let indigenous people decide on what should happen.’

This is not without risk, as more environmentalists, often of indigenous origin, are murdered every year.

‘That’s true. Yet another reason why it would be better to base our nature conservation and preservation practices on the knowledge and worldviews of indigenous people. Large nature conservation organisations are coming from outside in, forging links with the government and sometimes with companies that are mostly interested in raw materials and wood. Indigenous people usually lose out.’

What about the relationship between humans and biodiversity in host country China?

‘China is one of the few countries currently planting more trees than it’s cutting down. They have fairly progressive ideas on ecological modernisation. But when it comes to recognising cultures, China has a less impressive record. Kunming is located in one of the most ethnically diverse provinces, Yunnan. In this region, there used to be kingdoms with their own languages, but they were all eradicated under Mao. This has also impacted people’s relationship with nature. Entire landscapes have been reshaped into uniform rubber plantations.’

How do you see the future?

‘I believe that we are capable of transforming the economic system into one of peaceful cohabitation with nature. Indigenous people have an important role to play in this process; nature is their home. By embracing diversity in worldviews, we can strengthen natural diversity. I just hope we are able to do it in time.’

Masai people (top photo) in Kenya and the Brazilian Amazon region near Venezuela.