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Guardians of the Earth: How Indigenous Peoples can teach the world to safeguard and conserve biodiversity

For hundreds of years, Indigenous Peoples around the world have held integral roles as protectors of their surrounding territories, environment and resources.

While representing less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples steward more than a quarter of Earth’s land and seas and protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity. Despite this, Indigenous Peoples have not been recognised for their vital role as stewards and custodians of the natural world.

Thankfully, the tide is turning and these lessons are being transferred into collaborative projects between Indigenous Peoples and mining companies.

These four collaborative projects show the positive change that comes from respecting the peoples who best know the land, in terms of improving biodiversity and ecosystems, reducing and reversing impacts on nature from industry and protecting local wildlife.

Protecting caribou, Canada

Caribou numbers are on the rise in British Columbia, thanks to a maternal penning programme to protect caribou mothers and their calves from predators in the Peace region. 

In the mid-1990s, almost 200 Klinse-Za caribou lived in the area but by 2014, the herd had declined dramatically to fewer than 20. As part of an initiative between Teck and local stakeholders, pregnant female caribou are captured temporarily, tagged and transported by helicopter to a remote and secure pen where they are looked after by indigenous shepherds for the rest of the pregnancy, during the birth and post-natally. The cows and calves are then released back into their natural habitat. 

Ten years after the programme launched, there is much to celebrate. Not only has the programme just had its most successful year, with 38 calves being born in 2023, the total numbers of caribou in the herd is also on the rise. 

This year’s annual population survey shows there are now 132 caribou, up 18 since 2022.  Also, for the second year in a row, there are three generations of caribou in the pen. A 14-year-old cow named C311K is the oldest in the herd and she is joined not only by her calf, but by her calf’s calf. 

Sowing seeds for the future, Australia

Rio Tinto’s bauxite mine in Far North Queensland has been operating since 1963, extracting the rocks used to make aluminium, needed for the world’s transition to green energy.

In the 1960s, some of the mined land was rehabilitated for commercial purposes. Non-native  species like gamba grass were introduced to the Weipa area to create grazing lands for commercial farms.

However, since the early 2000s, Rio Tinto has been partnering with Traditional Owners and local Aboriginal people to rehabilitate mined land with culturally significant species of native plants, which Traditional Owners use for food, medicines, and ceremonial purposes.

Today’s rehabilitation work uses seeds collected by the community themselves. The seed collectors earn an income and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. 

School-leaver Traditional Owners are also given trained paid, hands-on land-management training while mixing and planting seeds, endowing them with skills that will help protect nature into the future.

Community partnerships, Suriname

Alcoa is collaborating with Indigenous communities in Suriname to help improve their future income generation. Mining operations stopped in 2015, but the company is continuing to partner with Indigenous People as it works to restore the mining sites.

An Alcoa Foundation grant has enabled the Organisation of Kaliña and Lokono in Marowijne to help eight of its member Indigenous villages to preserve their culture by cleaning up ancestral areas and building accommodation. 

They are also developing their capacity for nature tourism by creating educational materials and training community members as tour guides and other related roles.

Forest conservation, Canada

A new project in North America is ensuring the future of one of earth’s few remaining intact forests. Canada’s million-hectare boreal forest is home to 600 indigenous communities. It provides food and shelter to animals such as moose, caribou and wolves, and billions of migrating birds. 

As part of earth’s largest terrestrial carbon storehouse, it also plays a valuable role in regulating climate change and boasts a freshwater resource in the shape of lakes, rivers and wetlands. 

The project in Manitoba, run by Nature United and supported by BHP, gives Indigenous People the power and skills to lead change in the area. As stewards of this ancient land, they are working on conservation, community and economics to build a resilient future. 

This programme, like others in this article, shows that with respect and collaboration, Indigenous People and business can work together to contribute to a nature positive future that strengthens both the natural world and its connected communities.