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5 global parks and nature reserves putting indigenous conservation and land management first

Photography By Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Alexander Schimmeck
Published 25.01.22

As the effects of climate change continue to rapidly alter the world as we know it, there’s never been a more important time to accelerate environmental policies and conservation efforts.

We need as many people as possible, from all walks of life and levels of power, to throw their weight behind solving the climate crisis. In saying that, it’s important to acknowledge who has historically been left out of these conversations: indigenous and first nations groups. 

These groups haven’t just been silenced: they have been minimised, displaced and harmed throughout history, at times in the name of furthering the environmental movement

Thankfully, this is changing. The work of BIPOC groups and the educational efforts of intersectional environmentalists have propelled a shift in thinking and it’s becoming more widely accepted that indigenous groups have made significant contributions to the protection and maintenance of some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.

People aren’t just recognising that these groups have been leading the way on climate change for centuries though: they’re now looking to them to inform current solutions. We even saw a historic pledge at last year’s COP26, with governments and private funders announcing an investment of 1.7 billion dollars US to help indigenous and local communities protect vital, biodiverse tropical forests

In recognition of the role first nations people play in solving climate change and protecting the natural world, we’re taking you to five places around the world that are being protected, conserved and safeguarded by indigenous or local groups.

Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Daintree National Park – Australia 

In September last year, the Queensland state government handed more than 160,000 hectares of land in Cape York back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. Located in the northernmost peninsula of Australia, the land includes four national parks, the most famous being Daintree which is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Daintree National Park is the oldest continuously surviving rainforest in existence today. The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people are believed to have inhabited the area for over 50,000 years and are now applying centuries of knowledge to the ownership and co-management of the parks. Alongside establishing a foundation to provide mentoring, training and employment opportunities for First Nations people, the traditional stewards of the land are working to safeguard the Daintree Rainforest’s unique biodiversity which includes thousands of species of birds, reptiles and other wildlife. 

Edéhzhíe Protected Area – Canada 

Located in the Northwest Territories, Edéhzhíe is the first Indigenous protected area (IPA) within Canada, the result of a collaborative process between the Dehcho First Nations and the government of Canada. 

Covering an area more than double the size of Banff National Park (14,218 square kilometres), Edéhzhíe is a culturally and ecologically important place to the Dehcho Dene people and their culture, language and way of life. Alongside contributing to Canada’s international commitments to protect land and fresh water, Edéhzhíe will support Indigenous capacity to actually lead these conservation processes. According to the Conversation, co-management structures between Indigenous groups and crown governments, where decision-making is shared, only represent three per cent of Canada’s protected areas. 

Yanesha Communal Reserve – Peru

On the slopes of the Amazon Basin, situated a few hundred metres above sea level, is the Yanesha Communal Reserve. Spanning over 34,745 hectares of forest and freshwater ecosystems, it is one of the last undisturbed areas in the central jungle of the country, home to nearly 10,000 indigenous people and a diverse range of flora and fauna. 

Managing to conserve the precious resources around them even in the face of rapid environmental changes, the Yanesha people rightly govern the land through the legal communal reserve agreement with the Peruvian government. They have planted more than 75 species of crops in home gardens and more than 125 species in swidden fields to protect against potential crop destruction from pests, disease or weather. Another significant goal of the Yanesha Communal Reserve is to preserve the basins of the Palcazu River. 

Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Mutawintji State Conservation Area – Australia

In 2019, 56,954 hectares of land were added to the Mutawintji State Conservation Area, a region 160 kilometres north-east of Broken Hill. The area is an expansion of the Mutawintji National Park, “the first Aboriginal-owned national park in New South Wales”. 

Speaking to the ABC about the expansion’s importance, park manager Leroy Johnson said the agreement was part of a bigger vision to see culturally significant land protected and given time to heal from years of agricultural damage and mismanagement. Adding to that, the conservation area has been identified as an important refuge for 29 threatened species, including the critically endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby. 

Maya Biosphere Reserve – Guatemala 

The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers 2.1 million hectares of land and is the largest protected area in Central America. The reserve includes critical forest carbon sinks and has “vital biological and cultural heritage”, providing a home to countless endangered species and ancient archaeological sites. 

Though not explicitly indigenous-run, for more than 20 years, the community has been entrusted with protecting parts of one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet. In the late 1990s, the Guatemalan government granted twelve forest concessions to the local community for sustainable logging. These are operated by community forest enterprises (CFEs) that extract “timber and non-timber forest products responsibly in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards”. 

Despite early fears from conservationists, these community concessions have yielded incredible results. Not only has the program created nearly 9,000 jobs, but the Maya Biosphere Reserve has also recorded only 0.4 per cent deforestation rates, maintaining 70 per cent of its conservation state. It’s a stark contrast to the national parks in the west of the reserve, which have been subjected to some of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world due to illegal cattle ranching linked to major drug cartels.

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