Adapting traditional practices for biodiversity conservation

Involving indigenous groups in long-term research on biodiversity

Recognizing, protecting, maintaining, promoting and using traditional knowledge, practices and cultures supporting the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, with the approval and involvement of those who possess this knowledge. Benefits arising from the innovative use of traditional knowledge of biological diversity should be equitably shared with those from whom knowledge has been gleaned.


The knowledge, cultural traditions, innovations, spirituality and management practices of indigenous peoples, and traditional practices of farmers and other rural communities concerning biodiversity are an essential basis for both sustaining biodiversity and sustaining human life.

This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends that the widest possible participation of indigenous people and their communities, including women, should be encouraged when undertaking long-term research into: (a) the importance of biodiversity for the functioning of ecosystems and the role of ecosystems in producing goods, environmental services and other values supporting sustainable development; (b) new observation and inventory techniques; (c) ecological conditions necessary for biodiversity conservation and continued evolution; (d) social behaviour and nutrition habits dependent on natural ecosystems in which women play key roles.


Traditionally, African societies depended on many of these indigenous species for survival and developed strategies to protect and conserve them for the benefit of their own and future generations. In some cultures, areas that were particularly rich in biodiversity were often designated as sacred groves and protected areas.

The Kayapo Indians of Brazil's Amazon Basin are effective managers of tropical forest, utilizing an extensive inventory of useful native plants that are concentrated by human activity in special forest areas (resource islands, forest fields, forest openings, tuber gardens, agricultural plots, old fields, and trailsides). Long-term transplanting and selection of plants suggest semi-domestication of many species. The overall management strategies of forest also includes many manipulated animal species (birds, fish, bees, mammals) utilized as food and game. Forest patches (apete) are created by Indians from campo/cerrado using planting zones made from termite and ant nests mixed with mulch. Variants of forest and savanna are recognized by the Kayapo; such knowledge of subtle similarities between conceptually distinct ecological units in the model allows for the interchange of botanical material between microclimates to increase biological diversity in managed areas. This indigenous knowledge is extremely important in development of new strategies for forest and campo/cerrado conservation, while improving productiveness of these ecological systems. Such knowledge is not only applicable for Amazonian Indians, but also has far-reaching implications for human populations throughout the humid tropics.

Terra firme rainforests of Amazonia contain an exceptionally large number of useful species and certain plant families (e.g. Palmae) deserve special consideration in terms of conservation. Of four indigenous Indian groups (from Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia) the minimum percentage of useful tree species per hectare was 49% and ranged as high as 79%. The fact that each group has different suites of most useful species is, in fact, more reflection of plant endemism within Amazonia than intercultural differences per se. High indigenous plant use combined with high endemism has important implications for conservation policy: many reserves are needed throughout Amazonia.

The majority of activities of the Programme on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) are directed at species and habitat conservation and at integrating indigenous people. CAFF activities include among others: forming a Protected Area Expert Group to facilitate the development of the (Arctic) Protected Area Network called for in the Rovaniemi Declaration; wildlife habitat mapping; producing a new circumpolar vegetation map; listing rare endemic vascular plants, mapping their distribution in the Arctic; listing rare, vulnerable and endangered fauna in the Arctic, including bringing together seabird colony information; regional implementation of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity; completing the compilation and assessment of circumpolar indigenous knowledge databases.


Biodiversity is of great value in sustaining the biophysical basis of human societies. This has long been understood by traditional peoples. Indigenous knowledge, or traditional ecological knowledge, has played a significant role in the sustainable use of a diversity of local resources. Traditional peoples have elaborated such knowledge, and applied it in formulating resource use regimes based partly on social conventions and partly on religious beliefs. Indigenous knowledge provides insights for the conservation of biodiversity, considering that (a) many traditional resource use systems help conserve and enhance biodiversity, (b) cultural diversity and biological diversity appear to be linked, (c) community-based conservation that allows for sustainable use of resources is an increasingly effective approach. Examples of culturally evolved behaviour for biodiversity conservation include, total protection of keystone species, protection of species in refuge, protection of vulnerable life-history stages, and adjustment of resource harvesting practices to sustain yields.


Type Classification:
D: Detailed strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 15: Life on Land