Cross Country Checkup

'You protect what you love': Why biodiversity thrives on Indigenous-managed lands

A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that biodiversity on Indigenous-managed land is 40 per cent greater compared to non-protected regions in Canada.

Recent study finds that number of unique species is 40% greater on protected land in Canada

More than 50 per cent of ringed plovers in Canada fall within Indigenous-managed lands, according to a UBC study. (Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images)

The caribou has spiritual significance for Innu forester Valérie Courtois, yet over her career she's watched the animal's population decline dramatically.

Climate change, habitat loss, sport hunting and predatory wolves have all contributed to its decline. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it's estimated the caribou herd has shrunk by 99 per cent since 2001.

Courtois, who is from the community of Mashteuiatsh in Quebec and now lives in Labrador, believes that incorporating Indigenous-led approaches into land management programs is key to helping protect wildlife across the country.

"What we're seeing in Canada is that when Indigenous peoples are part of the decision making, we have areas that are well protected and well managed," Courtois, who heads the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, told Cross Country Checkup guest host Michelle Eliot.

A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that biodiversity on Indigenous-managed lands across three countries — Canada, Brazil and Australia — is higher than that on non-protected lands.

On average, Indigenous-managed and protected lands in Canada are home to around 190 unique species of amphibians, mammals, reptiles and birds. That number drops to 126 on non-protected lands, according to the study.

Care and love for the earth is innate in many Indigenous cultures, says Innu forester Valérie Courtois. (Submitted by Valérie Courtois)

A separate UN report from May similarly found that species of plants and animals were better protected on Indigenous-led lands.

"The lessons for me, from an Innu point of view, is that you protect what you love and you love what you spend time with and depend on," Courtois said. "That ethic of care and responsibility is innate in many Indigenous cultures and certainly in mine."

Small efforts with big impacts

As land conversions and habitat loss drive toward a sixth "mass extinction" of species globally, the UBC study's authors write, regions with greater levels of biodiversity play a key role.

Lead author Richard Schuster says that avoiding action to slow the extinction of an estimated one million species could have serious impacts on human health.

"We are likely to lose a lot of the species that we rely on for food and sustenance and just livelihoods in general," Schuster told Checkup.

That's where he believes Indigenous-managed lands come into play. Based on his study's findings, it's clear "that something about the Indigenous peoples' land management practices results in a lot of species on their lands," he said.

Carleton University researcher Richard Schuster says decision makers across Canada must collaborate with Indigenous communities to protect species. (Submitted by Richard Schuster)

While the study didn't dive into exactly what practices set Indigenous-managed lands apart from non-protected lands, Schuster has seen some of them first-hand.

On Vancouver Island, where the Carleton University researcher worked with Indigenous communities, regular controlled burns keep forest out of meadows where Camas lilies grow. 

The lilies are popular for their vibrant purple flowers and the bulbs are commonly harvested for food, he said.

As a people who have been able to really live in balance with nature, there are some good lessons there.- Valérie Courtois, Innu forester

That's just one example, but Schuster suggests that many small conservation efforts like it add up to have big benefits. 

"I would say it's the management over long periods of time — like hundreds of thousands of years — that actually is done by Indigenous communities to have a sustainable livelihood in the areas that they're living in," he said.

Indigenous economics

Eli Enns sums it up as Indigenous economics, a land-use approach developed by observing nature and working in concert with it.

Enns, president of the Iisaak Olam Foundation, points to salmon fishing on the West Coast as an example. Indigenous economics, he says, approaches fishing in a way that promotes abundance rather than depleting the stock.

Traditional knowledge says that fish should never be caught from beginning or end of a run during spawning season, only the middle, he says. What's more is that individuals should never fish beyond their community's needs.

Bioculture expert Eli Enns says traditional Indigenous teachings not only benefit the environment, they can also provide economic benefits. (Submitted by Eli Enns)

Enns argued that this approach helps benefit a region's biodiversity, and could also reap economic benefits.

"If you can have your economy a better reflection of the patterns of what's going on in nature around you, then that economy itself can be more resilient and respectful," he said.

Western science can be reluctant to adopt approaches — such as those Enns suggests — that lack concrete evidence, Schuster says. 

He believes, however, that the numbers in his report indicate decision-makers should better incorporate Indigenous-led strategies when it comes to sustainability programs.

"There needs to be a real big concerted effort to involve Indigenous communities in the planning for protected areas into the future," Schuster told Checkup.

For Courtois, that would mean Indigenous peoples in Canada have title to the places they live and are recognized for their role as stewards of nature with guardians — who she lovingly calls her "moccasins and mukluks on the ground" — offering guidance.

"We've been here for well over 10,000 years as a people," she said. 

"As a people who have been able to really live in balance with nature, there are some good lessons there in terms of management approaches."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Mary Newman