By 2030, 30 percent of nature on land and in the sea must be protected. That is one of the new goals of the international biodiversity treaty, which will be discussed this week during the digital edition of the UN summit in Kunming, China. A clear aim, but it does raise questions about the nature of nature conservation in a world full of people.

When the United States government established Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the military was deployed to expel the natives who had lived and hunted there for thousands of years. In the 21st century, some African nature reserves have been deeply militarized; hunting by the natives is considered poaching and is fought with violence by park rangers. The only permitted human activity is tourism.

But the sustainability of such policies has been increasingly criticized for the past decade or two. After preserving nature with respect for the rights of people who live there, scientists are now increasingly advocating ‘biodiversity pluralism’. It focuses on the world views, knowledge and values ​​of different cultures and groups of people.

One of them is Bas Verschuuren, who studies the relationship between indigenous peoples and nature at Wageningen University. “When we think of nature, we often think of large, seemingly wild areas,” he says in a video call. “But then we ignore the fact that so-called wilderness has sometimes been cultivated by humans for thousands of years.”

Verschuuren obtained his doctorate in the group of Bram Büscher, who the concept ‘convivial conservation‘ developed. In short: instead of hermetically separating man and nature reserve, the aim should be a more pragmatic model, in which man and nature can exist in harmony. “The fact that we can think about nature ignores our relationship with it,” says Verschuuren. “We are nature.”

Indigenous people protect about 80 percent of biodiversity, on less than 30 percent of the global land area, according to UN reports. “Indigenous peoples often have a very intimate bond with nature from an early age,” says Verschuuren. “And nature thrives on that. Respect for the knowledge and worldview of indigenous peoples can contribute to successful nature management.”

Removing people sometimes actually leads to a decline in biodiversity

Do you have an example?

„In Northern Australia, people are born with a spirit – a personal totem animal. As children they are busy observing such an animal and the environment in which it lives. There are also many stories about the ancestral animals that created the earth. Those stories are told, sung, danced. As a result, there is greater involvement with nature.

“Australia is now not only returning lands to indigenous people, but also paying them for conservation on their own land. instead of to rewilding, bringing back wilderness by removing man, we can therefore also strive for reculturing; give indigenous peoples the role they deserve in nature conservation.”

So nature without people is not necessarily better than with people?

“In fact, removing people sometimes actually leads to a decline in biodiversity. You see this in Greece and Italy, for example, with the exodus of mountain villages. When the farmers no longer go into the hills with their cattle, the landscape starts to become rough. Certain plants and animals gain the upper hand at the expense of others. You often come to these landscapes holy places against, such as a rock chapel or a sacred patch of woods. What seems? Biodiversity is often higher in those places than in neighboring nature reserves, because they are cared for with more respect.”

Remarkable that you mention cattle ranching. Isn’t that usually considered harmful to nature?

“It’s a matter of balance. Much damage comes from the pressure of the economic system. Capitalism always demands more and more. In Kenya, traditional Masai herders are increasingly roaming the herds of wealthy urban families. Cows are a financial investment, but cause overgrazing in large numbers. In Europe, the increase in scale after the Second World War changed farms into private limited companies. In the past, small-scale agriculture created a biodiverse countryside.”

The Brazilian Amazon Region near Venezuela.
Foto Getty Images

Do Indigenous Peoples Have Enough Voice at the Kunming Conference?

“When global wildlife goals were first set, in 1992, indigenous peoples played an emphatic role. United in the Indigenous caucus, they’ve been trying to put pressure on them ever since. But the global consultation structure is by definition an instrument for national governments, which are not always aware of the interests of indigenous peoples. So their striking power remains moderate.”

Which countries are the most troublesome?

“At the moment you can call Brazil. Since Jaïr Bolsonaro came to power there, the deforestation of the Amazon has been rampant. There are reserves, but there are gas and mining concessions over them. It is precisely where that overlap is that you should let indigenous people determine what needs to be done.”


Read also this report by correspondent Nina Jurna about the Amazon

That is not without danger. Every year more conservationists are killed, often of indigenous descent.

“That’s right. That is also why it is better to start from the knowledge and world views of indigenous peoples in nature management and conservation. Major conservation organizations come from the outside in, forging ties with the government and sometimes with companies. Companies are after raw materials and wood. Indigenous people then quickly lose out.”

China is one of the few countries where more forest is added than is felled

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

“China is one of the few countries where more forest is added than is felled. They have quite progressive ideas about ecological modernization.

“But when it comes to recognizing cultures, China has a less good track record. Kunming is located in one of the most ethnically diverse provinces, Yunnan. There used to be kingdoms with their own languages, but these have been wiped out under Mao. This has also had an impact on how we interact with nature. Entire landscapes have been transformed into uniform rubber plantations.”

How do you see the future?

“I think that we as humans are able to bend the economic system to coexistence with nature. Indigenous peoples are important in this respect; nature is their home. Embracing diversity in worldviews will enhance natural diversity. I just hope we do that in time.”

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