This Mother Earth Day, Let’s Follow the Lead of Indigenous People for a More Symbiotic Relationship With Nature

For centuries, Indigenous people have practiced land management and conservation methods that scientists say are crucial for tackling the climate crisis and enriching biodiversity.

Siurima Waiapi of the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa, Brazil, on Oct. 14, 2017. The tribe has resisted the Brazilian government, in order to protect the rainforest from economic endeavors, such as international mining. (Apu Gomes / AFP via Getty Images)

Earth Day is one of the most familiar awareness days in the world; it’s been celebrated in the United States since 1970. Yet for most of the rest of the world, it became officially known as International Mother Earth Day in 2009. The terminology—Mother Earth rather than just Earth—was chosen deliberately to acknowledge an important ethos of Indigenous Peoples, one that values a symbiotic relationship between all living things and the planet we share.

As we battle the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, this Mother Earth Day is an opportunity to rethink our relationship with nature. It might be tempting to view our planet as something that serves and nurtures us—something we conquer and exploit as a means to a human end. Certainly, many of our leaders, policymakers and governments think this way. But a shift to the Indigenous perspectives, values and knowledge—one that prioritizes a harmonious relationship with the natural world—can inspire real, impactful and equitable action on the climate and conservation. 

By simply stewarding tropical forests according to Indigenous practices, we would avoid 1 gigatons of emissions annually by 2025.

Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak

This call to follow the lead of Indigenous Peoples is even more germane since Mother Earth Day this year coincides with the gathering of Indigenous Peoples from around the world for the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York City. This advisory body has been at the forefront of ensuring Indigenous voices and values are at the nexus of the global decision-making process.

(Courtesy of the United Nations)

As my colleague and sister in this fight, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Mbororo pastoralist people of Chad and vice chair of the UNPFII, said, “If they recognize the science, they must recognize our knowledge. If they recognize our knowledge, we must be at the tables making decisions about the future of our world.”

Indigenous voices are critical to climate and conservation decision-making, as they are often the frontline responders to the consequences of climate change due to their dependence on and relationship with nature and its resources. While Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC) account for just 5 percent of the world’s population, they own or manage at least 25 percent of the world’s land surface, 40 percent of protected areas, and steward an astounding 80 percent of biodiversity on earth.

Indigenous people have historically practiced land management and conservation methods that scientists now say are crucial for tackling the climate crisis and enriching biodiversity. A 2023 study found that forests managed by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon region sequester vast amounts of carbon while the rest of the region has become a net source of the greenhouse gas.

By simply stewarding tropical forests according to Indigenous practices, we would avoid 1 gigatons (Gt) of emissions annually by 2025. It will only be possible to reach the Paris Agreement and Montreal-Kumming goals by making Indigenous solutions central to global efforts. There are two critical steps we must take now: increase the number of Indigenous people at the decision-making table and ensure funding earmarked for Indigenous Peoples gets to them quickly and easily. 

Thanks to increased recognition of the importance of Indigenous traditional knowledge, Indigenous Peoples are now leading climate and environmental policy in countries from Brazil to New Zealand to the United States. But we can—and should—do more to make up for a history of marginalization and discrimination. Indigenous People’s perspectives can be highlighted through inclusion, namely of women and youth, in the conversation on climate change and biodiversity loss.

Indigenous women play a central role as knowledge holders for the generation, transmission and implementation of ancestral wisdom that promotes sustainability and the responsible stewardship of natural resources. Their roles are at the core of community-led adaptation and resilience through ecosystems management and nature-based solutions which are culturally endorsed. 

For the first time ever, over 100 young people from Indigenous Peoples and other climate vulnerable groups will be sponsored so that they can participate in the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) later this year. Young people will inherit our planet, and women are the key decision makers about food, fuel, child rearing and land, household and resource management. As key stakeholders in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, both groups must be nurtured as leaders.

IPLC need direct access to finance: Less than 2 percent of global climate finance is reaching Indigenous Peoples, local communities and small farmers in developing countries, despite evidence that they are the most effective guardians of the world’s ecosystems.

The landmark pledge of $1.7 billion in Glasgow was a significant first step toward correcting an unjust system that has failed to favor Indigenous people and local communities—but only 7 percent of that funding is going to Indigenous groups. It is critical now that we fulfill that commitment by acting quickly to strengthen the capacity of IPLC organizations and adapting more flexible funding mechanisms that reflect their needs so that the planet can benefit from their wisdom and leadership. 

As we celebrate International Mother Earth Day, we’d be wise to let Indigenous People and their intergenerational and holistic understanding of the natural world guide us in protecting and replenishing nature. Indigenous Peoples are one of our most valuable solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss, and their voices must be heard.

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Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is the United Nations climate change high level champion for COP28 and the president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).