‘Pristine’ Ecosystems and the Hidden Communities That Manage Them

April 18, 2024
Caroline Stillman
Capacity Development Coordinator at Plan Vivo Foundation

Today, there is a growing recognition that Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) play a critical role in conservation. Indigenous peoples have long been the best managers of their own lands, many of which have a high conservation value and significant benefits for the climate and biodiversity. 

Yet this skillful management can be invisible labor to those outside these communities, who often view a “pristine” ecosystem as one untouched by human hands — when, in fact, human hands are actively protecting and maintaining that ecosystem.

This view is so widespread that we often don’t realize it is part of our conception of the natural world. As an experiment, close your eyes and imagine a wild place, a totally natural ecosystem. Alongside the trees and the wildlife, do you see any people? You should — because they are there. But many Europeans like myself do not.

Longstanding notions of “wilderness” and “pristine ecosystems” as places absent of human interference are a Eurocentric construct. This view emerged during the Enlightenment period and was then strengthened through colonization, including colonial “conservation” efforts, whereby IPLCs were displaced from their lands. 

These practices have continued after colonialism — for example, in 1970, when land was enclosed to form the Tarangire national park in Tanzania, and Maasai pastoralists were no longer allowed to graze their cattle there.

This thinking may be gaining in popularity again today amongst international conservation organizations, philanthropists, foundations, and some governments. Beyond being simply untrue, this perception has real impacts on the type of conservation that is done in the world, as funders and regulators shape the practices on the ground. 

An equitable model for tropical restoration

It’s encouraging to see progress toward a significant — and necessary — focus on conserving and restoring biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Initiatives such as the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, the pioneering activity in the biodiversity markets, and the consistent increase in value of the carbon markets are showing positive impacts on the lands most critical to our climate’s stability. 

Recognizing the role of IPLCs in managing these lands is important both ethically and practically. As for all of us living under capitalism, forest-dependent communities need sustainable income sources. A huge proportion of tropical land is owned or managed by local communities. Therefore, we need functioning models that empower local communities to manage their own land, such as through Plan Vivo’s holistic carbon certification. 

Through Plan Vivo’s model, Indigenous peoples are paid to manage their lands sustainably. The climate benefits are quantified and sold, and at least 60% of the income goes back to the communities to spend as they see fit.

Reviving community connection with the land

Several Plan Vivo–certified projects empower Indigenous groups to sustainably manage their own landscapes. These seemingly “pristine” ecosystems function incredibly well, not despite human activity, but because of human intervention and the application of Indigenous knowledge.

For example, in the Meghalaya region of northeastern India, a community-led conservation project allows the Khasi people to revive their ancestral connection with nature while also earning income from the sale of ethical carbon credits. 

The Khasi people are closely connected to their lands, which include sacred groves — an integral part of the Khasi culture and the home of spirits, deities, and ancestors — and living, green bridges constructed from young tree roots.

Prior to the project, economic pressures meant that the forest had become degraded. The introduction of this carbon project has allowed the Khasi people to revive their ancestral connection with nature while gaining income for doing so. 

The traditional practice of creating fire lines has also been revived through the project, resulting in fewer instances of forest fires. In the case of the Khasi Hills, by creating a viable source of income, the carbon project has empowered the local community to manage their own lands and maintain a highly functioning, biodiverse ecosystem.

Recognizing Indigenous stewardship

In the Yaeda-Eyasi landscape in northern Tanzania, the resilience of the forest reflects the resilience of the people who live there. The area is inhabited and managed by the Indigenous Hadzabe and Datooga peoples, as it has been for eons. 

As hunter-gatherers, the Hadza rely on the forest’s health for access to their food (wildlife to hunt, berries and tubers, and honey). In the Hadza language, there is no word for “hunger” or “famine” — showing that they live in such a way that food can always be found amongst the resources available to them. 

Through the project, coordinated by Carbon Tanzania, the Datooga and Hadza collaboratively plan how the land is used and where the forest is to be protected. Datooga livestock is kept out of the forest for several months of the year to allow the forest to regenerate and to ensure food security for the Hadza. Each village uses carbon revenue to employ and train community members as village game scouts that move through the forest and report any poachers, illegal logging, or intruders, ensuring the health of the forest in the long term.

Our changing climate is a wake-up call to change our practices, at the same time bringing new appreciation for nature and the hard work of conserving and protecting it. With an awareness that “pristine ecosystems” may well be so highly functioning because of management by IPLCs, funders and regulators can better ensure that finance is channelled to groups that have been sustainably managing their land for generations.

Caroline Stillman
Capacity Development Coordinator at Plan Vivo Foundation
Caroline is the Capacity Development Coordinator at the Plan Vivo Foundation, where they have worked for 3.5 years. Their work focuses on enabling more projects to certify with Plan Vivo and strengthen their impact for climate, nature and communities. Caroline holds an MSc in International Development and a BSc in Physics, both from the University of Edinburgh. They have experience in Tanzania and Kenya.
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Who Will Speak For The Trees?

At a time when human economic development is prioritized over the needs of nature, the Who Will Speak for the Trees? series features top reforestation leaders with a broad range of restoration expertise, including climate tech, monitoring, science, finance, media, and more. These diverse voices offer expert viewpoints to instill confidence in how humanity can support nature to deliver a forested future for all living things on Earth. Join us for this ongoing series to learn more about the science of reforestation and how restoring ecosystems is part of a comprehensive climate solution.

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