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UMaine Researchers: Indigenous People Key To Building Biodiversity In Wilderness

Gabriel and Gal Frey collect sweetgrass at Acadia National Park in 2018.
Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public file
Gabriel and Gal Frey collect sweetgrass at Acadia National Park in 2018.

A new global study involving researchers from the University of Maine finds that indigenous participation has been a key to maintaining biodiversity across the planet. The study looked at thousands of years of natural resource management.

To explain more, All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Darren Ranco, an associate professor of anthropology, and Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: So Jacqueline, briefly, what did this study conclude about the way we're managing natural resources? And how do indigenous peoples fit into that?

Gill: So what we did is we took a couple of really big, exciting new data sets that look at population sizes going back 12,000 years, and also land use types going back 12,000 years, and we combined those two perspectives to see the world in a new way in terms of conservation science. And what we found is that, basically, people have been all over the planet, almost every continent, except for Antarctica, for at least 12,000 years in most places. And the ecosystems that we have lived in, across all cultures have been shaped in part by human activity. So three-quarters of the planet has been shaped by us to some extent or another. And what that means is that a lot of the places that we think of as, you know, pristine wilderness, or untouched by people have actually been shaped by human actions for much longer than we thought.

So what would be an example of that? A place that, you know, maybe when you're standing in it, you think, 'Oh, I might be the first person to have ever trod here,' but probably has a long history of human intervention.

Gill: I think a great example would be our national parks here in the United States, when they were set aside or reserved. People often think of them as places that are pristine wilderness. And so they're protected because they're beautiful, but what most people don't realize is that these places, our national parks, have been inhabited by people going back thousands of years, more than 10,000 years, in most cases. And people were very much living in those parks, and they were part of their cultures, you know, long before we had a National Park Service. So these places that we visit and we think of as these reserved, little snippets of wilderness, you know, they're people's homes, and they had been for quite some time.

So Darren, what does that mean for you? What's the takeaway from that?

Ranco: That's a great question. I'm glad Jacquelyn brought up the the issue of national parks, right. So these were heavily managed places by indigenous people, of course, Native people here in the U.S. That management created these richly diverse ecosystems that supported lots of biodiversity. The kicking out of the people, which often happened with the creation of national parks, the kicking out of indigenous people, has actually helped to degrade those seemingly pristine places. And for us, the implications are, of course, that indigenous presence and management of these ecosystems is one of the critical pieces of creating and maintaining these forms of rich ecosystems and biodiversity. You know, I've written about this before and Jacquelyn has, you know, but to have this data set, in particular, which shows that it has been the presence of indigenous people in these ecosystems that have created and maintained the biodiversity that we rely on as human beings.

So in your opinion, then, a study like this that kind of indicates that indigenous peoples have been managing resources successfully for thousands of years. How does that actually work in a modern discussion about policy?

Ranco: You know, there are a bunch of different decisions, right? Where indigenous people can and should be more directly involved. How to respond to the emerald ash borer, for example. Luckily, we did a lot of work to include indigenous voices into the state and federal responses here in Maine. Indigenous people can and should be center. How we engage in those places, how we seek to manage and build and maintain relationships with those places, has to be a critical part of this. And if you look at other evidence around the world, there have been lots of studies that indigenous presence and management in places is equal to and often exceeds the management by land trusts and land conservation groups and agencies around the world, in terms of maintaining and expanding biodiversity.

Gill: I think that this can be hard for a lot of people to take in because we're used to thinking about conservation as, you know, protecting nature from people or that nature is something separate from people. If you if you look globally, and one of the powers of the study is that it was the first really global perspective on this issue, something like 80% of the world's biodiversity is being protected on indigenous lands today and that to me as a conservation biologist, that just says to me, you know, if we're approaching this problem from the perspective that people need to be managed and removed from from nature, it's not supported by the science.