Opening our minds to Indigenous issues

Gonzalo Oviedo is the person every conservationist dreams of sitting next to at a dinner party. He hails from Ecuador and has worked and traveled pretty much everywhere from the remotest part of the Galapagos Islands to the most northerly corner of Russia. IUCN's Senior Advisor for Social Policy, we caught up with Oviedo to ask him about his tireless work with Indigenous Peoples.

Gonzalo Oviedo

Never has the phrase 'Inspiring person' resonated so much with an interviewee. 

An anthropologist by trade, Oviedo started his career working in educational projects with Indigenous and rural communities of his home country Ecuador, under several initiatives supported by international organizations, such as UNESCO and the Organization of American States (OAS), which sought to implement innovative and integral approaches to community education. He then moved to the Galapagos Islands to work as the head of environmental education at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Now based in IUCN's headquaters in Gland, Switzerland, Oviedo seemed the perfect man to step into the 'Inspiring Person' chair for the an issue based on Indigenous Peoples, having spent almost 20 years working with and alongside them. 

You originally trained to be an anthropologist - what inspired you to work with Indigenous Peoples? 
I spent a large part of my life in rural areas close to Indigenous Peoples’ lands and so I was aware of their environmental challenges, stemming from social inequities, historical injustices and poverty. After I finished my studies I spent several years working with indigenous communities for the development of community-based educational systems, where again the topics of conservation of lands and resources were critical. After that period I moved to the Galapagos Islands to work with the local communities on educational and other social issues, it was my previous background and that experience on the islands that inspired me to dedicate my efforts to conservation with indigenous peoples.    

  Why is it so important that Indigenous Peoples are allowed to have a voice?  All over the world where Indigenous Peoples live they have faced challenges of many kinds in their history – environmentally, they have faced scarcity of resources, changing climates, extreme events and other problems; socially and economically, they have been marginalized, deprived from access to resources, exploited and pushed to poverty; culturally, they have been undervalued, misrepresented and harassed. Yet they have survived and maintained their cultures and societies. It means that they can teach us something about resilience; their ancestral connection with the lands and the ecosystems has generated knowledge and practices that have allowed them to master their environments for cultural survival. It simply doesn’t make sense to ignore them from a perspective on understanding socio-ecological resilience. But it is also a matter of justice. All governments of the world sign declarations, conventions and statements about poverty reduction and respect for human rights – many of them in practice don’t follow the discourse at the national level, and still if you are born as an indigenous person you are 60% more likely to fall in poverty than if you are not.      Have you noticed a positive shift in attitude and consciousness toward Indigenous peoples in the last 20 years?  There has been a huge shift especially in international policy. Just over 20 years ago we had just passed the 92 Rio Summit and the world was starting to digest Agenda 21, the Rio Conventions and the other Rio outcomes. Agenda 21 is the first global programmatic environmental agreement where all countries recognize the special position and situation of Indigenous Peoples in relation to the environment. The Rio Conventions, especially the CBD but increasing others such as the UNCCD, Ramsar and UNFCCC, integrated Indigenous Peoples issues in the legal and programme agreements. Today, there is virtually no international environmental policy process that ignores or doesn’t give a place to indigenous peoples. IUCN adopted radically different, rights-based policies on indigenous peoples in 1996, for example on protected areas, and since then through the Durban and Sydney Congresses has been setting new standards for indigenous peoples in relation to protected areas. Outside intergovernmental processes, all the major conservation organizations have adopted rights-based policies on indigenous peoples and are working together under the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR) to implement them. All in all, these past 20 years represent a new era in international environmental policy. But there are big gaps in national implementation. Some countries have made very significant progress, but others lag behind. This is the big challenge today – generally we don’t need new or more international policies on indigenous peoples and conservation – we need to make them reality.     What can the world learn from Indigenous Peoples (IP)?  I touched on this this question already, but it can be summarize by 5 key points.   

  • Approaches and values for socio-ecological resilience, including experiences of adaptation to climatic variability; 
  • Value systems – the world is starting to recognize the meaning of concepts such as Mother Earth or Pacha Mama: the worldviews and cultural value systems that indigenous peoples have created in their historical interactions with the planet and which are based on respect for nature and deep cultural identification with the forces of nature;  
  • Spirituality as a dimension of knowledge, respect and ethics that goes beyond the utilitarian management of resources;
  • Knowledge (sometimes sophisticated) about nature, such as taxonomies, ecological successions, meteorological knowledge, etc.; 
  • There are many other topics, but these would give a good idea of the many benefits that equal dialogue and engagement with indigenous peoples can bring to the world.     

  IP seem to be more open spiritually than your average person and seem to respect nature and the land on which we live. How have they stayed so connected to mother earth and how can we connect more? Indigenous and traditional cultures have normally developed complex systems of beliefs and values related to the spirituality and sacredness of nature. This is true from ancient times and also of today’s cultures. We can leave the discussions about the explanation of this cultural feature in the hands of cultural anthropologists and indigenous spiritual leaders – what we are interested in is the facts, i.e. the actual beliefs and practices that have a positive impact on nature and that are a fundamental, constitutive part of the interactions between a community and its environment.

I have been working on the topics of spirituality and sacred natural sites of indigenous and traditional cultures for many years and the more I learn about it, the more I am convinced that spiritual connections with nature are a powerful driver of positive change and maintenance of conservation practices. This applies also to faith groups, not only to indigenous and traditional peoples – today we see a strong social movement of faith-based groups proclaiming the need to care for the Creation. And I think this concept applies to agnostics too – anyone of us who contemplate the landscape around Machu Picchu will feel the deep and powerful emotion that explains why this has been a sacred place of Indigenous Peoples for generations.       Which countries have truly embraced their IP in the last 50 years and should we use their work as a template?  It is difficult to compare countries because every situation is different and one particular situation may not be applicable to others, but there is a lot we can learn from useful experiences in several fields. In relation to protected areas that involve indigenous lands and resources, for example, the country I have learned most about is Australia. I started exchanging with Australian colleagues 20 years ago, when professionals and Aboriginal leaders were starting to develop what is today a robust model of protected areas based on traditional ownership – the Indigenous Protected Areas model. Sixty-five IPAs have been created in that country since 1998 – apart from the many cases of strong involvement of Traditional Owners in state protected areas.

This is an extraordinary development that in 20 years has changed the protected areas landscape of Australia – it is based on the recognition of Aboriginal rights to their lands and resources: this is the key factor. To change continent and look close to home, many indigenous-owned and managed protected areas have been established in the same period in countries sharing the Amazon forests – Bolivia, with its Community Territories of Origin (as indigenous territories are called); Colombia, with its indigenous “Resguardos” (territories); the Terras Indigenas of Brazil, which scientific assessments have demonstrated that they are more effective than government protected areas in halting deforestation and forest degradation; and several indigenous territories of Ecuador turned indigenous protected areas on the decision of their owners. Many other great examples exist in many countries and they are source of lessons and inspiration.     Can Indigenous Peoples play a role in helping the management of protected areas? Precisely the examples I have given about countries like Australia and the Amazon countries show not only the value of Indigenous Peoples’ contributions to conservation but also that in their own lands, territories and resources they are irreplaceable because of their intimate connection with the land and their sense of stewardship. On the technical front, many experiences show the importance of integrating their knowledge and practices in management together with other tools – tracking systems, integration of sacred sites in zonation for strengthening intangibility of key places, species management, rotational practices that increase habitat diversity, etc. – there are many examples. This is valid not only within traditional lands but can also be applied outside in other protected areas.     Can IP and tourism work successfully together? There are very good examples that confirm this, but there are also bad examples. Tourism with Indigenous Peoples in protected areas is growing in many places, and will continue to grow because there is an important market for it – many travellers today highly value the experience of nature and culture in indigenous lands. But as we know well, successful experiences that meet the requirements of the travellers and are culturally and socially sensitive and bring real economic benefits to the communities do not occur spontaneously – they have to be carefully planned and managed. A lot of research has been done about it, so there are plenty of experiences in all continents to learn from. A few weeks ago I visited an indigenous community in central America where the tourism experience has been very beneficial and has already a long history of success – a feature of this experience that I found fascinating is that it is entirely managed by the community women.       What’s the best IP project you have seen put together? There are many excellent projects with Indigenous Peoples. One of my main areas of attention, because of my old-time interest in education, is inter-generational cultural connections. Indigenous peoples in most cases (as everyone in the world) are undergoing rapid cultural change, with the good and the bad effects of it. How indigenous children and youth experience their own culture – their traditional knowledge, practices and institutions? How do they embrace them? Will they continue with their value systems? These are questions that I am not alone in wondering about – they are the questions that I often hear from indigenous elders, who greatly worry about the future of their cultures. In this context, some of the projects that I remember and value most are projects focusing on the youth. In a remote forest area of Southeast Asia, a project organized periodic “forest expeditions” bringing together the elders - traditional experts in forest-related knowledge, with groups of youth who were normally attending schools (where they don’t learn about traditional knowledge). Over a week or so, the “forest expeditions” were a living school on traditional forest knowledge, and an opportunity for transmission of values and inter-generational bonding. In central Africa, a project works with young indigenous Bayakas to help them “reconnect” with their cultures, take pride of them and enhance their capacity to interact with the broader society – I follow this project with great interest. I really think these experiences speak to the future of indigenous cultures, and we should be doing more of this.    Who is the wisest or most interesting IP you have met in your time in your job? There are many wise people I have met in my time working with Indigenous Peoples – I have excellent memories of my work and encounters with indigenous people from all parts of the world. Perhaps because of the difference of cultures and geographies from my own background, people who have greatly impressed me are the indigenous leaders from the north of Russia. I find them particularly wise in the way they handle difficult situations.

There are several factors that may have influenced this – their harsh environments, as they live in some of the coldest places of the planet; their transition through different political regimes that they have had to deal with; their strong sense of landscape; their levels of education. I started working with some indigenous leaders and anthropologists from that region almost 20 years ago, and I have seen over this period many excellent developments. As IUCN we don’t work in that region, but I keep good contacts with some of them. My only regret is that I don’t speak Russian or any of their 50-plus indigenous languages!  I have always been impressed by the strength and wisdom of many indigenous women of the world. For example, indigenous women from Guatemala – I have great memories of my conversations with Rigoberta Menchu, one of the greatest personalities I have ever met.

But she is not the only one – indigenous women from that country are extraordinary. As are those from the Philippines and from eastern Africa and all over the world. Indigenous women face discrimination and have difficult lives because they are indigenous and because they are women – they face challenges even within their own cultures.  Yet they are the ones with greatest responsibilities for their children and families. All this makes them extremely wise and strong. One other person who stands out in my mind is a lady called Aroha who is an Indigenous Maori from New Zealand. She has a real magic to her work and was instrumental in driving the dreams of the IP & PA for Indigenous Peoples ahead of the World Parks Congress. People like Aroha make a real difference.   What’s your favourite protected area and why? My favourite protected area is and will remain the Galapagos Islands! It is not an indigenous territory because the area was never populated by aboriginal peoples, but there are fisher and rural communities that have been there for some time; a lot of good work has been done with them to ensure inclusive management particularly of the marine areas. I am fascinated by mountain protected areas, of which there are many in my home region that are also home to Indigenous Peoples. And I am also fascinated by deserts, some of which are also homelands of traditional cultures.     How do you hope the world will be in 50 years with regards to IP? Looking at the positive developments of the last 20 years, I am sure that in 50 years the world will have become a safe place for Indigenous Peoples, with full recognition of their land and resource rights, as well as their rights to maintain and develop their own cultures and institutions and to exercise control of their lands to defend them from external threats. I think, and I hope, that societies will have also fully embraced cultural diversity as an asset and will be proud of the contributions of Indigenous Peoples to their heritage. Looking at some of the negative developments, sadly I think that some indigenous cultures may disappear by integrating themselves in the broader populations – because for some groups the pace of change is too fast and the support they receive is too little, so they have to find opportunities to overcome poverty and survive in cities or other different cultural contexts. I certainly hope this trend will be slowed down by a more decisive action of governments and other actors – including conservation organizations.   


Work area: 
Protected Areas
South America
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