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PiN Blog

People and nature blur in the world’s indigenous languages

Written by Seline Meijer. This article is published on the IUCN Blog on the Huffington Post website.

Indigenous peoples from around the world came together to examine the relationships between people and nature at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i. They discovered that in many indigenous or native worldviews people are not seen as separate from nature - as reflected in many local languages, writes Seline Meijer from IUCN’s Global Economics and Social Science Programme.

Read the whole blog story here.

People in Nature: Building bridges between indigenous communities

Written by Kevin Chang. This article was first published on the IUCN blog in May 2016

Indigenous peoples around the world must learn from each other to better care for nature, writes Kevin Chang, Executive Director of Hawaiian community initiative Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA), as he reflects on a gathering of Indigenous peoples’ organisations convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Guatemala.

Participants of the IPO Meeting in Guatemala

There is a Hawaiian proverb that says:  “the land is the chief; man is its servant.”[1]  It is often cited among Native Hawaiian and grassroots community stewardship networks my organisation is privileged to serve.

Feeling it might resonate with new friends, I used it in my talk at an inaugural gathering of Indigenous peoples and local community IUCN Members in Antigua, Guatemala. The thoughtful reflections in the room affirmed for me that my home – an isolated community over 2,000 miles of ocean away from others – is connected to a larger global family. We can build bridges.

We met to explore the role of the indigenous communities our organisations represent in caring for nature, and how we could best participate in IUCN’s People in Nature (PiN) initiative. This was the foreground for an opening dialogue on common issues, successes and struggles.

We explored common themes deeply embedded in a cultural perspective of nature based on reciprocity and the inclusiveness and well-being of people as a part of it. The concept of kuleana, a Hawaiian word that recognizes that rights and obligations are inseparable, came to mind.

We also explored the history of Western colonial socio-cultural, economic and spiritual oppression, appropriation and the plunder of nature.

For example, few outside of the USA, and indeed within the USA know that Hawaiʻi was once an internationally recognized multi-ethnic democratic nation-state; that the overthrow of the Hawaiian nation by corporate agricultural interests with support of the US military left a wake of social and environmental impacts, as has happened in other countries throughout the world.

Today places like Hawaiʻi and Guatemala continue to deal with the aftermath of this impact on their people, culture and natural resources. 

Another common experience for the Indigenous people present at the meeting was the adverse impact centralised and remote decision-making has on indigenous communities and the natural resources and eco-systems they are most dependent on  and intimately familiar with.

For example, many rural Hawaiian fishing communities retain the traditional ecological knowledge of their elder fisher-folk, including traditional fishing areas and practices as well as an understanding of spawning seasons and geographical fish habitats, habits and cycles. It is increasingly evident that spawning seasons differ by species and region around coastal environments.

Issues like this along with often under-resourced government partners have compelled communities to join forces and build a movement to co-manage natural resources with our state.

Hawaiian language is an official language of Hawaiʻi, although it was once suppressed by the government – an experience similar to that of Indigenous people worldwide. At the time of the overthrow, the Hawaiian nation was one of the most literate in the world.

With this suppression came the loss of a vernacular that was very intimate to the Hawaiian environment and identity. Today there is a growing generation fluent in Hawaiian and the community in general has increased familiarity with certain terms and the traditional ecological knowledge and concepts they embody.

Language revival has opened up pathways. Upon the land people are finding the deeper nuanced meanings and purpose for traditional place names. Many of our political boundaries are still shaped by the land management divisions of the past. Even in the ocean, traditional names of fishing grounds, stories of long-lost harvesting and management practices are also being revived.

The name of my organization – Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA) – means “grassroots growing through shared responsibility”. KUA means backbone. It is our first year as an IUCN member. Meeting a global peer network was an exciting opportunity, especially with the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016 coming to Hawaiʻi this September. KUA facilitates grassroots peer networks. It was nice to be a participant for once.

Though many of our member peers from Europe, Oceania, Asia, North America and Africa were not able to make it, I was blessed to learn from our peers in South America. We were hosted by Guatemala-based Mayan organizations Sotz’il (Ramiro Batzin and team) and Ak Tenamit (Lola Cabnal).

I was inspired by all the people I met, their character and world view, their passion and perseverance in the hard and essential work they all do. I hope that they, our colleagues who couldn’t make it and indigenous peers around the globe might join Hawaiʻi’s grassroots leaders for our pre-Congress gathering in the days before the IUCN Congress 2016 begins.

“Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina I ka pono.”

May the life/governance of the land be perpetuated in righteousness.

For more information on the IUCN World Conservation Congress, see here:


This blog was written following a meeting of Indigenous People Organisation IUCN Members, convened by the People in Nature (PiN) Knowledge Basket Steering Group recently to discuss the current conceptual framing of the knowledge basket and their participation in the development of an approach relevant to their needs. Held in Antigua, Guatemala, on 25-27 April, 2016, the meeting was hosted by the Centre for Maya Research and Development (SOTZ’IL) and was attended by Ak’Tenamit Association, Fundación para la Promoción del Conocimiento Indígena (FPCI), Centro para el Desarrollo del Indigena, MOPAWI and Kua'āina Ulu 'Auamo (KUA).

The aim of PiN is to promote learning to improve our understanding of how nature contributes to local livelihoods and well-being of indigenous peoples and local communities.

For more information on People in Nature, see here.

[1]He ali‘i ka ‘āina; he kauwa ke kanaka.”

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