This article was originally published online and then in print by Terralingua – Langscape Magazine

Traditional Indigenous territories are complex, adaptable, and resilient socio-ecological systems that contain the majority of the world’s biocultural diversity. But can Indigenous Peoples play a leading role in both combating climate change and preventing the next pandemic?

Right now, there is a fair amount of rhetoric being flung about connecting, comparing, and contrasting the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change and the “sixth extinction” of biodiversity. In Indigenous worldviews—as well as in complex systems science—all these crises represent “maladies” caused by the profound unbalancing of our interconnected living planet.

From his home in self-isolation in the Colombian Amazon, Koreguaje Indigenous leader Juven Piranga recently told me:

“Our Elders agree that Mother Earth is causing this pandemic to clean the present state of the world, to rid us of the bad energies, and to counteract the pervasive greed and exploitation and disrespect. White people come here to our territories to exploit Mother Earth, for gold and timber and much more, and this affects everyone, and it is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, so we are also punished. We need to reinforce our autonomy to stop these practices and restore balance.”

Koreguaje leader Oliver Gasca performs a ritual within his Amazonian territory in Caqueta, Colombia. Photo: Daniel Henryk Rasolt, 2019

While still not garnering nearly as much attention as it deserves, Indigenous Peoples’ role as partners in climate change mitigation is fairly well established in research, and gaining more attention internationally from both policymakers and the general public.

The “Guardians of the Forest” paradigm recognizes Indigenous communities as stewards of the immense biodiversity and “ecosystem services” (or better, ecosystem functions) of tropical forests. Globally, the forested territories of Indigenous communities store at least 300 billion metric tons of carbon, above and below ground. Mounting evidence has shown that Indigenous communities with secure rights and tenure to their collectively held lands have extremely low rates of deforestation and land degradation.

Additionally, while Indigenous Peoples account for only around five percent of the world’s population, their territories contain approximately eighty percent of global biodiversity. Cultural diversity is less quantifiable, but the thousands of languages and wealth of customs, wisdom, and empirical knowledge of their territories are also of supreme value to our increasingly homogenized species.

“Guardians of the Forest,” oil on canvas. Three forest-dwelling Indigenous leaders from different parts of the world hold their ground along with emblematic forest species. Artwork: Vannessa Circe, 2019

Policies for further securing Indigenous land rights and amplifying their territories are also becoming recognized as some of the most cost-effective means of curbing deforestation and mitigating global climate change, and were recognized as such in a 2019 special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As well, a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) acknowledged Indigenous communities as vital partners in both understanding and protecting biodiversity. And a widely-circulated study published in December 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), emphasized the need to support Indigenous stewardship of the Amazon in the context of combating climate change.

But how are ecosystems and biodiversity linked to emerging infectious diseases, and what does that have to do with Indigenous Peoples?

A growing body of research has been establishing the connection of “zoonotic” infectious diseases—pathogens passed from animals to humans, such as the novel coronavirus—to “ecological perturbations” and abnormally close interactions between animal species in confined spaces. Research has also demonstrated that approximately seventy-five percent of new and emerging pathogens have been zoonotic.

Biodiversity-rich ecosystems might be viewed simplistically as “source pools” for new pathogens. In reality, however, intact ecosystems embody millions of years of complex coevolution of countless species, along with Indigenous Peoples who have learned to live in harmony with these ecosystems for millennia.

A squirrel monkey (Saimiri sciureus) and scarab beetle (Scarabaeoidea) in Putumayo, Colombia. At least 10% of the world’s biodiversity is found within the Amazon, which is also rich in Indigenous cultural and linguistic diversity. Photo: Vannessa Circe, 2018

It is the disruption (“perturbation”) of these ecosystems and the subsequent loss, fragmentation, and degradation of habitats and species that mounting research is showing to be the main reason for novel interactions between species and with encroaching humans. Socioeconomic drivers of land-use change, from population growth to mining to agricultural expansion, hydroelectric dams, and road-building—along with climate change and invasive species—lead to both ecological destruction and the potential emergence of infectious diseases. Indigenous Peoples are consistently found on the frontlines of opposing these destructive forces.

Creating novel interactions between species and humans outside of their natural settings is another fundamental mechanism by which viruses can “spill over” into humans. So-called urban “wet markets,” which allow for the confined commingling between humans and live and dead, whole and dismembered, wild and domestic species, have garnered much international attention of late, since a wet market in Wuhan, China was likely ground zero for the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Wet markets are seen as the “perfect storm” for creating “pathogen pools” and enabling “viral spillover.” Much of this phenomenon is driven by the legal and illegal global wildlife trade, the latter of which, at an estimated twenty billion U.S. dollars annually, only trails drugs, weapons, and possibly gold in illicit profitability.

Conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated landscapes—including urban centers and industrial farms with monocultures and confined domesticated animals—decreases biodiversity. Certain adaptable species, especially rodents and bats, can thrive in these simplified cohabitation settings, while carrying diseases that can spill over into domesticated species and humans. These “weedy species” have been responsible for many past disease outbreaks.

The mass-poaching of wildlife—as opposed to traditional subsistence hunting by Indigenous Peoples and other local communities—is also a major driver of global biodiversity loss, which itself greatly degrades the integrity and balance of ecosystems. Often desperate conditions in developing world countries—caused principally by global systems that promote an anthropocentric paradigm of humans as separate from nature while fostering the exploitation of natural resources in the name of “development”—further drives the global wildlife trade.

Indigenous people who may have no access to sustainable alternative incomes sometimes get caught up in these practices, hunting and then selling bushmeat in urban markets. This contributes to creating dependencies and to degrading both ecosystems and cultures.

The emergence of novel zoonotic diseases within simplified industrial agricultural settings also reinforces the need to support integrated food systems like traditional Indigenous swidden (rotational slash-and-burn) agriculture and modern agroecological models that offer protection against novel diseases by promoting biodiversity, while also enhancing long-term sustainability.

As Dr. Clara Peña-Venegas, a Colombian soil microbiologist, points out about the traditional swidden agriculture system known in the Amazon as chagras, the evidence is that this disturbance process only temporarily affects the structure and diversity of biological communities. (See her 2019 article “What a Soil Microbiologist Does in the Amazon” on Unbounded World.)

A view of a traditional Amazonian chagra after the first stages of clearing and burning. Caqueta, Colombia. Photo: Daniel Henryk Rasolt, 2019

These and many other examples further support the need to preserve biocultural diversity where humans and biodiversity-rich ecosystems thrive and coevolve. If Indigenous Peoples’ evident role as “guardians of the forest” were more globally supported—politically, financially, or otherwise—that would have self-reinforcing effects.

By preserving the integrity of ecosystems, Indigenous Peoples would also be ensuring their own survival and their sustained role as stewards of biocultural diversity. At the same time, they would also be helping all of humanity counter climate change and prevent the future occurrence of novel infectious diseases. More secure land rights would also allow Indigenous communities to more effectively and safely isolate themselves in the event of future epidemics, wars, or natural and/or manmade disasters.

“Sacred Curse,” oil on canvas. A proud Indigenous Koreguaje woman from the Colombian Amazon sustains her language, culture, and territory. Artwork: Vannessa Circe, 2017

While scientists now scramble to figure out what caused and how to extinguish the COVID-19 pandemic—trialing several treatments derived from tropical forest plants, I might add—Indigenous Peoples have been warning of these kinds of calamities for generations. Indigenous Peoples are also perhaps the world’s most vulnerable demographic to both established and emerging infectious diseases. Many communities lack access to health clinics, clean water, and reliable energy, and often have a prevalence of pre-existing conditions and lack any kind of genetic immunity to these pathogens.

In a message addressed to us all, Bernardo Valverde Nonocudo, a wise Elder from the Murui Muina people (also known as Huitoto) of the Colombian Amazon, says:

“Hey Humanity! Moo Buinoma [the original Creator] left everything in balance. For not remaining true to his decree and to ourselves, this pandemic has arrived. For the destruction of Mother Nature and touching what is prohibited to touch inside Mother Earth, we are destroying our natural resources. These resources that are below are fuming, and bring death, sickness, hunger and drought, and touching these resources releases air—an evil air, the coronavirus.”

Tropical rainforests, with their dense vegetation and rich biocultural diversity, rightfully get a disproportionate amount of attention when considering global environmental targets and the emergence of novel pathogens. But tropical rainforests do not stand alone as dynamic ecosystems deserving of integrated conservation efforts and prioritized surveillance for emergent diseases.

In my experience working in biologically and culturally megadiverse Colombia, I have encountered numerous biocultural diversity hotspots in addition to the Amazon and Choco lowland rainforests. That includes the vital high-Andean páramos (montane moorland ecosystems found between 3,000 and 5,000 meters), which are the planet’s coldest and fastest evolving biodiversity hotspot and are at high risk due to the dual threats of climate change and unsustainable land use. More than fifty percent of the world’s páramos are in Colombia.

The Pisxnu Páramo, located at 3,800 m of altitude within the ancestral territory of the Nasa and Misak Indigenous Peoples. Photo: Daniel Henryk Rasolt, 2019

Speaking to me in 2019 from within the Sumapaz Páramo, Professor Jairo Cuervo, an agricultural scientist from the National University of Colombia, said:

“When I first started coming here for research in the 1980s, it was pure forest leading up to the páramo. Since then agriculture has been steadily pushing higher and farther, and is now right up against the páramo. Potatoes and other crops that don’t belong here, cattle, and chemical fumigation, all are threatening the largest páramo in the world, on which so many people depend for clean and abundant water. There also were so many more birds and other wildlife here before.”

The fact that páramos provide clean water to upwards of seventy percent of the Colombian population suggests that their loss could precipitate both water scarcity and water-borne disease, although so far studies of emergent zoonotic pathogens from páramos have been few and far between.

The highland Andes are also principally populated by Indigenous Peoples, such as the Nasa, Yanacona, and Misak in southern Colombia. These groups have fought for generations to defend the sacred páramos within and around their ancestral territories. Their human and land rights have long been under severe threat. Speaking to me via phone from self-isolation in Pitayo, in the Cauca Department, Maria Pito, an inspiring leader of the Nasa people, had this to say:

“The cure for this pandemic, and the next one, is within Mama Wala [‘Mother Earth’ in Nasa Yuwe], ancestral Indigenous knowledge, and traditional medicine. Both our medicine and most of your Western medicine come from plants, flowers, animals, and trees, though ours is taken with reverence and respect. The interconnected mountains, páramos, rivers, and forests contain the answers that we need, but instead we have been destroying them.”

Nasa leader Maria Pito stands within the Andean sub-páramo in the Cauca Department of Colombia. Photo: Daniel Henryk Rasolt, 2019

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia was listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as the world’s most irreplaceable protected area. Within this bioculturally rich tropical, coastal mountain range reside our “older brothers,” the Arhuaco, Kogui, Kankuamo, and Wiwa Indigenous Peoples. Says Arhuaco leader and graduate student in particle physics Teyrungümü Torres Zalabata:

“We see it as our duty as Indigenous people to follow our Law of Origin and protect the balance of Mother Earth. The Mamos [wise Elders] have been warning us that the world has become unbalanced due to the actions of our ‘younger brothers’ [non-Indigenous people] and that we will suffer from drought and fires and disease that will impact our crops and water and health.”

Torres’s village, Séynimin, almost completely burned to the ground in 2019 due to wildfires in the Sierra during a time of extreme drought.

A wise Mamo from the Arhuaco Indigenous group walks within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a biocultural diversity hotspot in Colombia. Photo: Daniel Henryk Rasolt, 2018

So, can securing Indigenous land rights and strengthening traditional Indigenous cultures around the world be both essential for their self-determination and crucial to helping combat climate change and prevent or mitigate the next pandemic? If we accept the evidence-based premises that both climate change and novel zoonotic diseases are fostered by habitat and biodiversity destruction, and that Indigenous territories are some of the least deforested and degraded lands on the planet, then a “yes” answer logically follows.

Of course, in science we can never declare an issue completely settled. In the case of zoonotic diseases, the exact mechanisms driving viral spillover and the emergence of pathogens within the context of ecological and planetary health are still poorly understood. Nonetheless, evidence continues to clearly point towards Indigenous Peoples as stewards of ecosystems, protectors of biodiversity, mitigators of climate change, and now key actors in helping to stave off the next pandemic.

“Mama Wala,” oil on canvas. A depiction of Mother Earth, or “Mama Wala” in the Nasa Yuwe language. This painting was made in collaboration with Nasa leader Maria Pito. Artwork: Vannessa Circe, 2019


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