Indigenous peoples possess a great deal of knowledge on the prevention of biodiversity loss – How can we utilise it widely?

According to researchers, Western countries could learn from Indigenous peoples about establishing decision-making that always takes environmental impact into consideration.

In Brazil, there are more than 300 Indigenous peoples. In her work, Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen has been worked particularly with the Apurina and Manchineri peoples that belong to the Arawakan language group.

Many studies have shown that biodiversity is at its richest in the world precisely in regions populated by Indigenous peoples. According to Virtanen, the actors of ‘nature’ are considered to have personhood in the Amazon, and interactively communicated with. In other words, ‘nature’ is not seen as something separate from people and social relationships.

“They perceive biodiversity loss as the disappearance of many animals and plants resulting from dominant society’s unsustainable values and actions,” Virtanen says.

Humans must consume natural resources in a sustainable manner, making it possible for the environment to guarantee their health and wellbeing. Consequently, the activities of non-Indigenous economic operators, such as the polluting mining industry, infrastructure constructors and large scale agriculture, are not in a reciprocal relationship with Amazonian nature.

According to Virtanen, there is great variance between how the Indigenous people of the region talk about environmental matters in their communities in their native languages and how they address them at political events in the language of the majority population.

“That’s because they have a totally different environmental philosophy. Also, by using the language of the majority of the population, they make things understandable to outsiders. This is why they use the Portuguese word for nature in their petitions, even though such a word does not even exist in their own language,” Virtanen says.

Amazonian Indigenous peoples strive to prevent biodiversity loss and promote biodiversity through a range of political measures, petitions, social media, research and collaboration with other parties at many different levels.

“On their own land, many peoples also make a lot of different community plans and decisions on, for example, which species can be fished and hunted at specific times and in specific areas. There is discussion on the sufficiency of various natural resources, and younger generations are taught to protect certain areas and species according to changing circumstances.”

Pursuing advancement is not essential

In addition to Finland, the Sámi homeland is composed of the northernmost parts of the Kola Peninsula, Sweden and Norway, and differences are engendered by both local lifestyles and cultures as well as the varying rights of Indigenous peoples and Sámi policies.

According to Hanna Guttorm, a researcher specialising in Indigenous studies, the idea of pursuing advancement has not really been part of traditional Sámi philosophy. The Sámi culture emphasises survival and well-(enough-)being (‘birgejupmi’) together with the environment, animals and other people in a way that preserves the preconditions of life and sustenance, also for the next winter.

“This means taking care of the carrying capacity of the surrounding land and waterways, and looking after them among the local communities,” Guttorm notes.

“Traditional knowhow such as this still resides in the oldest generations and those living close to nature, but some of it has become unnecessary due to technological advances.

In the Sámi languages, the word ‘nature’ has become part of the vocabulary with partially the same meaning as in Finnish, but several words related more specifically to the use and meaning of various types of land are used alongside it.”

Discussion on the climate and on biodiversity loss centres on reindeer husbandry

Reindeer husbandry is the most vibrant, extensive and best-subsidised of all Sámi livelihoods, which is why most of the climate change discussions concerning Sámi are focused on it, especially in Finland. Mechanisation and the necessity of supplementary feeding due to difficult winter conditions brought about by climate change, as well as the associated additional costs, have led to increases in the number of reindeer herded, even exceeding the capacity of the environment.

“Research has shown that the traditional ecological knowledge of the Sámi people is often ignored,” Guttorm says.

According to Guttorm, current Sámi policy discussions emphasise the rights of the Indigenous people to traditional livelihoods.

“Unfortunately, even the Sámi appear to consign biodiversity to the sidelines in these discussions. It is why I think that Sámi should awaken to the worry about biodiversity loss and revitalise more widely the traditional knowledge of living in balance with nature. Participation and reciprocity also entail responsibility, which may be overlooked if the emphasis is on adaptation to climate change only.”

Prejudices must be overcome

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen and Hanna Guttorm are happy that the unsustainable human-centred view dominant in the Western world, of humans being above nature and its rulers, has begun to crumble. Indigenous studies, posthumanism and a more comprehensive study of networks are examples of new trends related to this development.

“Indigenous peoples’ views emphasise relationships. They focus on the relationships between various beings, humans, animals, plants and the Earth. Moreover, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon educate even the youngest members of their community to listen to and observe the environment. A special relationship with nature is a reality, not a myth. The interconnectedness of humans and the environment is evidenced in languages and practices,” Virtanen says.

Rani-Henrik Andersson, who studies the Indigenous peoples in North America, shares this view of nature.

“Fortunately, the romantic stereotype of Indigenous peoples who have a magical connection with nature has, in recent years, been replaced by a more in-depth understanding and respect for their connection to nature,” Andersson notes.

Nature can have religious, practical or economic significance, or all of the above.

According to both Andersson as well as Virtanen and Guttorm, Indigenous peoples do not in practice separate humans from nature and the environment; rather, humans are an integral part of them. Both worlds belong to the same individually and communally experienced sphere of knowledge, which is discussed and from which lessons are drawn through experience.

“Indigenous peoples investigate and perceive the environment from an ecological perspective, and their knowledge of the ecosystem is inseparably linked to their belief systems and, consequently, their traditional knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge,” Andersson says.

Ecological knowledge must be utilised

Virtanen finds it sad that there are a number of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest whose land is under pressure from, among other things, l agribusiness. For this reason, they have often had to choose an unsustainable livelihood, because it is the only way to earn money for food that the environment can no longer produce.

In these regions, the continuation of native languages and ecological knowledge poses another challenge. Both are important for building a more sustainable future.

“For instance, the Apurinã nation lives in almost 30 different reservations, and this is evident in the regions they inhabit. The Apurinã regions with the least number of non-sustainable external economic projects also have the strongest cultural knowledge and an Indigenous language that expresses the world in a substantially different way from Portuguese.”


According to Virtanen, the concept of a ‘noble savage’ is prevalent. It is often thought that the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon live without, for example, modern technology, but for them too, urban living and studying at university are an important part of defending the values and rights of Indigenous peoples.

According to the researchers, the biggest difference between the majority of the population and Indigenous peoples is precisely their values. The ecological knowledge and skills of Indigenous peoples should also be put to use in efforts to curb biodiversity loss.

Indigenous peoples of North America take a strong stance

According to Andersson, North American Indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge have been overlooked in the discussion on the environment and its conservation.

“Only in recent years has their voices been better heard and their notion of the environment based on local traditional knowledge begun to be taken seriously in the discourses of both academic research and nature conservation,” says Andersson.

Climate change affects the lives of Indigenous peoples from the Arctic to California. In the Arctic region, the climate is warming, the ice is melting and the sea water is heating up. This has marked effects on, among other things, hunting and fishing, while melting ice and permafrost are exposing large reserves of natural gas and oil pursued by big business.

“In fact, this is one of the significant issues that Indigenous peoples across North America are engaging with actively. They have organised extensive demonstrations against large energy companies and their oil and gas pipelines.”

At the same time, the western parts of North America are suffering from the worst drought in more than a thousand years, resulting in extensive forest fires becoming an annually occurring phenomenon.

“Drought affects the livelihoods of the region at the same time as declining water resources are used for the growing needs of large cities such as Las Vegas. In this too, Indigenous peoples actively contribute to identifying solutions that can be used to, for example, conduct the tourism industry on a sustainable basis.”

Activity through organisations

Alongside civic activity, many Indigenous peoples have been active in a range of national and international organisations whose goals include the transition from the use of fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources.

For example, wind and solar power plants have been built in many reservations, which can play a significant role at the local level, as well as in terms of the self-sufficiency of the reservations. Independently generated energy reduces dependence on the federal energy systems that rely on fossil fuels.

Many peoples are also involved in the activities of authorities responsible for national parks and other conservation organisations. On the California coast, for example, the Chumash people collaborate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States to protect the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary. The action plan for the region extensively encompasses the traditional ecological knowledge of the Chumash.

Indigenous peoples strive to take a strong stance on environmental issues at the local, national and international levels, and they are increasingly listened to.

Read more about research focused on biodiversity loss.

Read more about the HELSUS sustainability policy brief.