Making biodiversity great again – a Spanish-Finnish experience on integrating indigenous peoples' knowledge into policymaking

“It is not too late to address biodiversity loss, but we need transformative change,” says researcher Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, one of the authors of the recently launched IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

The Summary for Policy-Makers of the report was publicly launched on 6 May 2019. The report is the first comprehensive snapshot of the state of knowledge about biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people since the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. It is also the first assessment that systematically includes indigenous and local knowledge on a global scale.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” says Professor Sandra Díaz, co-chair of the Assessment. “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

For the past three years researcher Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares was part of the author team and was the only member affiliated to a Finnish institution. He is a Spanish ethnoecologist based at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) of the University of Helsinki. Most of his research deals with the relations between biological and cultural diversity, and the role that indigenous peoples play in biodiversity conservation. He has done a wide range of ethnographic fieldwork amongst indigenous peoples and local communities across much of the Global South, working in countries such as Bolivia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Madagascar.

"During my time in the field, I have been confronted with the tragic reality of the destruction of the largest standing tropical rainforests of our planet. For example, Amazonia often seemed to me like a grand chessboard where the fate of our world is being written. I have always had the feeling that I should strive to connect global policy discourses with local realities, and I became truly convinced that the voices of indigenous communities should be amplified in global environmental policy forums," says Álvaro.

For his PhD, he spent 18 months amongst the Tsimane’ hunter-gatherers in the depths of the Bolivian Amazonian rainforest.

"It took up to three days by canoe to reach the community where I used to live. I had no Internet, no phone, nothing other than life in its most essential and purest form. This was one of the most humbling, eye-opening and enriching experiences of my whole life. It was a true lesson in humanity that helped me to calibrate my concept of life, as well as to rethink my own place in the natural world," Álvaro explains.

In 2015, by the end of his PhD, he attended a meeting of indigenous peoples’ representatives at the UNESCO headquarters, right before the Conference of the Parties where the Paris Climate Agreement was signed. That meeting showed him first-hand the inspiring engagement of indigenous peoples in global policy discussions and debates about the state and future of our planet. This was also the first time he heard about the work of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Involving the stewards of the future in the decisions of the present

One of the most innovative aspects of IPBES is the substantial efforts put into working across knowledge systems and incorporating indigenous and local knowledge in its assessments. IPBES also has a Fellowship Programme designed to enable early-career scholars and practitioners to be part of an intergovernmental process. The idea of the programme is to involve the stewards of the future in the decisions of the present, promoting capacity building and institutional memory within IPBES.

This topic being so close to his heart, Álvaro did not have a single doubt about applying to be part of the platform. Along with 15 other fellows from every inhabited continent, he was invited to be part of the author team of the assessment. The report cites nearly 15,000 references, and is written by 145 leading international experts from 50 countries working on a pro bono basis.

"At the beginning, I was daunted by the enormous intellectual challenge that this work would entail, but little by little, I became acquainted with the UN jargon and I started to learn the ins-and-outs of writing policy-relevant text that would resonate with decision-makers from all over the world. As you can imagine, the learning curve was quite steep for somebody who had never been involved before in an intergovernmental process before", he confesses.

Drawing on diverse knowledge systems to better achieve sustainability

One of the aspects that Álvaro is most proud of is that this is the first-ever intergovernmental assessment to systematically include indigenous and local knowledge at the global scale. One of the strategies used to engage indigenous peoples in the process was to organise a series of consultations and meetings with their representatives, including a dialogue with Arctic indigenous communities at the University of Helsinki in 2018, funded by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment.

The report has gone a long way in recognising the unique contributions of indigenous peoples to safeguard a substantial proportion of our world’s biodiversity. It is estimated that at least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used, or occupied by indigenous peoples.

"Indigenous peoples and local communities are key allies in our quest to safeguard much of the world’s biodiversity. I honestly think that much new ground is being broken with this assessment in terms of acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge in environmental governance," Álvaro concludes.

We need transformative change to save nature

Three years have passed and the Summary for Policy Makers of the IPBES Global Assessment has been approved at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, symbolically in the very same room where Álvaro first heard about the work of IPBES. Álvaro hopes that this assessment helps decision makers to choose better policies and actions for both people in general and the planet.

"We have worked very hard to provide the best available evidence of the status and trends of biodiversity and our aspiration is that this assessment serves a purpose in planting the seeds of the transformative change that is urgently needed to address the drivers of biodiversity loss. Our report clearly shows that nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history. We also highlight that it can be saved through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change. It is not too late to address biodiversity loss, but we need to start acting now," Álvaro concludes.

More about the report:

For more information: 

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares,, phone: +358 449681820, Skype: alvarontxu


The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is often referred to as the “IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for biodiversity”. With 130 member Governments, it assesses the state of biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, in response to requests from decision-makers, and outlines options for the future based on different socio-economic choices.

The mission of IPBES is to strengthen policy and decisions through science, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.

The IPBES Secretariat is hosted by the German Government and located on the UN campus in Bonn. More than 1,000 scientists worldwide contribute to the work of IPBES on a voluntary basis. They are nominated by their Governments or organisations and selected by the IPBES Multidisciplinary Expert Panel.

The global relevance of indigenous and local knowledge

With the completion of the assessment, Álvaro will finally be able to go back to his own research on biocultural diversity patterns in his beloved Amazonia. His current post-doctoral project, funded by the Academy of Finland, aims to show the role that indigenous peoples’ lands play in buffering against biodiversity loss across the whole Amazon Basin. Álvaro reflects:

"Working on the IPBES Global Assessment has substantially nurtured and enriched my research, which now fully engages with the notion that indigenous and local knowledge is locally based, regionally manifested and globally relevant. The University of Helsinki provides an amazing environment to continue undertaking research on this front."

There are many synergies between Álvaro’s research and the work that HELSUS is carrying out on sustainability patterns in the Global South, as well as with the Indigenous Studies programme, where several researchers are looking at indigenous understandings of nature. Álvaro is looking forward to continued collaboration with and learning from all his colleagues here in Finland.

Álvaro feels very proud to have his name printed in the assessment with both his home country (Spain) and his country of affiliation (Finland). He speaks very highly of the Finnish delegations to IPBES, who have always made him feel very welcome, and with whom he has always enjoyed spending time in different corners of the world.

"Finland has been extremely generous with me and I have only words of gratitude towards this country. In return, every year I ask my family and friends in Spain to vote for Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest!", he jokes.