Indigenous Peoples benefit from their ancestral knowledge on sustainability

Indigenous communities living in different environments, scholars, and policy-makers conceptualise sustainability differently. Indigenous languages and ways of communicating contain various terminologies and ideas about balanced relations between humans and the environment, as shown in the new publication edited by researchers from the University of Helsinki.

The researchers argue that many Indigenous communities draw on knowledge that is produced over multiple generations and in interrelation with animals, plants, places and the land.“In their practices, Indigenous Peoples often aim at sustaining and respecting these relations over time,” notes professor Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen.

“The environment is not exploited or manipulated, but treated responsibly, avoiding unnecessary stress,” adds researcher Hanna Guttorm. “This is especially evidenced in the use of natural resources in the Arctic.”

Holistic wellbeing of the environment and diverse knowledges and their sources are taken into consideration in community decision-making.

Respecting the land is crucial for Indigenous Peoples

There are over 370 million Indigenous Peoples in the world who speak the majority of the world’s languages. A significant part of the most biodiverse regions in the world are traditionally managed by Indigenous Peoples, and thus they contribute to the world’s crucial ecosystems. Yet, their territories are constantly threatened by economic projects. Their languages also continue to be endangered.

“Thus it should not come as a surprise that many cultural and linguistic revitalisation projects are often accompanied by formal land claim processes. Research in North America has indicated that land dispossession can damage people’s physical and mental health,” says university researcher Laura Siragusa.

Indigenous languages and ways of communicating contain various terminologies and ideas about balanced relations between humans and the environment. 

“For example, many Amazonian Indigenous Peoples refer to specific tree and animal persons, who are literally the “owners” of the flora and fauna, which cannot be owned or controlled by any human. Rather, they can only be negotiated with and must be respected,” Virtanen underlines. 

In North American Cree-language communities, there is a close connection between the knowledge of language and specific foods found in the region.

Long tradition of recycling

Respect towards the land also implies not wasting resources. Examples from the Russian Arctic and the subarctic region indicate how practices of re-use of ‘waste’ have long existed among Indigenous Peoples. This is also evidenced in the languages spoken in this northern territory – for example, the Nenets word xampol°q is closer to ‘dust’ than to ‘waste’, as diverse material found on the Arctic seashores is often re-used and given new life.

The special issue on Indigenous conceptualizations of ‘sustainability’ published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability invites us to engage in new critical debates and discussions around the notion of ‘sustainability’ and to embrace and value diversity. It examines how sustainability is experienced and spoken about among Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic, in the subarctic region, in South Asia, West Africa, Latin America and North America. The contributing authors, who are scholars and representatives of Indigenous communities, explore topics such as human-environment relationality, the notion of ownership, Indigenous knowledge, oral traditions, land governance, gender relations, mobility, waste management, and Indigenous contributions to biodiversity.

Introduction: toward more inclusive definitions of sustainability

Further information:

Assistant Professor Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon region +358 294140020

University Researcher Laura Siragusa, Indigenous minorities in Russia +358294123315

Senior Researcher Hanna Guttorm, Sámi land relations +358294140043