The guardians of biodiversity

Red squirrel, Scottish Highlands © Mark Hamblin,
© Mark Hamblin,
Indigenous communities in Latin America are paying a high price for defending biodiversity, but we have so much to learn from their practices.

The indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest see themselves as the guardians of the forest. They succeeded where most others failed: increasing their environment’s natural diversity. So what can we learn from them?   

That thriving diversity turns into risk-prone monoculture as soon as humans appear on the scene seems like a law of nature. It did not take long for the ancestors of the Maori, for example, to wipe out all of New Zealand’s larger prey once they had set foot on the island.

Ancient Rome, on the other hand, devoured so much construction material that the city’s surrounding area was soon cut clear of all trees. And one of the oldest primeval forests in Europe, Białowieża Forest in Poland, is currently threatened to become the next victim of the timber industry.       


It is not a law of nature, though. Various examples from other regions in the world demonstrate a different approach to nature.

The indigenous population of the Amazon rainforest serves as an excellent example, especially considering that they understand their role as “guardians of the forest”.

How do they approach biodiversity? Is it perhaps possible to make use of the profound knowledge they and other indigenous communities gathered about their environment in other fields and for other purposes?

The loss of biodiversity will go hand in hand with similar catastrophic consequences as with climate change, the Chair of the United Nations World Biodiversity Council (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – IPBES), Robert Watson, warned in May 2019. About one million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction.

Biodiversity is caught up in a whirlwind of problems: our planet lost about half of all its natural ecosystems in the last 40 years, while our consumption of natural resources doubled in the same period. If we are not able to change course, one out of eight of the world’s animal and plant species will disappear in the next few years, according to the Global Assessment Report of the World Biodiversity Council IPBES (2019).

In a time when people start talking of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, we are undoubtedly confronted with an urgent need to take action.  


As archaeological studies from the Amazon basin have shown, the myth of the allegedly inevitable destructive impact of the Homo sapiens cannot be entirely true. The breathtaking local diversity we know today, as the excavators found out, is also the result of human activities. 

Thinking of Amazonia as a place of pristine nature certainly paints a false picture of reality. The Amazon region covers around 70 percent of South America. The Amazon basin is virtually the poster child of diversity – not only in terms of biology; many indigenous communities in the region have been able to preserve their distinctive cultural characteristics, resulting in the highest level of linguistic diversity anywhere in the world.  

Long before the period of European colonisation, the Amazon basin witnessed the development of highly diverse and complex cultures that were closely adjusted to their respective environments. Experts estimate that a significant part of the rainforest – about ten to twelve per cent – is attributable to the careful cultivation and land use of the indigenous population. In other words, the primeval forest is indeed also a cultural forest.

Archaeological data on the Amazon basin enables us to take a look more than 13,000 years into the past. It reveals, for example, that people had already been domesticating crop plants at least 7,000 years ago. The Amazonian approach to land management is the result of a long history of mutual adjustment between humans and nature. The local population of earlier times cultivated the rainforest and thus intervened in the evolution of plants and landscapes.

In collaboration with biologists, the archaeologists were able to prove that there were more plants and more different species of plants growing in areas around human settlements than in uninhabited areas.

Carla Jaimes Betancourt, an archaeologist from the University of Bonn, explained: “There are several widespread species, such as the Brazil nut tree, an iconic and economically valuable plant found all across the Amazon basin. This tree has been essential as a means of human subsistence for thousands of years. Its current distribution could be the legacy of early human settlements.”  


Archaeological and ecological studies on the interaction between humans and nature have also shown how the cultivation of the Amazon rainforest changed in the course of time.

Betancourt continued: “The colonisation disrupted indigenous cultivation practices. The roots of this development are probably found in the collapse of pre-Columbian communities and its consequences of the forests.”     

The archaeological findings thus demonstrate that indigenous cultures increased the diversity of their environment and “pursued an integrated approach of cultivation. This is where the line between nature and culture gets a little blurred,” the researcher concludes.

Finding out what the Amazon Indians actually did and how they affected their environment would certainly be worth the effort and further research. Global nature conservation policies could learn a great deal from such indigenous practices. 


This is also one of the demands of the World Biodiversity Council IPBES, particularly considering that the issue has outgrown the discipline of history a long time ago. Current scientific interests rather focus on the way of life of today’s indigenous and local communities. How do they cope with the pressure of deforestation, expropriation and political harassment?

The story is much older, by the way, than Jair Bolsonaro’s term as president of Brazil: indigenous communities have been forced to adapt to such catastrophes as changing conditions of their climate and ecosystems, the consequences of colonisation as well as displacement from their territories for centuries. They could be excellent teachers in how to control socio-ecological systems and master both crisis and change.       

If we actually want to learn from them, however, we need to get a move on. The biocultural diversity in the world’s remaining indigenous territories is subject to increasing pressure.

The spreading practice of monoculture and overexploitation increasingly interferes with the indigenous planters’ capabilities of preserving the wild and domesticated biological diversity. Nevertheless, their knowledge and practices in land management are diminishing at a slower pace than in globalised areas.   

Researchers of Leuphana University Lüneburg and Stockholm University recently conducted a joint study on how indigenous knowledge is incorporated into the scientific discourse on sustainability. They analysed a total of 81 recently published scientific papers and found out that indigenous knowledge is frequently only used to confirm and complement scientific findings on changes in the environment, climate or social ecology.      


Actually learning from indigenous and local knowledge systems is an entirely different story, though. And it is easier said than done.

Our scientific approach is based on objectivity and verifiable data, which is fundamentally different from indigenous ideologies and cultural values.

David Lam, sustainability researcher and principal author of the study, explained: “It is essential for each knowledge system to retain its integrity and yet to try to understand each other."

Indigenous knowledge is based on observation and experience passed down from generation to generation both practically and orally. Lam continued: “It is often significantly influenced by spirituality and faith, which is also why it is often not taken seriously in scientific research.

"If we want to measure biodiversity together with indigenous communities, we first need to understand which indicators are important to them and why.”         

Indigenous knowledge systems also comprise spiritual and religious practices. They are further developed in the process of passing them down to subsequent generations and are thus able to adapt to changes in the environment. The relationships between all living things (including human beings) and their environment are considered to be alive themselves. Such aspects are quite difficult to introduce into our scientific approach.


A shaman’s assessment of the forest would have been dismissed as primitive belief or, at best, regarded as an exotic metaphor just a short time ago. Today we know, however, that such cosmological knowledge is not simply plucked out of the air. We sincerely need to take a closer look and attempt to understand it.

The Canela, for example, appreciate the beauty of their different varieties of beans, according to the British anthropologist Theresa Miller. Her research focuses on ecological aesthetics and the preservation of biodiversity among the Ramkokamekra-Canela in northeastern Brazil.

The Canela especially like bean varieties that show the same patterns as their body paintings. They also grow five different varieties of fava beans, which resemble their ritual masks in appearance. The Canela growers thus compare the physical characteristics of beans and humans.          

They believe that crop plants such as peanut, sweet potato, squash and corn are able to make decisions; the crops listen to the songs of the people, have memories and can even feel emotions. The plants are part of their eco-society and have become elements of numerous rituals designed to increase their number and encourage their growth.

This close and communicative connection between plants and humans is typical of the entire Amazon basin.    


We still know much too little about agricultural biodiversity among the traditional peoples in the Amazon region. The South America issue in the series “Knowing our Lands and Resources”, a study commissioned by UNESCO and the World Biodiversity Council IPBES, reveals the impressive diversity in the gardens of the African American Aluku people in French Guiana.

From their 38 crop species, the Aluku grow a total of 156 different varieties – they differentiate between about 90 varieties of manioc. Their neighbours, the Wayana, cultivate 28 species and 129 varieties. The inhabitants of the Amazon basin are world champions in the diversification of manioc tubers; they also have specialists in the cultivation of wild pepper.

The Baniwa on the banks of the lower Içana River, for example, grow no less than 78 different varieties of pepper. The widespread interest in experimenting with different varieties is amply documented for the Amazon region.

Aside from species indigenous to the area, the inhabitants of the Amazon basin are also highly skilled in the diversification of such exotic plants as sugar cane or beans. It does not take them long to adopt new plants into their repertoire and to further diversify them.               

This practice appears to be an important characteristic and particularity of indigenous growers: they seem to be less interested in the full-scale domestication of plants and thus the determination of their properties than in continuously experimenting with new wild varieties they grow in their gardens, according to Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Ana Gabriela Morim de Lima, the authors of Chapter 5 of the UNESCO study.


This becomes particularly clear in the example of the Sateré-Mawé. They are the inventors of the extraction process of the guaraná fruit, a wild vine. The Sateré are specialised in the “non-domestication” of this vine.

They refuse to use standardised guaraná varieties that are today cultivated in large-scale operations for industrially manufactured guaraná lemonade. Instead they frequently dig up new cuttings of wild vines, plant them in their biodiverse “forest gardens”, and sell their harvest by means of a fair trade company, the Consórcio dos Produtores Sateré-Mawé.  

Their practice could offer the key to better understand the exceptional resilience against constant change and the threatened livelihood of the indigenous people in the Amazon basin: they remain flexible, nourish and cherish the diversity of their basic food resources and thus adapt to the circumstances of their biosocial environment to the best of their abilities.

The potential benefits of such an approach are still not sufficiently recognised, as the authors of the study point out. Official policies are still a long way from actually taking indigenous practices into account.   


The scientific examination of indigenous knowledge systems should also encourage the acknowledgement of another important fact: if indigenous communities – not only in Brazil – who are confronted with persecution, murder and incursions on their territory, call themselves “guardians of the rainforest”, their message is much more than just empty phrases.

They have been proving their point for centuries. Protecting the forests, mountains and rivers in Latin America, however, has become more dangerous than ever before. Some 30 journalists recently published the results of their research on the online platform “Tierra de Resistentes”.

The message is clear: the indigenous population of Latin America is paying a high price for defending diversity. In the period between 2009 and 2018, the journalists recorded a total of 1,356 assaults on indigenous people and local communities trying to defend their land – 375 of them with fatal outcome.        

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami Indian and recent alternative Nobel prize laureate, explained: “We are looking after the forest for everyone. We work with our shamans who understand these things well, who possess wisdom that comes from contact with the land. 

"The Whites cannot destroy our house for, if they do, things will not end well for the whole world.”

This Author

Ulrike Prinz has a PhD in ethnology and is a freelance science writer. After her field research in the Xingu region, Mato Grasso (2000/08-2000/11) she taught at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. From 2004-2007 she worked as a consultant with the Goethe-Institute. This article was first published at and translated by Danny Stevens.

Image: SL_PHOTOGRAPHY, Spektrum.