First global map of Indigenous lands

The idea of estimating the proportion of each country with strong Indigenous connections first arose five years ago in the run up to the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney.

The paper in Nature Sustainability is here:

I was part of the organising committee for a symposium on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and asked a set of speakers from around the world to prepare an overview of each region. It should not be too difficult, I thought, to get a rough estimate of ongoing Indigenous influence on land and sea management in each country in the world. Ah such naivety!

Getting the ethics right

There were several matters that pushed the project out to five years. The first was ethics. I had thought at first that the exercise could be part of research assessing success in Indigenous land and sea management here in Australia (some interesting papers on that work here:;type=0, However, one of the emphases of that research was the importance of local knowledge and empowerment - so we decided not to link them because a global review is the very opposite of local. There is an ethics section in the supplementary material attached to our Nature Sustainability paper that reflects our year of discussion – which I think is valuable in itself as the whole issue of mapping Indigenous lands is fraught. The other important section there is a synopsis of the definitions of what of Indigenous for the purposes of mapping. All of us share the view that local communities of all forms make a huge contribution to conservation but our initial ambition to estimate the influence of Local Community including those of Indigenous Peoples proved impossible because there is simply not enough information. So we confined ourselves to peoples whom we felt fell within the most commonly applied definition of Indigeneity, that of the International Labour Organisation. It was a big enough task.

Pulling the maps together

Our decision to push on independently left us with no money for the job – but why let that stop a good idea! Fortunately I work with a terrific group of post-docs and postgrads here at Charles Darwin University and was able to find a little consultancy money to support them as they scoured the literature on every country in the world. I also realised that we needed serious mapping skills. At this point my colleague, Ian Leiper, stepped in because he could see the value of the project – he has been magnificent, finding spatial data from across the globe and digitizing maps where there was no alternative until we had something that was half decent. Other colleagues Kerstin Zander and Hayley Gayle undertook the analysis and Neil Burgess, James Watson and Erle Ellis guided us through the application of datasets on protected areas, land use intensity and anthropogenic biomes so we could place the Indigenous lands in context.

Quality assurance

The third matter was credibility. We did the work because we wanted it to be applied to policy. We therefore wanted to be sure that our conclusions were not only correct but that we had provided the information in a form that could be most readily be applied, particularly by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This is where the broader global network of colleagues came in, and they have been brilliant not only in helping us validate, understand, analyse and present our data in an appropriate form and language but also in encouraging us to continue, assuring us that our collective effort would indeed have value.

Reaching the starting point

So it has been quite a journey, but enormously rewarding. I know I personally have learnt so much about the world’s Indigenous Peoples as a result, the places they live in and the values that underpin their ongoing connection to their traditional lands. The map must always be a draft – change is happening so fast in the world, particularly the ‘Indigenous World’ – but at least we now have a starting point to understand the incredible importance of the role of Indigenous Peoples to conservation. 

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