Indigenous Communities

Indigenous influence on conservation is mediated mainly through Indigenous involvement in land and resource planning. Indigenous people have treaty rights that must be respected, and the courts have clarified that governments and resource companies have a legal duty to consult with Indigenous communities about proposed developments (SCC 2017a). The duty to consult does not provide a veto over developments, but it does give Indigenous communities considerable influence over what happens. In northern areas, land claims agreements have provided additional rights that have led to various forms of collaborative planning (Wyatt et al. 2013).

Contemporary Indigenous conservation attitudes and practices are the legacies of adaptive strategies that arose through cultural evolution (Berkes et al. 2000; Smith and Wishnie 2000). These practices were developed at a time when nature was still firmly in control, limiting the size of human populations to levels the local environment could sustainably support (Johannes 2002; Diamond 2005).

The most common form of cultural evolution occurs through incremental learning or “fine tuning” (Turner and Berkes 2006). Like genetic mutations under natural selection, new ideas and practices arise spontaneously and may become adopted as cultural traditions if they improve the prosperity of the community (Berkes et al. 2000). Successful practices need not involve conservation, but in subsistence economies this will often be the case because of the strong dependence of communities on their local environment (Gadgil et al. 1993).

Conservation-related practices are most often associated with resources that are predictable, amenable to control, and important to the community (Winterhalder and Lu 1997; Smith and Wishnie 2000; Berkes 2012). These conditions are often met with plant resources, and this is where some of the clearest examples of Indigenous conservation practices are found. An illustrative example is the removal of bark from cedar trees for making clothing, mats and baskets. Traditional practice demands that harvesters exercise restraint and only remove one or two straps from each tree, so as to keep the tree alive (Turner and Berkes 2006).

Another form of cultural evolution involves so-called “crisis learning,” which typically arises under novel or changing conditions, such as migration into a new area or the development of new technology (Johannes 2002). Sometimes crises promote rapid adaptation, leading to sustainable practices that become ingrained in tradition. In other cases, animals and plants are extirpated, either because the rate of cultural adaptation is too slow or because the affected species are not important to the community (Johannes 2002).

Crisis learning has been most clearly documented in island societies; however, the selective extinction of North American megafauna after initial human migration to the continent suggests that it occurred here as well (Surovell and Grund 2012). There are also cases where human societies collapsed alongside their depleted resources. The demise of the Easter Island people serves as the poster child for this outcome but is not an isolated example (Diamond 2005).

The association of crisis learning with changing conditions highlights an important characteristic of cultural evolution and adaptive processes in general. Strategies that are highly effective under one set of conditions offer no guarantee of success under novel conditions (Diamond 2005). The implication is that traditional Indigenous practices are not guaranteed to remain effective in the modern world, which has changed tremendously since the pre-contact era.

A major challenge relates to the transition from a subsistence lifestyle to participation in a market economy. Just like the rest of Canadian society, Indigenous communities today are torn between achieving their environmental objectives and achieving their economic objectives. Finding the right balance is not easy, and there have been divisions within and among communities (Conklin and Graham 1995). For example, Indigenous communities lined up on both sides of the debate over the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline in BC (Tasker 2017).

The growth of Indigenous populations and the advent of advanced technology are two additional features of the modern world that the traditional Indigenous approach to conservation is ill-equipped to handle (Fig. 3.11). Caribou hunting practices provide a case in point. Indigenous people have been hunting barren-ground caribou in northern Canada for millennia, with checks and balances in place to accommodate natural fluctuations in the size of the caribou herds. Whenever herds became scarce, they were harder to find, forcing Indigenous communities to rely on alternative sources of meat (Nesbitt and Adamczewski 2013). This provided caribou with time to recover.

Photo of seal hunter.
Fig. 3.11. An Inuit hunter, illustrating the modern equipment that Indigenous hunters commonly use today. Credit: A. Walk.

Today, hunting practices have changed, and the old checks and balances do not always work. Hunting methods are highly effective and, using fast snowmobiles, trucks, and airplanes, hunters can find caribou herds even when numbers are very low (Boulanger et al. 2011). Indigenous leaders in the NWT have also observed that “some hunters, particularly younger hunters, have at times used practices less respectful of caribou,” including killing more than is needed and not using all of the animal (Nesbitt and Adamczewski 2013, p. 18). These changes have led to unsustainable rates of harvest and have been a major contributor to the precipitous declines of some herds (Boulanger et al. 2011). For example, the Bathurst herd in the NWT, which numbered over 400,000 individuals in the 1980s, has been reduced to just 20,000 individuals in 2015—a modern example of crisis learning (GONWT 2016).

A contrasting example from the same region is the 2006 Dehcho land-use plan, which illustrates the positive aspects of Indigenous conservation. The Dehcho First Nations produced the plan to promote the social, cultural, and economic well being of residents and communities in the 210,000 km2 Dehcho territory, located in the NWT adjacent to the border with BC and Alberta (DLPC, 2006).

What is notable about the Dehcho plan is that, although it is designed to achieve multiple societal objectives, including economic development, 50% of the land is zoned for conservation where only tourism and traditional Indigenous use are permitted. The plan is also notable for its blending of traditional views with modern science-based concepts such as cumulative effects management, the natural range of variation, and the precautionary principle (see Chapter 7). Unfortunately, the plan remains mired in negotiations over land use between the Dehcho and the federal and territorial governments.

In conclusion, contemporary Indigenous approaches to conservation and land management demand a balanced view. The twentieth-century portrayal of Indigenous people as masters of ecological sustainability (see Chapter 2) is an oversimplification. Traditional conservation practices were developed under a subsistence lifestyle and are not always applicable to modern circumstances. Moreover, Indigenous communities today must grapple with trade-offs between environmental objectives and economic objectives, and this can influence their decisions regarding land use. But on the whole, Indigenous communities generally remain strong proponents of conservation, with a close connection to the land and respectful attitudes toward nature.

It is also important to recognize that the Indigenous concept of conservation is distinct from the modern concept of biodiversity conservation as described in this text. In particular, Indigenous conservation is more focused on sustainable use than on the protection of species at risk (Smith and Wishnie 2000). Notably, Indigenous communities in Nunavut have been systematically blocking the official listing of species at risk that reside in the territory, denying them the protections afforded by the Species at Risk Act (Findlay et al. 2009). Finding common ground, in the context of conservation planning, can be accomplished, but is often challenging.


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