Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, University of Helsinki; Catherine Robinson, CSIRO; Erle C. Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Ian Leiper, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; John E. Fa, Manchester Metropolitan University; Kerstin Zander, Charles Darwin University; Micha Victoria Jackson, The University of Queensland; Pernilla Malmer, Stockholm University; Tom Duncan, Charles Darwin University, and Zsolt Molnár, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest
Indigenous peoples have a deep and unique connection to the lands they inhabit. This connection has persisted throughout the world, despite centuries of colonisation, displacement and suppression of their cultural identities.
What has never been appreciated is the contemporary spatial extent of Indigenous influence – just how much of Earth’s surface do Indigenous peoples still own or manage?
Given that Indigenous peoples now make up less than 5% of the global population, you might imagine the answer to be “very little”. But you would be wrong.
In our new research, published in Nature Sustainability, we mapped Indigenous lands throughout the world, country by country. We found that these covered 38 million square kilometres – about a quarter of all land outside Antarctica.
Some 87 countries around the world, on every inhabited continent, have people who identify as Indigenous and contain land that is still owned, managed or influenced by Indigenous people.
These areas are very valuable for conservation. About 65% of Indigenous lands have not been intensively developed, compared with 44% of other lands. Similarly, just 10% of the world’s urban areas, villages and non-remote croplands are on Indigenous peoples’ lands.
By contrast, Indigenous lands encompass nearly two-thirds of the world’s most remote and least-inhabited regions. These are the places with the lowest levels of built environments, crop land, pasture land, human population density, night-time lights, railways, roads and navigable waterways.
An incredible 40% of lands listed by national governments around the world as being managed for conservation are Indigenous lands. Some of this has official recognition. For instance, Australia would never meet its promises under the Convention on Biological Diversity if its Indigenous peoples had not been prepared to allocate more than 27 million hectares of their land to conservation.
A great contribution
This highlights the great contribution that Indigenous peoples are making to conservation. Many groups have instituted land-management regimes that are already delivering significant conservation benefits.
Yet there is danger in making assumptions about the aspirations of Indigenous peoples for managing their lands. Without proper consultation, conservation projects based on Indigenous stewardship may be unsuccessful at best and risk perpetuating colonial legacies at worst.
Conservation partnerships will only be successful if the rights, knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous peoples are fully acknowledged. Many Indigenous peoples have acknowledged this fact, by calling for partnerships that respect, understand and follow local processes. There is no one size that fits all – Indigenous peoples are hugely diverse.
Indeed, so important are local perspectives to Indigenous relationships with land that we pondered for a year on the ethics of creating a global map. However, we also felt that the story of enduring Indigenous influence needs to be told. Our final map shows that broad swathes of Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia and the far north of Europe are Indigenous lands.
Our results are particularly important at this time when goals for sustainable development after 2020 are being developed. The results also feed into assessments by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the international body that assesses the health of the world’s wildlife diversity and ecosystems. It is much more than biodiversity that relies on Indigenous management of land. So too do many of the ecosystem services that allow humans to thrive.
Finally, we should note that, for many countries, the areas we have mapped are the minimum – further work will almost certainly discover that Indigenous influence extends far further than is currently acknowledged.
Yet our crucial message remains the same: that Indigenous peoples hold the future of much of the world’s wilderness in their hands.
The authors acknowledge the contributions of Beau Austin, Benjamin McGowan, Eduardo S. Brondizio and Neil Burgess to this article and the research that underpins it.
Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Researcher, University of Helsinki; Catherine Robinson, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Erle C. Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Ian Leiper, Geospatial Scientist, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; John E. Fa, Professor of Biodiversity and Human Development, Manchester Metropolitan University; Kerstin Zander, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Micha Victoria Jackson, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; Pernilla Malmer, Senior Advisor, Stockholm University; Tom Duncan, , Charles Darwin University, and Zsolt Molnár, Scientific Advisor, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest
Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.
Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.
Some 90% of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.
Plastic – not so fantastic
Every week, another grotesque story illustrates the impact of plastic in the environment. A whale was recently found with 80 plastic bags in its stomach – it died, of course.
One-third of marine turtles have died or become ill due to plastic ingestion in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.
Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution
Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.
Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50% to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.
Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.
Toxic plastic soup
In Australia, up to 100% of flesh-footed shearwater fledglings contained plastic, the highest reported for any marine vertebrate. Fledglings with high levels of ingested plastic exhibited reduced body condition and increased contaminant loads.
The chemical structure of plastics means that they act as toxin sponges, attracting harmful contaminants from the surrounding seawater, including persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When an animal ingests plastic, there is the potential for those toxic chemicals to leach into its tissues.
Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.
Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been show to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.
Ocean health and human health
Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.
Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.
Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.
In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.
Global production of plastics is doubling every 11 years. It is predicted to be an order of magnitude greater than current production levels by 2040. The time is ripe for the initiation of an international agreement to lessen plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and save our seabirds and marine wildlife.
“A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight! A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.”
Perhaps this saying came to mind if you caught a spectacular sunrise or sunset recently.
Since biblical times and probably before, proverbs and folklore such as this developed as a way for societies to understand and foretell prevailing weather conditions.
The “red sky” proverb has endured across cultures for centuries, and modern science can explain why this is so.
What causes a red sky at sunrise and sunset?
The Sun is low on the horizon at sunrise and sunset. At these times of the day, sunlight has had to travel through more of the atmosphere to reach us. When light hits the atmosphere it is scattered, particularly when dust, smoke and other particles are in the air.
This scattering affects the blue part of the light spectrum the most. So by the time the sunlight reaches our eyes there is generally more of the red and yellow parts of the spectrum remaining.
Dust and smoke particles commonly build up in the atmosphere beneath high-pressure systems, which are generally associated with dry and settled weather.
If you’ve ever been to Darwin in the Northern Territory during the dry season (the period between May and September), you’ll know glorious red and orange sunsets are an almost daily occurrence.
This makes sense – the sky across the Top End at this time of year is often full of dust particles whipped up off the land by dry southeasterly winds, as well as smoke from bushfires burning through the landscape.
What can red sky tell us about the weather?
In areas of the world where weather systems move routinely from the west to the east, including across southern areas of Australia, the “red sky” proverb often holds true.
A red sky sunrise suggests that an area of high pressure and fine weather, with its trapped dust and other particles, has moved out towards to the east. This allows for an area of lower pressure and deteriorating weather – perhaps a cold front and band of rain – to move in from the west during the day.
On the other hand, a red sky sunset tells us the worst of the weather has now eased, with higher pressure and improving weather approaching from the west for the following day.
Across northern Australia and other areas of the tropics, the “red sky” proverb is an unreliable method to predict the weather. In these regions, weather patterns are often very localised, moving in no particular direction at all, and larger tropical weather systems usually move from east to west.
Red skies and cloud
What often makes red sky sunrises and sunsets even more spectacular is the position of the Sun in the sky, relative to cloud.
When the Sun is low on the horizon, rays of light shine back up onto the underside of cloud high in the sky, reflecting back those bright orange and red colours that make it look as if the sky has turned to fire.
With a red sky sunrise, the eastern sky is more likely to be cloud-free with finer weather, allowing the Sun to shine upon the higher cloud moving in with the deteriorating weather from the west.
With a red sky sunset, it’s the western sky more likely to be clear, with the Sun’s rays shining up onto cloud further east.
So the next time you spot a spectacular sunrise or sunset, keep the “red sky” proverb in mind and you’ll become a pro at forecasting the weather in no time!