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Embedding Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Restoration of Landscapes

A new report published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Deloitte

Our planet is in crisis. While urgent action is needed to accelerate pathways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, there is no viable option to keep the 1.5-degree climate target alive without also protecting, restoring and managing nature.i

Investment has started to flow to landscape conservation and restoration projects, both to offset carbon emissions and to propel positive co-benefits such as fresh water, clean air, biodiversity protection and human wellbeing.

While many projects take place on lands that are under Indigenous ownership or custodianship, involvement of Indigenous peoples as potential investment leaders and ecological knowledge-holders has often been limited. 

Enabling Indigenous leadership in landscape conservation and restoration projects will result in a more just and equitable transition to a low carbon future. It’s a focus on embedding Indigenous Knowledge to ensure that projects are designed and implemented in ways that drive long-term, system-wide benefits and positive outcomes.


There are five complexities that investors should seek to understand as a precursor to engaging with Indigenous peoples. All emerge from the legacies of settler-colonial movements.

  1. Power imbalance. While structural power inequalities between investors and Indigenous peoples’ communities are deep and complex, investors can look to minimise these by seeking to understand how systems of government, industry and finance may disproportionately benefit themselves in negotiations and agreements with Indigenous peoples.
  2. Trust building. The transactional model of relationship building in business is inappropriate for building relationships with Indigenous peoples. Building trust with an Indigenous community is a long-term process and the onus is on investors to demonstrate this, by being willing to listen, learn and act on the perspectives of the community.
  3. Knowledge transfer. Combining the insights of modern ecological science together with traditional Indigenous “Knowledge” (cultural knowledge) and business acumen has great potential in its application, but requires a thoughtful and respectful approach to bringing them together at the landscape level.
  4. Gender roles. The patriarchal systems that continue to construct gender disparity in non-Indigenous cultures have been imported with colonial-settler systems, and now also affect Indigenous community in its intersection with government, business and non-Indigenous society. In seeking to overcome these, certain gender roles and responsibilities that are important to the preservation of traditional culture should be considered and respected.
  5. Cultural load. While Indigenous peoples are being consulted more widely across a range of initiatives, this can come at a direct personal cost or “cultural load”. Investors can help mitigate the costs of sharing culture, knowledge and time by understanding the extractive nature of the request, the proprietary community provenance of knowledge and ensuring appropriate compensation.

In addition to understanding these complexities, investors should seek to ensure that their projects respect both the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous peoples in their landscapes.

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Working with different cultures and Knowledge systems is always complex and often exhilarating. While every Indigenous group has its own unique culture and values, there are a range of landscape-led philosophies that are generally shared across local and global communities. Three interrelated cross-cultural Indigenous concepts to keep top of mind:

  1. Relational obligation can be understood as having responsibilities to elements within a landscape (e.g. water, forests, air) while maintaining the relationship between these elements.
  2. Multigenerational responsibility holds that you are responsible not only for yourself or your immediate family, but also for carrying the knowledge and responsibility of past generations for the generations to come.
  3. Fractal scalability is a way of achieving project “scale” that demonstrates how a combination of results from a larger number of smaller, localised projects can deliver more value than a singular, larger, generalised project. 

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The degree to which Indigenous Knowledge can be embedded in a landscape conservation or restoration project is directly correlated to the extent to which Indigenous peoples can play a leadership role in the investment. For investors, there needs to be a focus on six key areas:


  1. Understanding the unmet community needs across social, economic, cultural and spiritual domains, as well as the external dimensions surrounding those needs and the pathways to achieving them, such as restoration of respect, self-determination and capability building.
  2. Exploring different pathways to achieve community needs, which may include having to negotiate for the return of traditional land or the authority to control existing land, with external covenants and limitations where jurisdictionally permissible.
  3. Identifying the range of project options that meet community needs and determining which fit with community ambition. This may include identifying “no go” zones that are sacred or of particular cultural significance, as well as the potential mixed-use of sites.
  4. Ensure equitable benefit sharing and compensation agreements with Indigenous peoples for benefits arising from projects on lands and territories occupied by Indigenous peoples and from the use of Indigenous Knowledge.
  5. Moderating or modifying the reporting requirements attached to investment funding, to ensure that the community has the capacity and capability to provide feedback, and is not over-burdened by reporting demands. Additionally, requirements for reporting should be mindful of any cultural sensitivities.
  6. Developing appropriate objectives and milestones for the project that are not time-bound, but process - or event - bound.

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