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Q&A: To Save The Planet, Traditional Indigenous Knowledge Is Indispensable

Indigenous peoples’ ecological expertise honed over centuries is increasingly being used by policymakers to complement mainstream science.

The past few years have been a triumph for traditional Indigenous knowledge, the body of observations, innovations and practices developed by Indigenous peoples throughout history with regard to their local environment. 

First, the world’s top scientific and environmental policymaking bodies embraced it. Then, in 2022, the Biden administration instructed U.S. federal agencies to include it in their decision making processes. And, last year, the National Science Foundation announced $30 million in grants to fund it.

Traditional Indigenous knowledge, also called traditional ecological knowledge or traditional knowledge, is compiled by tribes according to their distinct culture and generally is transmitted orally between generations. It has evolved since time immemorial, yet mainstream institutions have only begun to recognize its value for helping to address pressing global problems like climate change and biodiversity loss, to say nothing of its cultural importance.  

Traditional Indigenous knowledge has helped communities sustainably manage territories and natural resources—from predicting natural disasters to protecting biologically important areas and identifying medicinal plants. Today, more than a quarter of land globally is occupied, managed or owned by Indigenous peoples and local communities, with roughly 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity located on Indigenous territories. Study after study has confirmed that those lands have better environmental outcomes than alternatives. 

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