Just 3% of the planet remains ecologically intact. That was the devastating revelation research carried out by the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat in Cambridge revealed last week.
People and planet are teetering on the brink, as a biodiversity crisis rips through the natural environment that sustains us all. Why is it happening, though? According to new research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) it cannot simply be attributed to the ‘human destruction of uninhabited wildlands’, rather it is a result of the colonisation and intensive use of lands which had once been managed sustainably.
“Our work shows that most areas depicted as ‘untouched,’ ‘wild,’ and ‘natural’ are actually areas with long histories of human inhabitation and use,” says UMBC’s Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems and lead author. Such interpretations of these areas were probably because “societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience.” The study showing that, thanks to the practices of Indigenous and traditional communities, the bulk of Earth’s biodiversity was sustained for millennia.
Ellis says any efforts to overcome the current biodiversity crisis simply “won’t be successful without empowering the Indigenous, traditional, and local people who know their natures in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand.”
The researchers hope this new study will pave the way for a sharp rise in the use of historical land use data to inform the actions of scientists and decision-makers.
“It is clear that the perspectives of Indigenous and local peoples should be at the forefront of global negotiations to reduce biodiversity loss,” added Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at World Wildlife Fund and another study co-author. “There is a global crisis in the way traditionally-used land has been transformed by the scale and magnitude of intensive human development. We have to change course if we are to sustain humanity over the next 12,000 years.”