Programa sobre los bosques y el agua

Indigenous People and the forest-water nexus (Este recurso solo está disponible en inglés)


Indigenous Peoples’ guardianship of forests is intrinsically related to their guardianship of water resources.

The conservation and sustainable management of our forests is crucial to ensure the maintenance of their functions, services and interconnections. A recent report by FAO and FILAC (Fund for the Development of Indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean), has shown that Indigenous Peoples play an essential role in forest conservation, being recognized as the best guardians of forests.

It is important to extend that statement to include water resources. The link between forests and water is part of the cosmogony of many Indigenous Peoples. Lakes, flooded forests, rivers and groves within Indigenous Peoples’ territories are often considered sacred and revered. Indigenous Peoples’ understanding of this link between forests and water is profound and acts as a deciding factor. For example, it affects where and how food is grown. It also determines local forms of organization and resource governance and shapes their cultural identity. The cascading effects of this guardianship are also important for maintaining the planet’s biodiversity as well as for mitigating the effects of climate change.

Indigenous Peoples’ territories cover up to 24 percent of the world’s land surface and contain 80 percent of the earth’s remaining healthy ecosystems and global biodiversity priority areas. By sustainably managing their forest and water, Indigenous Peoples also protect the biodiversity of their territories. These territorial and resource management practices are based on their traditional knowledge and experience, accumulated and passed on from generation to generation over hundreds of years. As also mentioned by the FAO and FILAC report, the biodiversity hosted within indigenous territories is vast, and this is why it is so relevant to work together with Indigenous Peoples to preserve their knowledge, and food systems as well as their territories.  

The report also highlights that forests within Indigenous Peoples’ territories play a significant role in the fight against climate change due to their carbon and water ecosystem services. For example, degradation of forests in the Amazon Basin, within Indigenous Peoples’ territories, could lead to reduced rainfall, an increase in temperature, droughts and forest fires. This could have severe consequences for areas well outside indigenous territories and extend to the regional scale.


The forest-water nexus within Indigenous Peoples’ food systems

Indigenous peoples are gatekeepers of cultural diversity, comprising over 476 million people, speaking 4 000 languages and belonging to 5 000 different peoples spread across seven regions. Their food systems have sustained them for thousands of years, generating food in harmony with nature while preserving the environment. From the Amazon forests to the Arctic Tundra, from the Sahelian deserts to the Himalayan peaks. Today they are custodians of most of the world’s remaining biodiversity and their territories often coincide with the world’s best-preserved areas.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are rooted in the ecosystems found within each Indigenous Peoples’ territories. Their holistic view of food systems encompasses spirituality, life, culture, and both the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem, as well as the interconnections between them. The whole of the territory is important to generate food and livelihoods and only what is needed is grown or used. The forest-water nexus is therefore a vital element of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. From finding the best combination of trees, plants and shrubs that maintain soil moisture and make the best use of available water to maintaining riparian areas for fish habitat, the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples of the forest-water nexus is unparalleled.

Unfortunately, Indigenous Peoples suffer internal and external pressures that have led to the loss of their traditional knowledge and ancestral practices. This can have a detrimental effect on the management of their territories and food systems and therefore on the conservation and sustainable management of forests, water and biodiversity. It is therefore imperative that we recognize the vital role of Indigenous Peoples in solving some of the most important crises of our time and work together to address the threats that have caused the loss of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, practices and territories.


More information:

Global-hub on Indigenous Food Systems

FAO and Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems