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While rich countries develop most of the global strategies for the protection of species, it is vital to remember that the poorest countries harbour most of the world's biodiversity. This means, in essence, that the guardians of these plants and animals are millions of poor indigenous people and local communities. 

Within these communities, what is considered important by Western scientists might not be understood, or may even be seen as irrelevant. For example, one central idea about biodiversity in the West is that only rare or declining species should be conserved. We argue that such a narrow focus reduces the effectiveness of locally based conservation efforts.

For ten years our team has worked closely with indigenous communities in Africa and Latin America, exploring the importance they assign to biodiversity in their cultures. We discovered that the Emberá people of Panama, for example, only give names to plant species that they have some use for – they tend to ignore much of the biodiversity surrounding them.

To the Pygmies of Cameroon, the forest, which is their home, is seen as something to protect; yet for the Peuhl peoples it is considered to be hostile territory. Meanwhile, in Madagascar, a cleared forest is often viewed as an example of progress, so long as areas considered sacred have not been affected. 

Defining priorities

Emberá villagers told us that they consider 45 plant and animal species to be "most important". Important mammals, for example, are defined as those hunted for household consumption or used in trade. Their byproducts are used in rituals, healing ceremonies and celebrations. Animal species of the highest importance are all edible. As for plants, the way certain plants are used — say, as construction material for traditional houses — make those more important than others.

But for the Emberá, something that is important does not necessarily have to be conserved. In this, their view differs from that of Western conservation organisations and most scientists.

Consider the example of the tapir, the largest tropical mammal of Central America. For organisations such as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the tapir should be conserved because it is rare and its survival is threatened.

The tapir is important for the Emberá, too. It is one of their four most highly valued species because it is used in game, as livestock, in rituals and in medicine. In that sense one would expect the Emberá to want to conserve it. But this is not the case.

An Emberá villager told us that if a tapir were to pass through the village, he would kill it so that he could taste its meat once again. The Emberá believe that spirits, which they call wandra, protect hunted animals by opening for them a door to another world. We understood this to mean that killing a tapir would not put the species in jeopardy because it was protected by a wandra.

In other words, for the Emberá an important species does not necessarily need to be conserved. Some species they consider important are abundant. Others are either rare, or have become extinct locally. This makes the Emberá perception of conservation different to that of the world's science community.

Respecting differences

What do these findings tell us? In the first instance, they suggest that in the quest to increase the participation of indigenous peoples in establishing conservation priorities, it would be naïve to assume that they have the same views on biodiversity and conservation as scientists. 

The challenge then becomes that of bringing together traditional knowledge with modern science, but not substituting one for the other: both need to inform the decision-making processes. 

This requires a sincere dialogue between holders of scientific and of indigenous knowledge — one that acknowledges inherent differences in value systems. A system for managing biodiversity can then be formulated in a way that not only respects these two sets of values, but also builds on their respective strengths.

In practice, this means including the conservation priorities of indigenous communities when compiling species lists such as those of IUCN and CITES. Our experience with the Emberá suggests that villagers are more enthusiastic about conserving a species that they themselves think is important. They are less concerned about species that are a priority for outsiders — such as conservation organisations and the scientists who advise them.

Failure to involve them suggests not only a lack of respect for these groups, but will probably result in the failure of conservation efforts.

Catherine Potvin is at McGill University, Canada; Jean-Pierre Réveret is at Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada; and Genevieve Patenaude is at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

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