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Conservation From an Indigenous View

Fresh perspectives from the keepers of the land.

“Conservation for indigenous people in particular is important because I think at the end of the day we’ve got to think about our children and the legacy we’re going to leave.”

—Joe Morrison, Dagoman and Torres Strait Islander in North Australia

The Nature Conservancy has long depended on partnerships with local people to conserve some of the most threatened ecosystems. Support from donors like you helps make this possible in Washington and around the world.

To learn new ideas for working with communities, the Washington chapter of the Conservancy recently hosted some special guests. We welcomed Tom Lalampaa, a member of the Samburu tribe and conservationist from Northern Kenya; and Joe Morrison, conservation leader in Northern Australia. Joe’s heritage is Dagoman and Torres Strait.

These guests met with Washington tribal leaders for a powerhouse panel discussion on working with indigenous people and the challenges and opportunities it presents. The discussion hit on topics such as human rights, trust and communication, and the economic benefits of conservation. One theme came up again and again: The urgent need for people to come together for nature.

"We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to bring people all together," said Billy Frank Jr., chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and Nisqually Tribe member in Washington. "The Nature Conservancy is a great example of how we can work worldwide together and try to educate everyone. It’s survival is what we’re talking about. We’re running out of time."

Billy Frank Jr., 80, is an icon in the United States for his fight to protect salmon and preserve Indian fishing rights. “We’re salmon people,” he told the group. “The recovery of salmon is important to our survival.”

Paul Ward, fisheries manager for the Yakama Nation in Washington, also spoke of the importance of salmon in his tribe’s culture and economy. "Taking a child out there as a Yakama man, teaching him to fish, being able to catch that fish and bring it back—that ties you back to who you are, who your grandparents were." he said. "It’s part of who you are, how you identify yourself in this world. If there’s not Chinook salmon there to catch, that’s when things start coming apart."

The group discussed the challenges of engaging communities in conservation projects. Tom Lalampaa, community development manager for Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, works with communities scattered among some 3 million acres.

"In Northern Kenya, before we embraced community conservation, the situation was so desperate," he said. "Environmental degradation was massive. The moment communities embraced conservation, the situation completely changed."

Joe Morrison works with indigenous communities across Northern Australia. "In Australia it’s really about people’s cultural integrity and their connection to the environment," he said. "We want to make sure we leave a legacy, and the legacy just isn’t about big industrial developments."

His organization aims to raise awareness and educate community members about the need for conservation. Using both Western science and traditional knowledge, he helps them develop on new conservation strategies.

"It’s important to build management structures in local communities, so they can take responsibility and start managing," he said.

He echoed Billy Frank’s call for people to come together. As did Paul Ward, who serves as a member of the board of trustees for the Conservancy’s Washington chapter.

"I feel strongly that The Nature Conservancy as a body, and tribal nations, Indian nations, aborigines and indigenous groups, wherever they are in the world, have a real strong interest in coming together," Paul said. "The benefits are more than any group can create separately."

Go Deeper

Conservancy trustee Paul Ward joined Tom Lalampaa and Joe Morrison for an hour-long discussion on KUOW radio during their visit. 

Our guests also spoke at an event for Washington’s Next generation, a group for young professionals.

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