For this issue, Tunza asked five indigenous people to answer questions from readers. Upaluk Poppel (Inuit, Greenland), Jennifer Koinante Kihoro (Laikipiak Masai, Kenya), Niyara Gafarova (Crimean Tatar, Ukraine), Francis Alfred (Tolo, Solomon Islands) and Ngwe Soe (Karenni, Myanmar) prepared the answers.
It is often said that indigenous peoples are much better at using the world's resources in moderation. How has this come about, seeing that they have a much narrower knowledge of the world? Caroline Ang, United States

This question reflects a common stereotype about indigenous peoples. They have struggled peacefully for their rights - and to preserve their traditional knowledge - for centuries. As they lost access to their own resources, they had to learn to survive in very hostile environments by using what remained creatively. This has nothing to do with narrowness of knowledge but with the difficulty we have, as indigenous peoples, in getting access to education, information technology and so on, because of discriminatory policies excluding us from schools and universities. Indigenous peoples do not usually waste resources, as they have strong spiritual and cultural relationships with their environment.

Are there things we can learn from indigenous peoples? Cristi Gerlach, Venezuela

Yes, many. Indigenous peoples have very rich and interesting cultures, and most communities still speak their native languages and engage in traditional storytelling, music and dance. They hold traditional knowledge on how to co-exist with nature, land and resources, with skills in hunting wildlife and gathering herbal medicines to treat infections and other illnesses. Additionally, they know peaceful ways of resolving conflicts and are usually good negotiators.

What can we learn from the alternative medicine practised by indigenous peoples? Could it help us cure many of our modern diseases? João F. Scarpelini, Brazil

Yes, but it is even more important to respect indigenous peoples' rights to their lands, from which they harvest medicinal plants, and their rights to use such plants. We face the intrusion of researchers who take away our genetic and natural resources without asking our permission. They believe that they can find cures by copying indigenous medicines, yet they rarely consult us or share the ensuing commercial benefits with us. We hope that many modern diseases can be cured using indigenous knowledge, but if this is to happen there must be better cooperation and communication with indigenous peoples, and our knowledge and resources must be respected and protected.

Is it possible to preserve an 'original' culture in the face of increasing influence from more dominant cultural models such as the American/Western one? Has any indigenous culture managed to remain intact? Maria Sterniczuk, Canada

It will be pretty difficult to maintain our original indigenous identities. But some of us still own traditional territories, or are in the process of regaining them. Moreover, we know that we belong to indigenous groups, giving us an incentive to preserve and practise our original cultures and traditions. Indigenous cultures, like any others, are constantly developing and changing, but we believe that it should be up to us to decide when and how.

How has environmental degradation - deforestation, desertification, the loss of biodiversity - affected the ability of indigenous peoples to live off the land? Irina Gavriloaea, Romania
Environmental degradation reflects a lack of understanding of indigenous peoples' livelihoods and modes of production. Land and natural resources are vital sources of knowledge that represent our spiritual life, and provide space for our rituals. We see the forest as part of our mother, Nature - not as a commodity that can be sold and overexploited in the name of so-called 'development' for economic benefits. Ecosystems are being rapidly depleted, yet our physical and cultural survival depends on them. The right to life is intrinsically linked to gaining access to and control over our resources. Development projects must be based on the principles of self-determination and self-governance of indigenous peoples.
Do you have questions on environment and development issues that you would like the experts at UNEP to answer? Please send them to, and we will try and answer them in future issues.
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