Millennia of interdependent relationships between humans and their surroundings, with people both dependent on their environment for survival while at the same time adapting to and modifying it, gave rise to a diversity of Indigenous Peoples – or nations – that spread across the planet, forming territories in which they made their homes, gathered their sustenance, and developed their distinct, cultural practices. These territories currently comprise over twenty-five percent of the world’s land surface. In many cases, Indigenous Peoples sustain the biological diversity and ecosystem services that characterize these landscapes through locally adapted institutions based on biocultural heritage: the knowledge, innovations, and practices of Indigenous Peoples that are collectively held and inextricably linked to, and shaped by, the social-ecological context of their territories.
Indigenous territories, and the peoples they sustain, are threatened by global and local transformations that degrade and homogenize both biological and human cultural diversity. The resilience of Indigenous territories to these threats, therefore, is largely influenced by the dynamic nature of biocultural heritage. Many Indigenous Peoples utilize their biocultural heritage to gauge, interpret, and respond to internal and external feedbacks, transmit knowledge, and adapt it to new and changing social, technological, environmental, and political contexts. The capability of biocultural heritage to maintain Indigenous territories is compromised by forces that sustain and enhance these knowledge generation and adaptation processes. Moreover, decoupling Indigenous Peoples from their territories and livelihoods can become self-reinforcing (a feedback mechanism) because environmental degradation and/or resource scarcity typically precipitate other threats to biocultural heritage, such as conservation policies in some countries that remove humans from their ITs. These actions conflict with Indigenous Peoples for whom resource use may be both the reason, and a mechanism for, managing the environment.