New Publication: Elevating Indigenous values in ecosystem accounting

September 21st, 2023

New research investigates how Indigenous-led practices make nature valuation more inclusive and equitable

A new paper from CSIRO researchers examines whether nature valuation frameworks have adequately considered Indigenous worldviews, and highlights some of the ways Indigenous groups have been able to negotiate and reshape ecosystem accounting approaches across the world.

Published in the international journal, Environmental Science and Policy, the study was led by Dr Danilo Urzedo and Dr Cathy Robinson as part of the Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform (VS FSP).

“This research gives us a big picture view of the ways nature valuation consider diverse Indigenous perspectives across the world,” says Dr Urzedo. “We conducted a literature review of 120 academic papers and analysed the grassroots work of 80 Indigenous-led organisations in 35 countries to get a better sense of how Indigenous actions are creating new and alternative forms of valuing nature. Some of those findings can now be applied to support and reshape nature assessment projects in Australia and elsewhere.”

Image of mobile phone being held in a hand. The screen shown on the phone indicates the user is collecting environmental data.

Indigenous practitioners collecting environmental data through a mobile application for ecosystem monitoring in Burnett Mary region, Queensland. Photo by Danilo Urzedo.

What are nature valuation frameworks?

The idea of assigning a value to an ecosystem first arose around forty years ago, in the context of measuring and offsetting the environmental impacts of industries and domestic economies.

“International debates about environmental externalities first took place in the 1980s,” explains Dr Urzedo. “Governments and international organisations started to examine the environmental impacts of economic development and question what kind of investment it would take to repair those damages. That’s really when researchers started to consider the idea of ‘ecosystem services’ by putting a ‘price’ to nature.”

In the mid-1990s, the concept of ecosystem services became more mainstream, in part due to the work of US researcher Robert Constanza, who was the first person to estimate the worldwide worth of nature to human well-being. Professor Constanza and his colleagues calculated that such diverse services were worth USD $33 trillion annually – the equivalent of $44 trillion today.

Since then, a range of other national and international frameworks and programs have been established to quantify and qualify multiple values of nature for decision-making processes. These have included the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) – both initiatives of the UN Environment Program.

According to Dr Urzedo, the framing of nature valuation frameworks has changed considerably over time, and especially in the last ten years. It is now widely recognised that the value of nature is not just a market-oriented one, and that there are interconnected social and cultural dimensions that also need to be fully considered to make these practices inclusive and equitable.

“Over time, nature valuation approaches have started to take more holistic and cross-cultural formulations,” he explains. “Scientists and policymakers have realised that these measuring systems cannot just be a financial tool because when you incorporate complex social relations, cultural heritage and diverse worldviews into these frameworks, you realise that environmental benefits or impacts go beyond physical or financial considerations. For instance, if a development project harms a culture, or a language is lost, that’s not something you can just get back by simply throwing money at it.”  

A quarter of the world’s landmass is stewarded and safeguarded by Indigenous peoples, and this land contains 80% of the remaining global biodiversity. Forests that are under the collective stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities hold at least a quarter of all tropical and subtropical above-ground carbon.

As the world faces the ongoing dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, it’s vitally important that Indigenous knowledge and experiences are recognised and included in nature valuation approaches. This research by CSIRO attempts to highlight some of the place-based practices that may facilitate that work.

Image of protestors in the city of Glasgow at the COP26 summit. Protestors are holding a large sign that reads 'LANDBACK To fix the climate, recognize our rights now!'

Indigenous communities marching during COP26 in Glasgow to denounce injustices in global environmental commitments rooted in colonial legacies. Photo by Danilo Urzedo.

What are the key findings in this research?

Dr Urzedo analysed 120 articles on nature valuation and discovered that while attempts have been made in to engage with diverse perspectives and values, the assessments still rely on Western principles that exclude the full consideration of Indigenous values, knowledge practices, and governance systems.

“Many of these assessments focus solely on the question of how ecosystems can benefit humans,” he says. “But when considering Indigenous worldviews, there is no divide between humanity and nature. It’s not that there is a linear flow or exchange between the two; it’s that they are one whole complex and evolving being.”

“These ecosystem assessments are still very limited in including Indigenous values and knowledge practices and their endpoints are frequently about economic transactions. Their measuring system are commonly about how to translate relational values into something tangible or monetary.”

Following the extensive literature review, the authors then examined the work of 80 Indigenous-led initiatives across 35 countries to gain a better understanding of how local groups have contested and reworked these valuation frameworks as part of their efforts to advocate for the legitimacy of place-based experiences and their rights to self-determination.

“Despite the criticisms of the nature frameworks, Indigenous groups across the world are still using, questioning, and transforming them,” he says. “We wanted to understand the ways that Indigenous groups adopt, disrupt, and remake these systems as political tools for accessing funding and negotiating locally relevant outcomes. We were able to look at the diverse experiences and check for patterns and common themes in terms of their practices. That helped us identify five distinct ways that Indigenous groups have been asserting their political power to undertake nature assessments.”

These decolonial experiences are discussed at length in the paper, and they include: promoting Indigenous autonomy and self-governance; building long term and reliable partnerships; catalysing collective networks; supporting Indigenous knowledge co-production; and enabling with Indigenous political platforms.

What comes next?

Dr Urzedo’s paper is the first output from the Valuing Local Provenance project of the VS FSP, which is focused on the social benefits of environmental investments in Queensland.

The valuable insights gained from this research highlight the agency of Indigenous communities to innovate and to disrupt ecosystem valuation systems; and while the study takes a broad look at what is happening internationally, Dr Urzedo believes that it can also inform and shape the FSP’s ongoing work in Australia.

“When we are starting a research project, it’s always relevant to get a big picture of what is happening in that field globally,” he says. “Now we are going to ground that conceptual work in diverse local realities. Our work with the FSP involves bringing diverse community and Indigenous groups together to investigate the forms of identifying and reporting social impacts that carbon farming and biodiversity recovery generate in regional Queensland. This review piece helps us think about how we can revalue sustainability, and support to reconsider how to better integrate cultural and social dimensions in environmental policies and programs.”

Author – Ruth Dawkins