Mongabay Features

“Securing Indigenous guardianship of vital ecosystems”: Q&A with Nia Tero CEO Peter Seligmann

One of the dominant trends in conservation over the past 20 years has been growing recognition of the contributions Indigenous peoples have made toward conservationists’ goals of protecting biodiversity, wild places, and ecosystem functions. Lands stewarded by Indigenous peoples and local communities sequester at least a sixth of forest carbon and house 80% of terrestrial species. Most of the world’s largest intact landscapes — from the Amazon rainforest to the island of New Guinea — have a long history of human inhabitation and today have substantial Indigenous populations.

This view is a departure from historical conservation approaches, which have tended to marginalize, undervalue, or even criminalize Indigenous peoples, whose traditional homelands were at the same time being bulldozed for plantations and ranches; torn up for ore, minerals, and oil; poisoned by industrial waste and pollution; and invaded by speculators. Historically, Indigenous peoples’ contributions haven’t been compensated by the outside world; in fact, there are many documented cases where in the name of establishing strict protected areas they have been forced from the lands they’ve traditionally stewarded or had the activities they’ve practiced for generations restricted.

The transition unfolding across conservation is an important development for the sector, but going from talking about change to actually implementing meaningful reforms will be a challenge. It requires earnestly listening to criticism, engaging and empowering stakeholders who’ve been traditionally ignored or marginalized, reevaluating legacy relationships, and upending power structures, among other measures.

For these reasons, Peter Seligmann is an important figure to watch. Seligmann is one of the best-known and most influential figures in conservation. After beginning his career at The Nature Conservancy, Seligmann co-founded Conservation International (CI) in 1987. Seligmann grew CI into a conservation giant that won the backing of high-profile celebrities, business executives, and political leaders as it expanded into some of the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse areas. 

Peter Seligmann. Photo credit: Nia Tero.
Peter Seligmann. Photo credit: Felipe Contreras/Nia Tero.

One of CI’s core conservation approaches has been establishing protected areas. This process typically includes scientists and other experts identifying biodiverse areas for potential protection, then working with host governments to establish protected areas, often with funding from multilateral development agencies, donor governments, philanthropic foundations, and wealthy individuals. Implementation of a protected area usually involves a number of partners, from host government agencies to local NGOs and communities. But survey the conservation field and many actors would probably cite CI’s relationships with large companies or governments before they cite CI’s work with Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Seligmann officially stepped down as CEO of CI on July 1, 2017 (he remains chairman of the board), and launched a new organization called Nia Tero that puts Indigenous peoples at the center of its strategy. Nia Tero means “our Earth” in Esperanto, a language created in the late 19th century to serve as a universal language for all people. 

Nia Tero’s tagline is “securing Indigenous guardianship of vital ecosystems,” which means it “exists to ensure that Indigenous peoples have the economic power and cultural independence to steward, support, and protect their livelihoods and territories they call home.” Nia Tero proclaims full support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a resolution adopted by the United Nations in 2007 that’s become central to efforts to secure and assert Indigenous rights in countries around the world, as well as the principles of free prior and informed consent (FPIC). To ensure representation of Indigenous values and worldviews, more than half of Nia Tero’s advisory council, board, and senior staff are Indigenous.

“The founders of Nia Tero are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” Seligmann told Mongabay. “From our earliest conversations, we committed to building an organization with multiple perspectives and multiple cultures. In our charter, we call for Indigenous leadership on both the board and staff.

“To serve our mission, this commitment to diversity is essential. Our organization’s DNA must be aligned with the communities and cultures we support.”

Evening in the Boreal. Photo credit: Valérie Courtois
Evening in the Boreal. Photo credit: Valérie Courtois

Seligmann says the impetus for starting Nia Tero emerged from research in the mid-2010s that found Indigenous peoples and local communities steward vast areas of intact landscapes, while their lands have lower rates of deforestation and fire than many protected areas.

“As a whole, we have not fully appreciated the extraordinary resilience of Indigenous peoples. Despite 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples still inhabit, and formally or informally govern, more than 40% of the Earth,” Seligmann said. “Thanks to their guardianship, most of these lands have retained their ecological vitality and diversity. Indigenous peoples have not achieved this by fencing off their territories but through their way of life. Many Indigenous peoples commit their lives to their traditional lands and waters through a foundational belief in reciprocity — the way of life centered in mutual exchange and sharing among all beings, seen and unseen, and the Earth.

“In 2017, a small group of us decided to launch a new organization devoted to supporting Indigenous peoples in their efforts to protect their ways of life and their territories. For us, it was clear that humanity’s fate is directly dependent upon the ability of nations, and the public, to support Indigenous territorial rights and embrace Indigenous peoples’ belief in the reciprocal relationship between all beings and the Earth. We were determined to shape our organization around our shared belief in reciprocity as a foundational principle for all human societies.”

Given Seligmann’s prominence in the conservation sector, there was an immediate buzz and much speculation around Nia Tero when it formed. But the organization largely operated under the radar for its first three years while it quietly raised funds, recruited its team, devised its strategy through a consultative process, and began establishing partnerships with Indigenous communities. Nia Tero is now becoming more public facing, with an updated website, events, and unveiling a program to help Indigenous peoples tell their stories.

Nia Tero is now also engaging with other conservation organizations about becoming more inclusive of Indigenous peoples in their leadership and how to decolonize legacy institutions, practices, and approaches, according to Seligmann.

“For conservation groups to work effectively with Indigenous peoples, they must first support Indigenous peoples’ quest for rights and self-governance,” he said. “But the basic understanding of what that means has to come first.”

Seligmann spoke with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler about Nia Tero’s mission, broader issues in the conservation sector, and more during a February 2021 conversation.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.