Asian Indigeneity, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and Challenges of the 2030 Agenda

  • Dave P. BuenavistaEmail author
  • Sophie Wynne-Jones
  • Morag McDonald
Original Article


Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the 2030 Agenda pledges to leave no one behind through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets were ratified by the international community to address the global challenges of our time. This framework and universal action plan articulate the inclusion of the indigenous peoples in the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Nonetheless, the world’s largest populations of indigenous peoples are in Asia. However, despite the affirmation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the concept of indigeneity is still controversial, politically contested, and considered immaterial by many states in the Asian region. With limited rights and inadequate access to social services, indigenous knowledge systems and practices have evolved through time to provide solutions to local problems that marginalized many communities. This article revisits the sociopolitical notion of indigeneity in the region and its implications for the indigenous community. It also explores the diversity of indigenous knowledge systems and traditional practices and its relevance to the SDGs, particularly on food security, community livelihoods, human well-being, natural resources management, and biodiversity conservation. The conclusion reflects the need for legitimate recognition and political enablement of indigenous peoples in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda by forging collaborations between academic researchers, policy-makers, and indigenous organizations in the Asian community.


Indigenous peoples Sustainability Socio-ecological systems Conservation SDGs 

1 Introduction

About two-thirds of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia, which is home to more than 2000 civilizations and languages (UN Department of Public Information 2014). Aside from being a critical biodiversity hot spot, the Southeast Asian region has more than 1 500 indigenous groups—amongst the richest ethnic diversity in the world (IWGIA 2017, 2018). Yet, the indigenous people of this region are also amongst the world’s most vulnerable, politically oppressed, and neglected minorities (Fukurai 2018; Clarke 2001). The concept of indigeneity in Asia is far from clear and naturalized, especially when compared to other nations (Baird 2011). Though signatories in the 2017 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), many Asian countries contested the definition and do not acknowledge the notion of “indigenous peoples” and its applicability to their respective political territories (IWGIA 2017, 2018; Etchart 2017). The gravity of the sociopolitical issues has led to historical and current ethnic-based conflicts, genocide, and ethnic cleansing in some countries which, to date, remain unresolved (Fukurai 2018; Clarke 2001; Beyrer and Kamarulzaman 2017; Candelaria 2018; Anderson 2015; Kolås 2017; Li 2002). Understanding the scale, location, and nature conservation values of the lands over which indigenous peoples exercise traditional rights is central to the implementation of several global conservation and climate agreements (Garnett et al. 2018). The neglect over indigenous peoples issues prompted the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly to include this matter in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the heads of state from 193 countries (United Nations 2015). This universal action plan, which will guide development programs and policies throughout the world until 2030, comprises 17 SDGs, 169 targets, and 232 indicators that take into account issues left unresolved by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, which did not include a single reference to indigenous peoples (Cisneros 2017). Apart from the direct references in the declaration, two of the Sustainable Development Goals and many of the associated targets are relevant for indigenous peoples (United Nations 2015). Moreover, the overarching framework of the 2030 Agenda contains numerous elements that can go towards articulating the development concerns and participation of indigenous peoples (United Nations 2015). The Agenda came into effect on 1 January 2016 and will continue through the next 15 years; however, the indigenous peoples in Asia still struggle for recognition and support for empowerment. With denied rights and limited access to basic social services, many ethnic minorities managed to survive by adapting and mitigating in various ways the impacts of global environmental change (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2013; Maldonado et al. 2016; Mercer et al. 2010; Nkomwa et al. 2014; Miyan 2015). Traditional ecological knowledge has also sustained the cultures, livelihoods, and agricultural resource management systems of local and indigenous communities throughout Asia for centuries (Parrotta et al. 2009; Altieri and Nicholls 2017; Cordero et al. 2018). As such, we also highlight in this paper the challenges faced by the indigenous peoples in the Asian region as well as the need for greater engagement in integrating indigenous knowledge systems for inclusive and sustainable development initiatives in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

2 The Definition of Indigeneity in Asia

The term “indigenous” has long been used as a designation distinguishing those who are “native” from “others” in specific locales and with varying scope (Merlan 2009). Historically, this concept was first applied at the end of the nineteenth century by European colonizers to racially differentiate themselves from the colonized subjects (Baird 2015; Casumbal-Salazar 2015; Baird 2011). This definition changed over the years and in 1938, the Pan-American Union referred to it as the first inhabitants of the lands (Baird 2011). This “first” or “original” peoples’ concept of indigeneity, that differentiates based on ethnicity, has emerged and become popularized in Asia in the 1970s and 1980s (Baird 2015). Recently, the term “indigenous” has also been used to distinguish marginalized and vulnerable people living at state borders, including those who may not be the “first peoples” (Baird 2016). The label “indigenous peoples” or its equivalent term in countries that still reject the concept are thus both highly political and subjective, reflecting opposing efforts to define the social basis of nation-states (Clarke 2001; Bertrand 2011). In fact, many Asian nations still contest the definition and do not acknowledge the concept of “indigenous peoples” even after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007 (IWGIA 2017, 2018; Etchart 2017). Disputes focus on conceptions of the particularly sustainable environmental relations of indigenous groups; on the compatibility of universal human rights with the particular entitlements of indigenous and cultural minorities; as well as on the justification for and achievement of their claims to local resources, self-determination, and autonomy (Buergin 2015; United Nations 2008). The concept often provokes considerable caveats at the national level, particularly among Asian states where—in Southeast and East Asia—only the Philippines and Japan accept the use of the term “indigenous peoples” to describe parts of their populations (Buergin 2015; Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007; Casumbal-Salazar 2015).

On the other hand, the majority of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members, together with India, China and other nations rejected the framework due to varying political and ideological interpretations claiming it does not apply to them (Bertrand 2011; Clarke 2001; Baird 2015, 2016; Buergin 2015; IWGIA 2017). Indonesian authorities argued that the concept of indigenous peoples is not applicable as almost all Indonesians (with the exception of the ethnic Chinese) are indigenous and thus entitled to the same rights (Nababan and Sombolinggi 2017). The government granted autonomy in some areas, albeit for both minority and non-minority populations (Baird 2011). In a particular case, the Indonesian government gave concessions to the Papuans but not rights as indigenous peoples (Bertrand 2011). Consequently, the Indonesian government has rejected calls for specific needs from groups identifying themselves as indigenous (Nababan and Sombolinggi 2017). Vietnam, Laos, Bangladesh, and China have a similar stance to that of Indonesia in not recognizing indigenous peoples (IWGIA 2017). The Lao government further, severely restricts fundamental rights, including freedom of speech (IWGIA 2017). Organizations openly focused on indigenous peoples or using related terms in the Lao language are not allowed and open discussions about indigenous peoples with the government can be sensitive (IWGIA 2017). Nonetheless, the very existence of indigenous people in the Asian region is evident from a local and international perspective (Table 1). In different parts of Asia, indigenous peoples are called “Masyarakat adat” in Indonesia, “Orang Asli or Orang Asal” in Malaysia, “hill tribes” in Thailand, “Scheduled Tribes” or “Adivasis” in India, “Jummas” in Bangladesh, “Adivasi Janajati” in Nepal, ethnic minorities, and among others distinguishing them as sociocultural groups distinct from the majority (IWGIA 2017, 2018).
Table 1

Indigenous populations and number of indigenous groups in selected Asian countries.

Source: IWGIA (2017, 2018), United Nations Development Programme (2010)

Asian nations

Indigenous population

No. of indigenous groups

East and Southeast Asia

 1. Japan



 2. Taiwan



 3. China



 4. Philippines



 5. Indonesia



 6. Malaysia



 7. Thailand



 8. Vietnam



 9. Laos

No data available


 10. Myanmar



 11. Cambodia



South Asia

 12. India



 13. Bangladesh



 14. Nepal



Except for Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations, the aforementioned Asian nations voted in favour and are among the signatories of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

This criterion of self-identification and identification of others as members of a distinct sociocultural group has been the institutional definition for indigenous peoples by the World Bank’s Operational Directive 4.20 (World Bank 1991). Other indicators include having an indigenous language different from the national language; the presence of customary and political institutions; close attachment to territories and natural resources; and subsistence-oriented production (World Bank 1991). With policies strategically defined by global institutions, the legitimate recognition as indigenous peoples provides transnational benefits provided by various international organizations, intergovernmental agencies, and other foreign governments, which have policies targeted towards overseas indigenous peoples (Kingsbury 1998). Yet, to date, some of these ethnic groups are not only denied; such recognition but also of citizenship thereby making them socially excluded and among the most impoverished sectors (Toyota 2005; Milton et al. 2017).

The politicized non-recognition of indigenous peoples in Asia may explain the paucity of research data and their under-representation in both local and international policies and in the continuing marginalization of many indigenous groups in the region. Among Asian countries, very few countries have fully recognized the international concept of indigenous people and given unconditional right of self-determination to the indigenous peoples (IWGIA 2017). Both Japan and Malaysia have adopted the UNDRIP and endorsed the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples but have not ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 (IWGIA 2017, 2018). Taiwan, on the other hand, is not a member of the United Nations and has not been able to vote on the UNDRIP, nor to consider ratifying ILO Convention 169 (IWGIA 2017). At present, one of the major challenges faced by many indigenous peoples in Asia appears to be deep-rooted in the lack of national recognition and consequently denied legal rights despite the UNDRIP and ILO 169 agreements. The new Constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015 denies the collective rights and aspirations for identity-based federalism of indigenous peoples (IWGIA 2017). In 2017, the Indigenous Peoples Bill submitted by Indonesia’s indigenous movement still awaits discussion in the National Legislation, whereas Vietnam’s draft proposal on the development of the Law on Ethnic Minorities has already been rejected by its National Assembly (IWGIA 2017). There are also continued efforts to get indigenous peoples rights in the draft Constitution of Thailand, but it is still subject to further deliberation (Baird et al. 2017; IWGIA 2017). The historical cause of regional conflicts and issues stems from the absence of an authoritative definition nor a general agreement to the meaning of indigenous peoples (Kingsbury 1998). Though certain criteria have been established to identify indigenous peoples by the ILO and World Bank, the United Nations have adopted no definition even in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2013). Given its relevance in political discourse, national and international policies, and legal implications, the consensus on the definition is urgently needed in the Asian region. Similar to SDGs, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 also envisions an inclusive community with the goal of reducing the barriers to ethnic minority groups, vulnerable and marginalized groups, and to promote indigenous and traditional knowledge (ASEAN 2016). This, however, will be unattainable without a regional consensus devoted to the recognition and protection of minorities and indigenous peoples. Finally, finding a common ground for defining the indigenous peoples within the Asian community is not impossible. The indigenous peoples are discernible in many states as distinct populations inhabiting traditional territories or ancestral lands attested by history and inimitable cultural identity, and is the non-dominant voiceless sector in the multicultural realities in Asia.

3 Indigenous Peoples in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The idea of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) first emerged from the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 (United Nations 2012). In September 2015, after 3 years of negotiations, the 193 world leaders in the UN General Assembly adopted the SDGs consisting of 17 global goals with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030 (United Nations 2015). The UN described the formulation of the 2030 Agenda as the most inclusive in its history. The SDGs address some of the key shortcomings and gaps of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) where indigenous peoples were largely invisible. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of the MDG agenda is its position that partly ignored the human rights standards and principles, especially on the issues of inequality within a country (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2008). In contrast to the MDGs, the SDGs incorporate a broader and more transformative agenda relevant to the challenges of the twenty-first century through global goals (Fukuda-Parr 2016).

Through active engagement in the process towards the 2030 Agenda, indigenous peoples have been included in the political declaration of the SDGs as well as in the follow-up and review section that calls for indigenous peoples’ participation (United Nations 2015). Two of the SDGs specifically refer to the indigenous peoples in its target by 2030. Firstly, the Goal 2 section 2.3 on enhancing agricultural productivity and income of small-scale producers, in particular the indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment (United Nations 2015). The second goal broadly aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Second, is Goal 4 section 4.5 on eliminating gender disparities in education and ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations (United Nations 2015). The fourth SDG aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

At the national level, the governments’ of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand adopted and initiated the implementation of the SDG framework through baseline and benchmarking studies (Allen et al. 2018). The goal-setting process of the UN SDGs presents a novel approach as it affords extensive freedom for implementation among the member states (Biermann et al. 2017). The role of the government, therefore, is critical in setting the priorities for national goals, targets, and strategies within the context of global goals. This will require significant capacity for political leadership on sustainable development at all the levels of government from national to local and cutting across sectoral borders (Stafford-Smith et al. 2017; Biermann et al. 2017). In this regard, the sectors of indigenous peoples are key components of the sustainability agenda, especially on environmental policies as they occupy over quarter of the world’s land surface of conservation importance (Garnett et al. 2018) and their indigenous knowledge systems are now a widely recognized tool in natural resource management (Ban et al. 2018; Ens et al. 2016; Tengö et al. 2014; Maldonado et al. 2016). The largest remaining natural resource in Asia is safeguarded by indigenous populations (Rerkasem et al. 2009; Poffenberger 2006) and the perspective of integrating indigenous knowledge systems in both local and regional policies should be reconsidered. Some models of indigenous knowledge integration in environmental governance can be examined from the experience of other nations like Australia, Canada, Mexico, and many others (Duncan et al. 2018; Leiper et al. 2018; Audefroy and Sánchez 2017; Arsenault et al. 2018). Moreover, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even calls for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge systems in international reports highlighting its importance in science, policy and global politics (Ford et al. 2016). The role of academic researchers is likewise indispensable in the framing of research agenda, as knowledge production, policy analysis, and expert assessments are needed by national governments and the international community (Parsons et al. 2016; Ford et al. 2016). For these reasons, implementing and achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda requires interlinkages between indigenous peoples’ organizations, academic researchers, and national governments.

4 The Role of Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Indigenous knowledge is broadly defined as an evolving cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment handed down through generations by cultural transmission (Berkes 1993; Gadgil et al. 1993). It is also called traditional ecological knowledge, traditional wisdom, aboriginal science and, traditional knowledge, amongst others (Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007; Hummel and Lake 2015). This knowledge is a product of direct experience and careful observations of the natural world by indigenous peoples and has been a conceptually problematic field of research (Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007). Locally shared knowledge could be considered as an asset distinctive from the other five capitals (physical, financial, human, social and natural capital) (Shiro et al. 2007). In the case of Yunnan farmers in China, spatially dispersed farmers carefully observed local ecosystems (human capital) and shared their experience within the community (social capital), which resulted in anthropogenic accumulation of collective knowledge, and this enabled farmers to identify and find solutions to local problems (Shiro et al. 2007). Knowledge capital stock could be depleted or vanish due to abandonment, displacement and, loss of interest, amongst others (Sujarwo et al. 2014; Shiro et al. 2007). Thus, for rural development to be sustainable, there is a need to consider local, community, and/or traditional knowledge as capital assets in rural development projects (Shiro et al. 2007). Studies exploring indigenous peoples’ experiences and responses to pertinent global environmental concerns have increased in the past two decades (Parsons et al. 2016). A number of these publications discuss the pivotal role of indigenous knowledge in a wide array of themes encompassing the field of social, environmental and health sciences. Its applicability on ecosystem degradation, climate change and climate-related hazards, food security, human well-being, and conservation of biodiversity has lately gained more interest and recognition worldwide (Ford et al. 2016; Garutsa and Nekhwevha 2016; Hiwasaki et al. 2015; Ingty 2017; Mistry and Berardi 2016; Nkomwa et al. 2014; Oniang’o et al. 2004a, b; Quave and Pieroni 2015; Wilder et al. 2016). This requires the inclusion of indigenous knowledge systems in international reports and assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Ford et al. 2016), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (Tengö et al. 2017). However, the fact is that many traditional knowledge and practices are understudied and fast disappearing worldwide (Atreya et al. 2018; Parrotta et al. 2009; Parsons et al. 2016; Reyes-García et al. 2013; Saynes-Vásquez et al. 2013; Srithi et al. 2009; Voeks and Leony 2004).

The distinctiveness of indigenous peoples’ knowledge, cultural identity, and traditional practices over ancestral domains are markers shared by indigenous populations. Furthermore, their history of oppression, marginalization, and disappearing culture warrants their claims for legitimate recognition as indigenous peoples (Anaya 1996).

5 Putting Indigenous Knowledge Systems into Practice

5.1 Food Security and Community Livelihoods

With the population growing all over the world, it is unclear how current global food systems will meet the future demand for food hence, ensuring equal access to adequate and nutritious food produced in an environmentally and socioculturally sustainable manner is one of the greatest challenges of our time (Vinceti et al. 2013). This important issue is among the SDGs of the 2030 Agenda which directly refer to the indigenous peoples and other vulnerable sectors of the society. Embedded in their respective traditional practices, indigenous knowledge systems concerning wild food resources are essential for subsistence and livelihood income for many ethnic communities in Asia (Broegaard et al. 2017; Delang 2006b; Tamayo 2010; Jianchu and Mikesell 2003). Though efforts to domesticate selected plant species by local people have started in some regions, many government agencies and research institutions still overlook the potential economic benefits of wild edible plants as well as the advantages of traditional systems and practices (Delang 2006a, b; Lulekal et al. 2011; Bvenura and Afolayan 2015; Maroyi 2014; Ebert 2014). In the case of the Tagbanua tribe of Palawan Island in Philippines, local vegetables and fruits are outsourced from traditionally managed plots while their main earnings are derived from harvesting of resin from the Almaciga tree [Agathis dammara (Lambert) L.C. Rich or Agathis philippinensis Warb.] and rattan (Lacuna-Richman 2003, 2004; Dressler 2005). The Tagbanua restrict themselves from clearing parts of the forest due to their dependence on almaciga resin and other forest resources which sustains their livelihood and basic needs of the community (Lacuna-Richman 2003, 2004; Dressler 2005). In Nepal, the collection of yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) in the Himalayan mountains accounts for up to 65% of total household income with the highest contribution in the poorest households which further reduces income inequality by 38% (Shrestha et al. 2017). The current market price for 1 kg of high-grade Tibetan Yarsagumba in China, Hong Kong, and in the USA is now $128,000 USD, up from $32,000 USD in the 2006, making it one of the most expensive medicinal herbs in the world (Shrestha et al. 2017; Koirala et al. 2017). The use of economically important plant resources and innovative practices are also crucial to many households in the region. One of the lesser-known traditions is the use of Elaeocarpus floribundus Blume seeds as a source of vegetable oil in Myin Ka village in Myanmar (Shin et al. 2018). The vegetable oil from E. floribundus seeds is still uncommercialized and could be further explored for its potential to generate additional livelihood revenue to the community. The E. floribundus fruits are eaten raw as a wild edible fruit in South Asia and recent studies reported that it’s fruit extract has antibacterial activity against food-borne pathogens (Sircar and Mandal 2017) while the leaf extracts had significant activities against CEM-SS cancer cells (Utami et al. 2006). Gathering of food plants in the wild is a local practice of foraging tribes in the Philippines to augment food shortages (Balilla et al. 2012; Mandia 2004; Tangan 2007). Aside from subsistence, the Karen hill tribes inhabiting Thailand also value wild food for additional profits from growing cash crops though with certain restrictions set by the government (Delang 2006a, b; Suk 2016). About 50% of the poor and at-risk households in Timor-Leste similarly forage for wild food during the food deficit season (Erskine et al. 2014). Such knowledge is important for human survival. In fact, consumption of emergency food plant species is often cited as a coping strategy for indigenous peoples during periods of insufficiency. Other ethnic communities also consider it as part of traditional culinary practice and cultural identity transmitted across generations (Iwasaki-Goodman 2017). The local populace is also more engaged in the conservation of plant species that are part of traditional cuisine (Putri et al. 2017). Given the importance of indigenous knowledge systems in food security, community livelihoods and well-being in many underserved indigenous populations, the potential contribution of indigenous peoples should be re-examined in realizing the SDGs on Zero Hunger (SDG 2) and other relevant targets.

5.2 Natural Resources Management and Conservation

The indigenous peoples safeguard the sites of often diminishing natural resources, and their way of life, customs, and traditions had have helped sustain rural communities and protect vulnerable forests in the age of modernity (Etchart 2017). For instance, the Dayak people in East Kalimantan, Indonesia practice a traditional farming system called “simpukng” which is a managed secondary forest planted with selected species of fruits, rattan, bamboo, timber and other plants (Mulyoutami et al. 2009). These sustainable forest gardens are owned by families and passed down from one generation to the next while others are managed on a communal basis (Mulyoutami et al. 2009). This concept of sustainable utilization and management of shared resources is similar to the Village Community Forests (VCFs) of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh (Misbahuzzaman and Smith-Hall 2015; Chowdhury et al. 2018), the “ala-a system” of Ifugaos in the Philippines (Camacho et al. 2012), and the Fengshui forest in China (Kim et al. 2017; Yuan and Liu 2009). It is estimated that there may be over 140 million forest-dependent people in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, representing about one-third of the population in these nations. This estimate includes people who live on or near forest lands and are dependent on forest resources for a significant portion of their subsistence and livelihood requirements (Poffenberger 2006). Almost all of the indigenous communities in Bangladesh are also living within the boundary of 2.53 million ha of forest lands representing about 17.5% of the country’s area (Rahman and Alam 2016). Yet, despite the large indigenous population and economic dependence, various governments in the region do not consider them to be a major component in management until recently (Poffenberger 2006). In the community forests system (CFS), the entire community has a consensus on the management of the resource which is also the source of livelihood such as bamboo and timber harvesting as well as for wild fruits, herbs and other resources (Table 2).
Table 2

The key benefits of traditional Community Forest Systems



1. Food source for local households (wild vegetables and fruits)

Mulyoutami et al. (2009) and Chowdhury et al. (2018)

2. Livelihood income derived from harvested and processed forest products

Mulyoutami et al. (2009), Pinyopusarerk et al. (2014), Camacho et al. (2012) and Kim et al. (2017)

3. Sources of fuelwood

Mulyoutami et al. (2009), Chowdhury et al. (2018), Camacho et al. (2012) and Kim et al. (2017)

4. Source of drinking water

Chowdhury et al. (2018)

5. Source of medicinal plants

Mulyoutami et al. (2009), Chowdhury et al. (2018) and Camacho et al. (2012)

6. Source of construction materials

Chowdhury et al. (2018), Mulyoutami et al. (2009), Pinyopusarerk et al. (2014), Camacho et al. (2012) and Kim et al. (2017)

7. Community funds

Chowdhury et al. (2018)

8. Social functions (forest plants are used in traditional ritual ceremonies)

Mulyoutami et al. (2009), Chowdhury et al. (2018) and Kim et al. (2017)

The success of VCF has been demonstrated in many parts of Asia. In Bangladesh, the villagers have maintained collective funds from the income of the VCF products that provide for childrens’ education and medical treatment of disadvantaged families (Misbahuzzaman and Smith-Hall 2015). The Tay and Nung ethnic groups in the mountain regions of Vietnam (Pinyopusarerk et al. 2014), and Masyarakat Adat of Indonesia (Astuti and McGregor 2017) were able to secure a joint ownership and exclusive rights to community land forest. With these few exceptions, most of the traditional community forests have no land tenure though owned traditionally or otherwise occupied or managed continuously by the indigenous populations. The traditional community forests are not only sustainable but also economically beneficial to the participating households across different regions (Jha 2015; Chowdhury et al. 2018; Rai et al. 2016). Other ethnic groups are also engaged in tropical home gardens, one of the oldest forms of managed land-use systems considered to be an epitome of sustainability (Kumar and Nair 2004). Tropical home gardens have economic and sociocultural importance in many regions, especially to those with constrained access to land resources (Table 3).
Table 3

Economic, social and/or cultural foundations of home gardens.

Source: Kumar and Nair (2004)

1. Low capital requirements and labour costs—suitable for resource-poor and small-holder farming situations

2. Better utilization of resources, greater efficiency of labour, even distribution of labour inputs and more efficient management

3. Diversified range of products from a given area and increased value of outputs

4. Increased self-sufficiency and reduced risk to income from climatic, biological or market impacts on particular crops/products

5. Higher income with increased stability, greater equity and improved standards of living

6. Better use of underutilized land, labour or capital, besides creating capital stocks to meet intermittent costs or unforeseen contingencies

7. Enhanced food/nutritional security and ability to meet the food, fuel, fodder, and timber requirements of the society

8. Increased fulfilment of social and cultural needs through sharing or exchange of produces and recreational opportunities

9. Better preservation of indigenous knowledge

With limited land rights and forced migration, Thailand’s ethnic minorities rely on home gardens as an important food source (Srithi et al. 2012). Thailand’s Karen, Hmong, and Mien home gardens are very rich in species, making them important repositories for botanical agro-biodiversity, particularly for food crops. In fact, 90% of home gardens in Northeast Thailand include wild food plants (Cruz-Garcia and Struik 2015). For Cao Lan home gardens in Vietnam, most plant species are used for food, but some other species are valued for ornamental, medicinal, construction, animal fodder, stimulants, and for other purposes (Timsuksai et al. 2015). Though most home gardens comprise native plants, the “hill people” in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot incorporate introduced species, and cultural practices make the home gardens in the region accommodate a sustainable and economically viable subsistence (Barbhuiya et al. 2016). They also serve as an important means of conservation of native plants through use, thereby reducing pressure on wild resources (Barbhuiya et al. 2016). A role in conservation is evident in the home gardens of the Orang Asli in Malaysia, which include the domestication of IUCN-threatened species such as the Aquilaria malaccensis Lamk. and Eurycoma longifolia Jack (Milow et al. 2013). Evidence of farmers’ extensive transplanting of species in their gardens and fields indicates that they are ensuring availability and stability of the wild food plant supply for domestic consumption, which is crucial for local food security (Cruz-Garcia and Price 2014). This also shows the positive role of integrating indigenous knowledge in protecting threatened species and vulnerable habitats from the peril of extinction. The Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) include the commitment to recognize and respect the contribution of indigenous and local knowledge to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems in its operating principles (Karki et al. 2017). The function of some home gardens, however, had shifted from subsistence towards commercial farming for higher income. In a case study in Indonesia, this resulted in decreased plant diversity and evenness, a higher level of ecological and financial risk to the owners, higher requirements for external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, a lower level of community equitability, and increased instability (Abdoellah et al. 2006). Indeed, recent findings indicate that collaborations involving conservationists, indigenous peoples and governments would yield significant benefits for the conservation of biocultural diversity for future generations (Garnett et al. 2018).

6 Conclusion

The inclusion of the indigenous peoples in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has paved the way to revisit relevant issues within the Asian region. Science-policy governing bodies and agreements such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) acknowledge the importance of indigenous and local knowledge systems to inform international biodiversity assessments and decision-making processes (Tengö et al. 2017; Ford et al. 2016). The treatment of indigenous issues in the IPCC is of particular interest because the indigenous peoples have been identified as being uniquely sensitive to climate change impacts, and their accumulated knowledge is now given due regard (Ford et al. 2016). It is now highly recommended that efforts to solve real-world problems should first engage with those local communities that are most affected, beginning from the perspective of indigenous knowledge and then seeking relevant scientific knowledge to expand the range of options for action (Mistry and Berardi 2016; Brondizio and Tourneau 2016; Altieri and Nicholls 2017). This stemmed from the growing evidence on the relevance of indigenous knowledge systems and experience in addressing the present and future pressing concerns on global environmental change (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2013; Alexander et al. 2011; Ford et al. 2016; Rahman and Alam 2016; Ingty 2017), disaster risk reduction and management (Hiwasaki et al. 2015; Mercer et al. 2010), natural resources management (Anthwal et al. 2010; Singh et al. 2010; Karki et al. 2017), sustainable agriculture (Shiro et al. 2007; Neyra-Cabatac et al. 2012; Singh et al. 2010), and food security (Oniang’o et al. 2004a, b; Ong and Kim 2017; Putri et al. 2017). Yet, despite the surge of interest in this research area, indigenous knowledge is underutilized, not fully integrated into policies, and under-represented in various national and international fora. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the Asian community needs to re-examine the social, economic, political, and environmental policies that directly affect the lives of the indigenous populations. The legal recognition of indigenous communities and the acknowledgment of the contribution of their local knowledge are vital in promoting resilience in the face of critical biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. This is of particular importance as the loss of knowledge and practices have already been noted in recent years (Caneva et al. 2017; Sujarwo et al. 2014; Srithi et al. 2009; Atreya et al. 2018). The future of sustainable management of natural resources in the Asian community lies in forging collaborations between academic researchers, policy-makers, and the indigenous peoples. The implementation of the 2030 Agenda, therefore, calls for culturally sensitive initiatives and better engagement with the indigenous peoples to uphold their rights and be involved in achieving the new sustainable goals.



This study was funded by the Newton-CHED Scholarship Fund through the British Council UK and Philippines' Commission on Higher Education. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for the insightful comments and recommendations.


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© Asiatic Research Institute 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural SciencesBangor UniversityGwyneddUK

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