Indigenous biocultural heritage for sustainable development


IIED is working with partners in China, India, Kenya and Peru to explore how the interlinked traditional knowledge, biodiversity, culture and landscapes – the biocultural heritage – of Indigenous Peoples can contribute to sustainable development. This research will contribute directly to establishing new biocultural heritage territories through a process that builds on the successful Potato Park model.

View of the town of Pisaq in Peru, near the Potato Park Biocultural Heritage Territory

The Potato Park Biocultural Heritage Territory near Pisaq in Peru is collectively owned by its 6,000 Quechua inhabitants. By Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED

The lands and territories of Indigenous Peoples harbour some 80% of the world’s biodiversity – and Indigenous worldviews, cultural values and traditional knowledge typically promote ecological sustainability and equity. 

But Indigenous Peoples are also among the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities, often suffering racial discrimination. They face growing dispossession of land and natural resources, their cultures are being eroded by modernisation, and customary institutions have been altered by colonial administrations in some cases. 

Development policies commonly seek to modernise Indigenous societies and conservation policies frequently deny Indigenous rights. Even ‘community-led’ approaches can impose external conservation objectives rather than supporting endogenous development.

This project will undertake detailed case studies of four target communities, each with unique but threatened agrobiodiversity and biocultural heritage, and inform policymakers about the potential for Indigenous biocultural heritage to support sustainable development. Funded by the British Academy, the project partners are the Indigenous NGO ANDES (Peru), the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), Kenya Forestry Research Institute and the Indian NGO Lok Chetna Manch.


This project aims to:

  • Provide a robust evidence base and nuanced understanding of the relationship between cultural heritage, biodiversity and sustainable development, and how Indigenous worldviews, cultural values and customary laws promote or hinder sustainable development
  • Explore how Indigenous biocultural heritage can address sustainable development challenges, and present the findings to policymakers and development agencies to promote more holistic and culture-centred policy and planning, and
  • Contribute to the establishment of biocultural heritage territories – collectively-governed landscapes that promote agrobiodiversity conservation, sustainable livelihoods and secure land rights, based on Indigenous values and worldviews.

What is IIED doing?

The project will undertake participatory action-research in four communities (each comprising several villages or hamlets) in centres of origin and diversity of important food crops, rich in underutilised landraces, Indigenous crops and crop wild relatives:

  • Quechua communities in Lares, Peru sustain biodiversity-rich agroecosystems in the Andean highlands, with high potato and maize diversity and traditional barter markets which enhance access to agrobiodiversity for nutrition.
  • The Rabai Mijikenda community in coastal Kenya conserve kaya sacred forests, listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the forests include cowpea wild relatives but are threatened by the erosion of traditional institutions.
  • The Lingsey-Lingseykha communities near Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, include seven ethnic groups, mainly Lepcha and Limbu, whose territory (a biodiversity hotspot) sustains a rich diversity of rice and beans/pulses adjacent to a national park.
  • The Stone village communities in Northwest Yunnan, China, sustain unique agrobiodiversity, including rice, soya, buckwheat and waxy maize, and Naxi cultural heritage, but the area is undergoing rapid social change and tourism development.

IIED and the four country partners held a research planning workshop in January 2019 to develop a common conceptual and research framework for establishing biocultural heritage territories using a ‘decolonising’ participatory action-research approach. The research questions reflect the main components of biocultural systems and key steps in establishing biocultural heritage territories. 

Researchers are undertaking a literature review on Indigenous worldviews, cultural values and wellbeing concepts, and holding planning meetings with local government and development agencies. Local workshops will be held in each country with Indigenous co-researchers to adapt the research framework to the local context, co-design the research, and train community researchers in selected methods and tools. The project will use a highly participatory approach designed to empower community researchers and women, build capacity for research and revitalise biocultural heritage. 

Following community-wide planning meetings to embed the research in community processes, the researchers and Indigenous co-researchers will undertake semi-structured interviews with community members in the four communities. They will follow up the interviews with focus group discussions in local villages. The researchers will also undertake participatory mapping and transect walks to map biocultural heritage in each of the target landscapes. The project will assess the contribution of traditional agriculture to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 objectives which will be redefined based on local wellbeing concepts.

Inter-community workshops will review and co-analyse the findings with communities and explore ways to strengthen the collective management of landscapes and leverage biocultural heritage for sustainable development. This work will contribute to the establishment of new biocultural heritage territories, which can in turn serve as examples for wider scaling up in support of the SDGs.

Researchers will undertake comparative analysis of the project findings, both within countries and across different countries. The results will be shared at in-country stakeholder events and at international policy meetings.


Biocultural heritage territories: key to halting biodiversity loss, Krystyna Swiderska, Alejandro Argumedo, Michel Pimbert (2020), IIED Briefing