July 16 (UPI) -- New research suggests the role of indigenous people in land management and conservation is under appreciated.
According to the new survey, indigenous groups own, use or have management rights over more than a quarter of Earth's land surface. Indigenous groups control approximately 14.6 million square miles.
Roughly 40 percent of Earth's protected terrestrial land consists of acreage controlled by indigenous groups. The new research, published this week in the journal Wildlife Conservation Society, highlights the importance of indigenous groups to land conservation around the globe.
"Understanding the extent of lands over which indigenous peoples retain traditional connection is critical for several conservation and climate agreements," Stephen Garnett, a professor at Charles Darwin University in Australia, said in a news release. "Not until we pulled together the best available published information on Indigenous lands did we really appreciate the extraordinary scale of Indigenous Peoples' ongoing influence."
This latest survey marks the first time scientists have mapped the terrestrial land claims of indigenous groups. Some 370 million people consider themselves indigenous, a member or descendant of groups who occupied land prior to conquest or colonization.
"We are not surprised this has never been done before. It has taken three years to track down credible sources of data from around the world," said Ian Leiper, also from Charles Darwin University.
Many indigenous groups are committed to conservation efforts. Authors of the latest study say their survey highlights the importantce of their leadership and cooperation on the protection of ecologically valuable landscapes.
Despite links between indigenous land control and successful conservation efforts, many indigenous people face pressures of poverty and food insecurity. They are susceptible to the pressures of development, researchers warn.
However, the latest research showed lands with the strongest links to indigenous groups were the least likely to be affected by development -- further proof that supporting indigenous claims to land is an important part of land conservation.
"Where I work in central Africa, indigenous peoples are synonymous with tropical rainforests in the best condition," said John E. Fa, professor at the Center for International Forestry Research at Manchester Metropolitan University. "But change is happening fast. Empowering indigenous peoples will be key to conserving these forests."