News | 22 Ago, 2023

Journeys to more equitable and effective conservation: the central role of Indigenous peoples and local communities

Excerpt from the special issue of the CEESP publication Policy Matters 23

A new issue of IUCN CEESP’s Policy Matters journal presents seven case studies illustrating collaborative journeys towards more equitable and effective conservation and acts as a call to reorient Indigenous peoples and local communities’ knowledge, practices, and institutions at the centre of a much-needed global transformation in nature conservation.

Principles for equitable governance and respect for rights are integral to the ambitious global biodiversity targets for 2030 in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), agreed by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022. However, beyond places where Indigenous Peoples and local communities govern their territories with relative autonomy, there are only a small minority of conservation initiatives across the globe currently adhering to these principles. It is highly unlikely that the implementation of the GBF targets, including the target for 30% area coverage by 2030, will be effectively or equitably achieved unless the global community of stakeholders and organisations supports the shift towards Indigenous and local leadership exemplified in this set of case studies and help scale them up, quickly. 

Adhering to principles of equity and rights requires a widespread shift in conservation practice. This is morally imperative to prevent further rights violations under the guise of conservation. But, such a transition also holds the greatest potential to address biodiversity loss. Evidence consistently demonstrates that conservation is more effective when Indigenous peoples and local communities play a central role (as leaders) and when their institutions are respected and form the basis of governing processes (setting objectives, allocating roles and responsibilities, taking decisions).

However, there is limited understanding of how to reorient site-level practices, overcome barriers, and better reflect current evidence-based principles promoting the rights, roles, and responsibilities of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and their contributions to nature conservation. The cases describe efforts to bring about such transformations. 

Learning from progressive cases

The seven cases highlighted in this edition of Policy Matters cover forests, rangelands, coastal, and marine ecosystems containing internationally important species and habitats, and include:

  • Phang Nga Bay community-managed marine and coastal areas, Thailand
  • Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India
  • Indigenous marine governance at Ulithi Atoll, Yap, Federated States of Micronesia
  • The Fandriana-Marolambo forest landscape restoration programme in Madagascar
  • Southern Rift communal rangeland governance, Kenya
  • Community Forest Governance of Noh Bec Ejido in Quintana Roo, Mexico, within the Selva Maya Forest Ecosystem
  • Mount Halimun Salak National Park extension and recognition of the Kasepuhan Karang Customary Forest in Indonesia
Map of Case Studies
Map of case study countries. Source: Base map, United Nations, Map No. 4170 Rev. 13, April 2012

These innovative cases are examples where communities have resisted externally-dominated processes and worked together to take back power and control over their territories and the ecosystems with which they have an intimate bond and cultural connection, and at the same time have generated positive biodiversity outcomes.

The articles cover a variety of social, environmental, and political contexts and capture very different paths toward more equitable and effective conservation. The cases from Madagascar, Indonesia, and India involve existing externally-driven conservation initiatives, where the state agencies and non-governmental organisations in control were forced to respond to local resistance. For example, the Periyar Tiger Reserve case details how steps were taken from the mid-1990s to move away from an exclusive colonial and post-colonial protected area management style by resolving long-term conflicts, with the state building trust and partnerships with local communities. Over time, this shift led to greatly improved forest quality and increasing populations of key species, notably tigers, to transform Periyar into India’s most effective tiger reserve according to recent national assessments

In the cases from Mexico and Thailand, the externally-driven commercial exploitation of resources in those ecosystems created ecological degradation to such an extent that communities mobilised to realise alternative forms of governance that improved social and ecological outcomes. For example, in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand, restoration efforts covered more than 25,000 ha of degraded mangroves in the aftermath of destructive commercial aquaculture, through the network of locally-managed marine and coastal areas, with clear benefits for multiple marine species and coastal communities.

The remaining two cases differ in that they involve communities that had maintained comparative autonomy - in Ulithi Atoll, Yap (Federated States of Micronesia), and the primarily Indigenous Maasai communities in the rangelands of Kenya’s Southern Rift Valley. In the face of external pressures on Indigenous governing processes, and consequently the ecosystem’s health, both communities countered pressures by revitalising and adapting their knowledge and customary institutions to better suit changing circumstances. For example, in the Kenyan case, communities resisted pressure to allow tourist lodges to dictate seasonal grazing patterns (as is the case in most conservancies across the region), and prioritised their pastoralist livelihoods by maintaining access to areas providing grazing during times of drought. This was invaluable for the resilience of the community, while the traditional, communal rangeland management also resulted in positive trends and high densities of large mammal populations.

Taken together, the seven cases represent the frontline of struggles for the future of critical biodiversity and habitats. All of these cases have, at their core, the well-being of the communities, which is intimately tied to the health of the ecosystems, and demonstrate the contemporary relevance of the knowledge and cultural resilience of Indigenous peoples and local communities. 

The cases demonstrate that for improvements in conservation to be realised at the site level, the implementation of social objectives must extend far beyond the provision of compensation or support for income generation, to also address trust and relationships, recognise diverse worldviews, place-based connections to nature, tenure security, and the cultural values and practices which coalesce in strong local and customary institutions.

The cases highlight the importance of women and youth as essential in revitalisation processes and decisions, and the importance of their holding key roles that see them shape community organisations and strategies.

Vasanthena women voluntary patrol group
Vasanthsena all women, voluntary patrolling group of Periyar Tiger Reserve. Photo: Sunil C.G. (2006)

It is the responsibility of conservation funders and implementing organisations to support, collaborate in, and mainstream Indigenous and local leadership, for both existing and new conservation interventions. The prioritisation of equitable governance by funders, state agencies, and conservation NGOs, and ensuring its implementation, can strengthen the legitimacy of customary and local institutions, and ensure that financially-linked power asymmetries do not hinder progressive shifts in governance or the redistribution of power. 

All too often in the name of conservation, local institutions are disrupted or supplanted, even though they are the vehicles through which custodianship occurs. That disruptive cycle must be broken, and swift progress must be made to chart a new trajectory in the way conservation is conceived and implemented globally to ensure both equity and effectiveness. 

Policy Matters 2023

 Policy Matters Vol 23 

Full citation: Dawson, N. M., Bhardwaj, A., Coolsaet B., Scherl, L. M., Massarella, K., Ndoinyo, Y., Oliva, M., Suich, H., & Worsdell, T. (Eds.) (2023). Journeys to more equitable and effective conservation: the central role of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Policy Matters. Issue No. 23. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.