Governance and Rights

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples hold and manage a significant part of the Earth’s most biodiverse regions and play a vital role in conserving lands, seas and resources. They cultivate strong economic, cultural and spiritual relationships with their natural environments and have developed and often maintain traditional management practices and knowledge that contribute to biodiversity conservation and to the sustainable use of natural resources.
Indigenous people

At the same time, the close relationship of indigenous peoples to their environments means that they are often first and most severely affected by the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Furthermore, insecure tenure rights over their lands and territories and exclusion from environmental decision making often constrain the contributions of indigenous peoples to conservation and exacerbate their social and economic vulnerabilities.

IUCN has a long history of working with indigenous peoples both to promote recognition of their rights at policy level and to support their conservation activities on the ground. IUCN endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2008 and regularly monitors and reports on its contributions to the implementation of the Declaration. IUCN Resolutions and field-based work emphasize indigenous peoples' rights to the lands, territories, and natural resources they have traditionally owned, occupied and used, and the need to ensure effective participation of indigenous peoples in all conservation initiatives and policy developments that affect them.

Strengthening indigenous voices and action: an IUCN Indigenous Peoples’ Organisation Strategy

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016, the IUCN Members Assembly adopted a landmark decision for indigenous peoples and conservation. Members voted to create a new category of IUCN membership for Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations (IPO), strengthening the recognition of their rights, participation, voice and role in IUCN.  This was the first time IUCN reformed its membership structure in its 70-year history and it did so specifically to recognize the specific situation and role of IPOs.  This change in IUCN’s governance structure now allows IUCN to play an important convening and facilitating role for indigenous participation in environmental decision-making.

As a distinct and mobilised constituency within IUCN, IPO Members have developed a self-determined strategy identifying joint priorities for advancing their rights and issues in conservation and engaging with each other and within IUCN moving forward. These priorities focus particularly on leveraging IUCN’s convening power, knowledge generation, standard setting and policy engagement in regard to indigenous issues.  The strategy outlines actions to:

  • Increase indigenous participation in IUCN’s governance;
  • Participate in IUCN’s global policy engagement processes;
  • Promote the recognition of rights in relation to lands and territories, natural and cultural resources;
  • Promote the creation of a system of indigenous protected areas that strengthens the use, management and conservation of natural resources by indigenous peoples;
  • Address issues related to cultural heritage;
  • Address the rights and participation of indigenous women; and
  • Support indigenous organisation institutional strengthening.

The IUCN Global Programme on Governance and Rights and the Commission on Environmental, Social and Economic Policy are supporting the further development and implementation of the IPOs’ strategy.


For IUCN, the term ‘indigenous peoples’ follows the definition or ‘statement of coverage’ contained in the International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. Therefore, it includes:

i. peoples who identify themselves as ‘indigenous’;

ii. tribal peoples whose social, cultural, and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;

iii. traditional peoples not necessarily called indigenous or tribal but who share the same characteristics of social, cultural, and economic conditions that distinguish them from other sections of the national community, whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions, and whose livelihoods are closely connected to ecosystems and their goods and services.

While IUCN recognizes that all people should enjoy equal rights and respect regardless of identity, it is strategically important to distinguish indigenous peoples from other stakeholders. They have a distinct set of rights linked to their social, political and economic situation as a result of their ancestry and stewardship of lands and resources vital to their well-being.

Although IUCN takes a global approach in line with international provisions on recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, it recognizes the need to consider the national policy frameworks in order to operationalize this definition on the ground.


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