In the popular urban imagination, wildlife and biodiversity conservation are equated with national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and like, which one can visit to enjoy some peaceful time in nature or Catch some glimpses of what remains of the earth’s wild animals and plants. Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in USA in 1872, the movement to establish such protected areas has spread globally, with about 15.67% of land and 7.65% of marine areas notified as such by governments.

But while this phenomenon has gained significant public attention and lots of support from governments and international agencies, a quieter process with potentially more dramatic impacts that has so far been sidelined, is growing momentum. Across the world, indigenous peoples and other local communities that have been practicing forestry, fishing, farming, hunting-gathering, animal husbandry, crafts and other such livelihoods, are governing or managing at least a fifth of the world’s land area. All of this vast area is either already under effective conservation of biodiversity, or could rapidly become so, if recognized and supported. To this one can add also the regeneration and conservation of natural ecosystems even in more ‘modern’ contexts - cities and industrialised areas - by citizens who want to bring some elements of nature back into their midst.

Recognition as a global phenomenon

Though this phenomenon is in many cases thousands of years old, it started gaining traction in international conservation circles only in the 1990s. Some of us, familiar with many examples of forests, wetlands, grasslands, coastal and marine areas being protected by communities, brought a discussion on them into the World Commission of Protected Areas of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For some decades now, IUCN has been considered the authoritative voice in conservation science, and has considerable influence on global and national policies. We argued that the phenomenon of ‘community conserved areas’ (CCAs), a term originating in India, should be recognized as equivalent to government-established protected areas. This had to overcome stiff resistance from many conventional conservationists for whom it was unthinkable that villagers, unschooled in ‘conservation science’ or not part of official environment bureaucracies, could be protecting nature except perhaps inadvertently in a few places. But as we presented more and more evidence, garnering voices and facts through what was then called the Theme on Indigenous and Local Communities, Equity and Protected Areas (TILCEPA) within IUCN, this resistance broke down (helped in part by others in the global conservation circles who did recognize and respect this phenomenon). The term itself evolved from CCAs to ICCAs (“Indigenous and community conserved areas” and then subsequent iterations for the current mouthful, territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities) as indigenous peoples insisted that the term ‘communities’ does not adequately define them, and that they govern entire territories as political entities, not only areas as physical spaces.

ICCAs, now more simply referred to as Territories of Life, is an umbrella term encompassing (and not replacing) a wide diversity of local phenomena and terms. In general, such territories and areas have three characteristics:

  • there is a close and deep connection between them and their custodian Indigenous people or local community, usually embedded in history, social and cultural identity, spirituality and/or people’s reliance on the territory for their material and non-material wellbeing (though there are also many situations of newly established relationships, e.g. in urban areas or for migrant populations);
  • the custodian community makes and enforces (alone or together with other actors) decisions or rules through a functioning and self-determined governance institution, which may or may not be recognised by outsiders or by statutory law of the relevant country;
  • this governance and management positively contribute to the conservation of nature and to community livelihoods and well-being.

A significant milestone in the journey to get international recognition for ICCAs was the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003, where TILCEPA enabled over 150 representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities to present their own stories. This led to IUCN adopting some pathbreaking policies and programmes, on community conservation, collaborative management of protected areas, and others that firmly established the crucial role of communities, as also the to recognise their knowledge and rights, in formal conservation policies of national governments. A year later, in 2004, a Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA) under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) put an official stamp on the need to recognise and support ‘indigenous and local community conserved areas’. Subsequent global meetings such as the World Conservation Congress and the World Parks Congress that IUCN organizes once a decade, and adoption of several decisions under the CBD, continued this significant paradigm shift in global conservation policy and biodiversity law.

But while global policy shifted, back home where it matters, colonial and neo-colonial style conservation was still the predominant approach in the majority of countries. There was a need for a much bigger local-to-global push for ICCAs. There were limits to making this happen through IUCN because of its status as being a body that also had formal membership of national governments. So, many of us active in TILCEPA decided in 2008 to set up an independent body, ICCA Consortium, with an expanding membership of indigenous peoples and local community organisations, small civil society groups, and individuals who are working in or on ICCAs. Over the last decade-plus, the Consortium has established itself as a major global force at the interface of conservation, rights, and livelihoods. It has produced a series of credible reports, case studies, guidance documents, and data on the spread and value of ICCAs, done advocacy at national and global levels for their recognition, and generated global alerts and solidarity for peoples and places threatened by mining, dams, industries, tourist complexes, inappropriate protected area designations, and other such threats. As of May 2021, it is comprised of 179 organisational Members, and 415 individual Honorary Members from over 80 countries.

Territories of Life: a global report

In a beautifully produced report released in late May, the ICCA Consortium has provided significantly more evidence of the global importance of Territories of Life. This publication, Territories of Life: 2021 Report, contains 17 case studies of specific territories, six national and regional level analyses, and a global spatial analysis of how much of the earth is likely under such territories.

The 17 sites featured in the report range from a 50-hectare sacred grove in Rajasthan (Western India) called Adawal ki Devbani (one of perhaps about 25,000 such orans in the state), to a territory of 18 million hectares that Inuit indigenous people have proposed for protection in Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), Canada. Together, these 17 sites cover more than 21 million hectares. Apart from these two, the ICCAs include:

  • Kawawana, Senegal, where a coastal-marine ecosystem of 9665 hectares with significant coastal-marine mangrove biodiversity has been regenerated by the fisher commune of Mangagoulack, and now provides major livelihood benefits and protection against erosion from the sea.
  • Kisimbosa, the “fertile ancestral land” of 5572 hectares, a territory of the Bambuti-Babuluko Indigenous peoples of Walikale, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Important for the community’s forest-based livelihood, the area also harbours reintroduced groups of chimpanzees, and other important wildlife.
  • The Yogbouo Pond of Gampa in the Republic of Guinea is protected as a sacred site by the Manons people as part of their traditional heritage that connects their past, present and future. Various important species of plants and animals find a home here, including hippopotamus and chimpanzee.
  • The Manobo people in the villages of Sote and Baguis in the island of Mindanao, the Philippines, conserve a territory of 6996 hectares called Pangasananan. Apart from wild food, the forests also provide them various plants to cure illnesses of the body, mind and spirit, and the pathways to connect to ancestors and the spirit world.
  • Tsum Valley in Nepal’s Himalaya, extending over 54,417 hectares, contains musk deer, Himalayan tahr and snow leopard, and about 2,000 species of plants. The Tsumba Indigenous peoples have governed the areas as “Shyagya”, a non-violent area based on Buddhist principles.
  • Komon Juyub, the Communal Forest of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, in Guatemala, is governed by the Maya K’iché people with their 5-century old worldview of equity, inclusion and sustainability principles. It contains over 1,500 water sources that supply the communities.
  • The autonomous territorial government (Gobierno Territorial Autonoma de la Nacion Wampis) of the Wampis indigenous people have proposed to protect an ancestral territory of over 1.3 million hectares in the northern Peruvian Amazon, according to their own development priorities.
  • Homoródkarácsonyfalva village in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, after regaining communal rights over pastureland and forests that were earlier taken over by the state, has managed an area of 1098 hectares for nature conservation (including the threatened Black stork, Brown bear, and Grey wolf) and sustainable livelihoods.

The report also contains several national level assessments. Some of the figures that emerge are astounding. For instance:

  • in Iran, Indigenous nomadic peoples’ territories cover nearly 60 per cent of the country’s land, including 34 million hectares of rangelands or grasslands;
  • in the Philippines, an estimated 75 per cent of remaining forests overlap with Indigenous peoples’ territories and 29 per cent of Key Biodiversity Areas are within Indigenous peoples’ legally recognised territories;
  • in Indonesia, over 3 million hectares of various ecosystems are estimated to be conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities;
  • in Ecuador, five Indigenous territories registered in the global ICCA Registry (hosted by UNEP-WCMC) cover more than 1.79 million hectares of tropical rainforest, dry forest and shrub vegetation; and a total of over 104 million hectares (73% of which are Amazonian forest) are Indigenous or local community territory;
  • in Madagascar, a national network of nearly 600 communities (TAFO MIHAAVO) supports the customary governance of around 3 million hectares of forests. Additionally, over 200 Locally Managed Marine Areas cover approximately 17 per cent (1.75 million hectares) of the country’s coastal and marine areas.

Overall, the report states (with considerable data to back it up), that “Indigenous peoples and local communities are actively conserving at least 21 per cent of the world’s lands (approximately the size of Africa). This exceeds the extent of terrestrial protected areas governed by states.” This is the first comprehensive assessment of the estimated global spatial coverage of ICCAs; an earlier estimate I was involved in covered only a handful of countries, though even using that we were already asserting that these territories cover a greater part of the earth than official protected areas.

This and several previous reports have established that Indigenous peoples and local communities are crucial actors in conserving an enormous part of the world’s biodiversity. Their role goes well beyond their own territories, providing to the whole of humanity an incalculable service in terms of the stability of the climate, hydrological cycles, food, fresh water, and much else. They are also the heart of the planet’s cultural, food, knowledge, and linguistic diversity.

The need for enhanced recognition

Unfortunately, though, Territories of Life continue to be unrecognized or inadequately recognized in laws and policies of most nations, and consequently also under threat from all kinds of activities. These include destructive land/water uses like mining, mega-dams, commercial complexes, industries, and the like. They also include the imposition of neo-colonial, top-down conservation policies which displace or dispossess the relevant communities. In fact, as this report and a previous policy brief of the ICCA Consortium show, many official protected areas have been established over Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ territories, most often forcibly, and have taken away the governance or custodian role they were playing.

Across the world, the custodians of Territories of Life are putting up brave resistance to the above threats; in this sense they are at the frontlines to slow down the ‘development’ bulldozer that has brought on multiple ecological crises including climate. The capitalist or statist forces behind such ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ projects find it hard to tolerate this resistance, though, and hit back. According to Global Witness, in 2019, 212 environmental defenders were killed for taking a stand. Thousands more would have been beaten, harassed, imprisoned, labelled ‘anti-national’ and ‘terrorist’, and in other ways punished.

Bringing global attention to Territories of Life and the threats they and their custodians face, has enormous significance at the current juncture. They could figure prominently in strategies relating to climate mitigation and adaptation, and their recognition could (or should!) be a major component of discussions and decisions at the upcoming climate COP21. Secondly, they should be a core component of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, currently being negotiated under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. In the context of this framework there is a strong push for declaring 30% of the earth protected and conserved by 2030, and also advocacy for what is called ‘Nature-Based Solutions’. Indigenous people and local communities, and dozens of civil society organisations have asserted that these proposals may continue a conventional, undemocratic protected area approach. Instead, the Framework should put democratic, community-led and rights-based approaches, including self-governance and self-determination, and collective custodianship of nature. Third, Territories of Life can also play a major role in not only meeting crucial Sustainable Development Goals on conservation, livelihoods, and equity, but going beyond them to become cradles of radical transformation - well-being approaches that are alternatives to the structures of oppression and unsustainability including capitalism, state-domination, patriarchy, racism, casteism and anthropocentrism.

As the ‘Territories of Life: 2021 Report’ says: “Fourth, many of these have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the COVID period, safeguarding their health, food and livelihoods with a mix of traditional and new approaches. Even in the face of immense threats, Indigenous peoples and local communities have extraordinary resilience and determination to maintain their dignity and the integrity of their territories and areas. They are adapting to rapidly changing contexts and using diverse strategies to secure their rights and collective lands and territories of life. Although not without setbacks, they have made key advances and continue to persist in pursuit of self-determination, self-governance, peace and sustainability.”

(Special thanks to Holly Jonas for inputs).