Recognizing the role indigenous communities play in environmental conservation


We are all familiar with the major actors in the global conservation movement. Large international organizations have become household names as the pressing need for global environmental action has become part of our social dialogue. These institutions, along with many other non-profits, government agencies, and other international bodies, have been vital to the conservation of the world's precious ecosystems and biodiversity that have been under regular threat from the development of the human species. Whether through influencing domestic or international policy, or the creation and management of protected areas on land and in our oceans, these global organizations play a key role in protecting the environment and the world's biodiversity through a variety of essential approaches.

However, there are other actors - smaller actors - that have just as important a role in the conservation movement as any of the giant organizations. These are the local, indigenous communities themselves. Communities that live in tandem with the environment around them, and have done so for centuries, often make the best conservationists. Throughout the world, indigenous peoples have come to rely upon their local biodiversity as an essential component to their culture, economy, and sustenance. They thus have a real stake in the preservation of their environment, and for generations have managed their natural resources before there were any formal conservation systems in place.

Seacology's project at Mt. Elimbari, Chimbu Province in Papua New Guinea funded the construction of a literacy school for the Gaigibi community in support of the establishment of a 25-acre community conserved forest area

Unfortunately indigenously conserved areas are under enormous threat from variety of sources (both legal and illicit), such as logging, overfishing, mining, commercial development, and other exploitative industries. They are frequently at greater risk than other areas, because national governments often fail to support or recognize community controlled management, favoring instead the more global institutional conservation schemes. The threat is compounded in developing countries in particular, where indigenous communities are often economically disadvantaged, and require basic improvements to their standard of living. This has historically led to a tragic selling off of resources just to cover the costs of essential community development.

Things, however, are gradually starting to change. In 2003, the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress and the Programme of Work on Protected Areas of the Centre of Biological Diversity (CBD) passed a resolution legitimizing Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) as valid conservation sites that should be integrated into and supported by national and international environmental protection systems. This was a major step in promoting indigenous rights to communal land, and advocating for funds to be directed towards protecting community-managed areas. And over the past seven years the concept of ICCAs has been further developed, and gained increased acceptance amongst some governments and international bodies. Yet, the concept still remains on the fringe of the conservation movement.

What are Indigenous Community Conserved Areas? Here is the definition provided by the IUCN: ICCAs are natural and/or modified ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological services and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, both sedentary and mobile, through customary laws or other effective means. ICCAs can include ecosystems with minimum to substantial human influence as well as cases of continuation, revival or modification of traditional practices or new initiatives taken up by communities in the face of new threats or opportunities. Several of them are inviolate zones ranging from very small to large stretches of land and waterscapes. Three features are important:

  • One or more communities closely relate to the ecosystems and species culturally and/or because of survival and dependence for livelihood;
  • The community management decisions and efforts lead to the conservation of habitats, species, ecological services and associated cultural values, although the conscious objective of management may be different (e.g., livelihood, water security, safeguarding of cultural and spiritual places).
  • The communities are the major players in decision-making and implementation regarding the management of the site, implying that community institutions have the capacity to enforce regulations; in many situations there may be other stakeholders in collaboration or partnership, but primary decision-making is with the communities.

For those who are familiar with the work Seacology pioneered almost twenty years ago, ICCAs sound like old news. Back in 1988 when Dr. Paul Cox, Seacology's co-founder, stepped in to help the village of Falealupo in Western Samoa build a new school in exchange for their commitment to conserve their forest, he essentially created one of the first indigenous community conserved areas - fifteen years before such a concept was finally legitimized. Since that time, Seacology has established and supported numerous reserves helping preserve some of the most threatened biodiversity on the planet, simply through our support of indigenous communities on islands around the world.

There remains much more for Seacology and other organizations to do in order to truly cement the concept of indigenous community conservation into the vernacular of the dialogue on the environment; but support is growing every day. The Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, just announced an $85 million commitment to advance indigenous peoples land rights, promote community management of resources, and help bring indigenous peoples to the mainstream of the global response to climate change. As the concept of ICCAs becomes more widely known and accepted, more foundations will undoubtedly follow this example.

Thumbnail image for Bagong_Bayan_watershed_area.jpgThe community of Barangay Bagong Bayan, Roxas, Palawan in the Phillipines offered to protect and conserve 2,039 acres of their forest (including 124 acres of mangroves) in perpetuity, in exchange for the rehabilitation of a micro-hydro power generator for their village.

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This page contains a single entry by Chad Frischmann published on August 30, 2010 12:08 PM.

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