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Indigenous peoples’ and community conserved territories and areas (ICCAs):

A bold frontier for conservation, sustainable livelihoods and the respect of collective rights

A close association is often found between a specific indigenous people or local community and a specific territory, area or body of natural resources. When such an association is combined with effective local governance and conservation of nature, we speak of “ICCAs”. For many people and communities that relationship is much richer than it can be expressed in words. It is a bond of livelihood, energy and health. It is a source of identity and culture, autonomy and freedom. It is the connecting tie among generations, preserving memories from the past, and connecting those to the desired future. It is the ground on which communities learn, identify values and develop self-rules. For many it is also a connection between visible and invisible realities, material and spiritual wealth. With territory and nature goes life, dignity and self-determination as peoples.

In the last decades, ICCAs have become known and recognised as essential features for the conservation of nature, under attack by a variety of economic and political forces on the planet. They include cases of continuation, revival or modification of traditional practices, some of which are of ancient origin, as well as new initiatives, such as restoration of ecosystems and innovative uses of resources taken up by indigenous peoples and local communities in the face of new threats or opportunities.

Three defining characteristics of ICCAs

1. A people or community is closely connected to a well defined territory, area or species (e.g., because of survival and dependence for livelihood, because of historical and cultural reasons);
2. The community is the major player in decision-making (governance) and implementation regarding the management of the territory, area or species, implying that a community institution has the capacity to develop and enforce regulations; (in many situations other stakeholders are involved, but primary decision-making rests de facto with the community);
3. The community management decisions and efforts lead to the conservation of the territory, area or species and associated cultural values (the conscious objective of management may be different than conservation per se, and be, for instance, related to material livelihood, water security, safeguarding of cultural and spiritual places, etc)

Significance of ICCAs

    • ICCAs help to conserve critical ecosystems and threatened species, to maintain essential ecosystem functions (e.g., water security), and to provide corridors and linkages for animal and gene movement, including between two or more officially protected areas;
    • ICCAs are the basis of cultural and economic livelihoods for millions of people, securing resources (energy, food, water, fodder) and income;
    • ICCAs are part of indigenous peoples and local community resistance to destructive ‘development’, e.g. rainforests threatened by mining, dams, and logging industries, ecologically sensitive high-altitude ecosystems threatened by tourism, over-exploitation of marine resources by industrial fishing, etc;
    • ICCAs are based on rules and institutions “tailored to the context”, (bio-cultural diversity), skilled at adaptive management and capable of flexible, culture-related responses;
    • ICCAs are built on sophisticated collective ecological knowledge and capacities, including sustainable use of wild resources and maintenance of agrobiodiversity, which have stood the test of time.  They are typically designed to maintain crucial livelihood resources for times of stress and need, such as during severe climate events, war & natural disasters;
    • ICCAs play a crucial role in securing the rights of IPs & local communities to their land & natural resources through local governance – de jure and/or de facto;
    • ICCAs help synergise the links between agricultural biodiversity and wildlife, providing larger land/waterscape level integration;
    • ICCAs offer crucial lessons for participatory governance of official PAs, useful to resolve conflicts between PAs and local people;
    • ICCAs offer lessons in systems of conservation that integrate customary and statutory laws; 
    • ICCAs help prevent excessive urban migration;
    • ICCAs can be the foundation of cultural identity and pride for countless indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the world.

The global coverage of ICCAs has been estimated as being comparable to the one of governments’ protected areas, i.e. about 13% of the terrestrial surface of the planet. Globally, 400-800 million hectares of forest are owned/administered by communities. More land and resources are under community control in other ecosystems. By no means all areas under community control are effectively conserved (i.e. can be considered ICCAs), but a substantial portion is.

Threats and challenges to ICCAs

ICCAs face critical threats and challenges to their continued existence and functioning, such as:

  • Land and water grabbing and, in particular, the expropriation of “the commons” through processes of nationalisation and privatisation of land and natural resources, expropriation for the development of large infrastructure (dams, ports, roads…), and land encroachments by illegal settlers;
  • Inappropriate “development” interventions and the unsustainable use of renewable and non-renewable resources (timber, fauna, minerals, etc.) by powerful outsiders or community members under the influence of market forces and perverse incentives;
  • Undermining of traditional institutions by centralised political systems, whereby governments take over most of the relevant functions and powers;
  • Inappropriate development and educational models, religious intrusions, and externally-driven change of local value systems (acculturation);
  • Lack of appropriate recognition and lack of appropriate political, legal and economic support,  hampering community efforts at conserving their territories and natural resources through traditional means (this may include the imposition of rules through payment for economic services schemes);
  • External and internal conflicts, inequities and weak local institutions;
  • Environmental and socio-economic disasters related to global climate and other major socio-economic change outside of local control.



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