Categories Convention on Biological Biodiversity, Updates

Territories of life and OECMs: reflections and recommendations from in-country experience

Dr. Ameyali Ramos (International Policy Coordinator of the ICCA Consortium from 2020-2022 and Deputy Chair of IUCN CEESP) presented on territories of life and "other effective area-based conservation measures" (OECMs) during the online Fuller Symposium on 3 November 2022. This is a lightly edited transcript of Ameyali’s presentation.

First published on 03/17/2023, and last updated on 04/10/2023

Video of Ameyali Ramos’s presentation on territories of life and OECMs during the Fuller Symposium on 3 November 2022. (Available in English only.)

Dawn Hill Adams, an Indigenous woman from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma says, “Indigenous peoples are a land-based people. Nothing we do makes any sense or has any impact if it’s taken off the ground.”

“A land-based people”. Just take a moment to reflect on that: a land-based people whose identities are intimately woven with the land, spiritual beings, identities, other species. These are some examples of those lands and these land-based people who on a daily basis care for the land, they “conserve the land,” they co-exist with and for the land, the waters and all of the life within them. These are territories of life.

Territories of life and their custodians play an outsized role in the governance, conservation and sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity and nature. These custodians actively protect and conserve an astounding diversity of globally relevant species, habitats and ecosystems. They provide the basis for clean water, clean air, healthy food, and livelihoods for people far beyond their boundaries.

My name is Ameyali Ramos and I am the International Policy Coordinator for the ICCA Consortium. And yes, I am aware that this is a symposium on OECMs and I promise I will get to that. But before I do, I wanted to remind you, remind us all, that these territories of life and their custodians exist and are actively contributing to our planet and our collective wellbeing on a daily basis, regardless of international designations, regardless of policy frameworks, regardless of whether these lands are labeled as protected areas, as OECMs, as Indigenous protected areas, as community conserved areas, as territories of life. These territories and their custodians are there everyday, doing “conservation,” doing “life.”

And indeed, perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to catalyze transformative changes is to support custodian communities to secure their human rights in general and particularly their respective rights to self-determined governance systems, cultures and collective lands and territories.

This brings me to the topic of the symposium today: operationalizing OECMs and the possible opportunities and challenges this framework offers to custodians and their territories of life. I start with a question: are OECMs an opportunity to catalyze this type of transformative change?

To get to this, we’d like to share some of the work we’ve been doing. Before that even, we need to take a closer look at the framework and acknowledge that there are no guarantees about implementation at the national and sub-national levels. No matter how clear the international guidance is, no matter how clear the academic papers are on OECMs, there are just no guarantees about how this will be implemented.

As many others have shared, OECMs are a relatively new framework that has the potential to usher in a new phase of conservation law and policy that is more inclusive, equitable, and rights-based. At the ICCA Consortium and at IUCN CEESP, we have been closely following these discussions and we would like to share some experiences from both duty-bearers and rights-holders, from custodians, on how OECMs are currently being “operationalized” in their national contexts.

Specifically, we would like to share some perspectives from government officials. These are based on case studies conducted by the IUCN Commission on Environment, Economic and Social Policy and two really bright young women, Amelia and Alejandra. We will also share some perspectives from custodian communities and their supporting organizations, based on the experiences to date within the ICCA Consortium’s membership.

Overall, I think we would all agree that these groups have very different roles and very different lenses through which they are scrutinizing OECMs. But there are striking similarities in the issues they foresee or are already facing with early-stage efforts to ‘operationalize’ OECMs. We would like to highlight three key issues in particular:

Key finding 1: There is a very high cost to ‘operationalizing’ OECMs in accordance with the CBD COP decisions and IUCN guidance, even where there is a huge amount of political will and desire to do so.

Everyone seems to have a different understanding of what OECMs are, with few engaging with the actual content of the COP decision or IUCN guidance. The reality is it takes time and a huge amount of resources to change the relevant government agencies from within so they have the capacity to critically engage with this framework and undertake the necessary work to operationalize it properly.

We saw the example that Andrew Rhodes just presented from Mexico and there were others presented previously in this symposium. We’ve also seen examples in Peru, where this process for recognition started at the end of 2018 and the process is still ongoing four years later. They’re trying to implement their own OECM definition and criteria to identify potential areas. We see something similar in India, where there’s a comprehensive systematization of ongoing initiatives, and it’s a really long and arduous process to try to get some clarity about this.

For rights-holders, this means an added obstacle to even engaging with OECM frameworks, if governments are trying to figure it out and operationalize it. In the meantime, what does this mean for rights-holders?

Key finding 2: Not only do Indigenous Peoples and local communities face significant practical barriers to identifying and reporting their conserved territories and areas as OECMs, but there are also limited material benefits and incentives for them to do so.

What is the ‘added value’ legal recognition to support or defend against harmful industries? In effect, communities’ contributions to this OECM framework would be “counted” for the benefit of national and international conservation targets, without receiving any counterpart recognition or support. The ICCA Consortium has been raising this concern about OECMs for more than 5 years in the CBD process.

There are myriad examples but here I’d like to highlight two. Every time we bring up the concept of OECMs with our ICCA Consortium membership, they ask: why would we report our lands as OECMs now, when we already have ICCAs? Another question we often get is: how will this help us do the work we’re doing on the ground? Will this label help us achieve something new? We’re also seeing very tokenistic participation and engagement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, which makes the process even more complicated.

Key finding 3: There is a very high likelihood of further entrenching existing concerns with state-centric conservation policies and laws, particularly in countries where national frameworks do not provide appropriate recognition and support for Indigenous Peoples and local communities in general, or specifically in the context of nature conservation.

In India, communities and their supporting civil society organizations have been marginalized and excluded from the very process to develop the country-specific framework and guidance on OECMs. Despite India having a relatively progressive law – the Forest Rights Act – its implementation is significantly hampered by prevailing attitudes and approaches in government agencies, where the painful legacy of exclusionary conservation continues. We also see this in Colombia.

We also see something very interesting in Eswatini, which is one of the few countries that has reported an OECM under Indigenous governance. Indigenous Peoples are not recognized as such by the government, but only as local communities. There’s a lot of discrepancy there.

More broadly, Indigenous and community perspectives underscore that when viewed only through the lens of international conservation frameworks, particularly protected areas or OECMs, communities’ contributions to a diverse and healthy planet are instrumentalized and conditional, without recognition of the extraordinary challenges and disruptions they are facing. It also fragments and disembodies the very foundations that enable them to contribute so much to conservation. There’s no recognition for the very intricate relationships between people and land. Remember: a land-based people. It’s not just conservation for Indigenous Peoples. It implies a governance system, a way of life, spiritual beliefs, kinship with those beyond humankind. This is critical.

Although there have been important advances in conservation and protected area law and policy over the past 20 years, many Indigenous Peoples and local communities are extremely wary of new concepts and frameworks that have grown out of and are closely linked to protected area systems. There is a lot of distrust there. Despite the best intentions of the proponents of OECMs, it is imperative to acknowledge and understand this historical and ongoing legacy, while also looking ahead to see what can be done for the future.

How do we turn these challenges into opportunities?

In my community, we have a rule that when we voice challenges, we try to also voice some potential solutions. With the ICCA Consortium’s membership and in IUCN CEESP, we have tried to come up with some concrete recommendations for how to move things forward and to inform how OECMs are operationalized at the national and sub-national levels.

  1. Support Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and their organizations to critically engage with in-country processes on protected areas and OECMs and implementation of the post-2020 framework. This is essential and must be done in the context of their broader self-determined priorities. What does this mean? First of all, it means we need to learn to listen and listen very closely. We need methodologies that allow for real and meaningful community co-creation. We also need accessible technical analysis of policy and legal frameworks. We need to respect and support communities’ self-determined priorities, even when these do not necessarily align with conservation NGO interests and/or government priorities. Indigenous and community organizations should be the ones leading this process and conservation organizations should be supporting, not the other way around.
  1. For this to happen, we call on government agencies to strengthen their in-house capacities to understand and engage with communities in a respectful and rights-affirming way. This might entail a process of “unlearning”. It also requires a great amount of political will, capacity-building and adequate technical and financial resources. OECMs might be an opportunity to establish new dialogues and relationships between governments and communities, but it has to be done respectfully and in a rights-affirming way. This is critical. It takes a lot of time, a lot of political will, a lot of resources, and a lot of unlearning, but we know governments can do this so we call upon you to do it.
  1. Funders: Money talks! Funders have a huge role to play in these discussions. We call on you to require human rights safeguards and accountability mechanisms in funding related to OECMs, especially when funding goes to large conservation organizations or government agencies. You have a great deal of leverage to really shift the dial on how OECMs could be, and should be, operationalized. Step into that space with confidence, we’re counting on you to do it.
  1. Finally, to the conservation community: now is the time to recognize custodians’ contributions to nature conservation on their own terms and in their own right, including BEYOND protected areas and OECMs. Many of you are likely following the post-2020 negotiations and have seen the latest report from the Informal Group where they have included a placeholder in Target 3 for a third pathway beyond protected areas and OECMs. This in itself will not solve everything, and it is still within the context and confines of Target 3. However, it is a critical step forward in an evolving legal and policy landscape. It opens up more opportunities for custodians of territories of life to determine for themselves how they wish to be recognized and supported in the context of conservation in their home countries.

For those who strive to support conservation through NGOs, governments, funders, or otherwise: this is not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility. Let’s embrace this and play our part in supporting custodians and their territories of life to secure the recognition and support they deserve for the critical roles they play in sustaining a healthy planet for all.

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