Every country has a number of national laws that are relevant to Indigenous peoples, local communities, and their territories and areas, including biodiversity, forests, agriculture, and protected areas. These laws and other relevant policies are developed through a range of decision-making processes such as councils or multi-stakeholder committees. They are implemented by specific government agencies, often through a number of subsidiary bodies at the sub-national and local levels.

Engaging with government can be very time-consuming and frustrating due to high levels of bureaucracy, lack of political will, and lack of understanding amongst government officials of community concerns.

However, Indigenous peoples and local communities have the right to participate in the development, implementation, and monitoring of laws and policies. Political pressure from civil society and international organizations is also helping government officials understand their obligations. Participating actively and constructively in decision-making processes can thus greatly influence national or sub-national policies that affect your and many other communities.

Guidance on engaging with government officials at the national or sub-national level
  • Identify the particular law or policy that you are interested in and find out what decision-making processes exist. Examples may include expert committees, multi-stakeholder committees, technical working groups, or management boards.
  • Ask a local government official or search online for the contact details of the relevant national or sub-national focal point. • Contact this person by phone, written letter, or email. Introduce yourself and why you are contacting him or her. Present your message clearly and concisely. Consider appending the community protocol and highlight any relevant government agencies or bodies referenced therein.
  • Explain why you would like to participate in the decision-making process, how it would support your community’s plans and priorities, and how it would help the process fulfill its mandate.
  • If you receive responses, follow up promptly to thank them. Update them about local progress as well so they feel connected to and personally invested in the community.
  • If you have the opportunity to attend a meeting, find out as much information as possible beforehand about when and where it will be held, who will be there, what the agenda is, and how you can participate. Dress professionally and arrive prepared to make interventions, provide recommendations, and ask questions.
  • Overall, strive to develop positive and ongoing relationships with individual officials and relevant agencies – they have the potential to be highly beneficial in the long run.

One of the main ways for communities to participate in decision-making processes is through impact assessments. These studies are intended to assess the likely impacts of a proposed activity or project on a range of stakeholders and factors, including nearby communities and the environment. They also provide recommendations to the project proponent as to whether or not the project should be implemented and, if so, ways to prevent and mitigate the likely impacts.

There are several kinds of impact assessments, including environmental, social, cultural, human rights and wellbeing. Most countries have domestic legislation for environmental impact assessments. Many companies and research institutions also have well-established policies and procedures for conducting environmental and social impact assessments. Cultural and wellbeing impact assessment are not often used by project proponents, but should be advocated for or undertaken by communities themselves.

Despite these provisions, it is often difficult for communities to participate effectively due to externally imposed constraints. Assessments are often conducted by professional consultants hired by the project proponents and supporters, which are usually government agencies and companies. They tend to use Western scientific methods, sophisticated technology, and complicated forms of analysis. They rarely provide sufficient timeframes or appropriate types of information and often fail to sufficiently account for social and cultural considerations, including Indigenous worldviews, local languages, and customary authorities and systems of decision-making. If the consultants are hired by the same agency or company that is proposing the project, it is likely that the impact assessment will be biased and not fully representative of communities’ concerns.

Due to these concerns, some communities refuse to engage at all because they know that the project proponents will then approve of the project, having noted their ‘participation’, but regardless of what the community says. Other communities are proactively developing and conducting their own impact assessments and attempting to engage with project proponents in multi-stakeholder dialogues and negotiations.

(Disclaimer: the text above is adapted from “Biocultural Community Protocols: A Toolkit for Community Facilitators” (2012), edited by Holly Shrumm and Harry Jonas. Natural Justice: Cape Town.)