March 14, 2012

Indigenous resource management systems: A holistic approach to nature and livelihoods

Joint community rice harvesting by the Karen people in the highlands of northern Thailand.

By Dr. Maurizio Farhan-Ferrari, Environmental Governance Programme Coordinator
Forest Peoples Programme, Moreton-in-Marsh, UK

Two peer-reviewed studies published recently by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Bank show that strict conservation is less effective in reducing deforestation than community forests that are managed and controlled by indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities within multiple use systems.

This article argues that indigenous resource management systems are not only well poised to reduce deforestation rates but also to provide a rich array of experiences, expertise, and practices that can significantly contribute to protecting biodiversity, food security, and sustainable livelihoods in indigenous communities, as well as finding answers to climate change challenges.

Indigenous peoples, local resource users, and support organisations from Bangladesh, Suriname, Guyana, Cameroon, Venezuela and Thailand, in collaboration with the Forest Peoples Programme, were involved in a project called Forest Peoples, Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods (FPBP). Participants produced case studies and participatory land and resource use maps combining traditional knowledge with Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies.

The studies provide insight on the sophistication of indigenous and local management systems and the remarkable complexity of customary law systems, which guide responsible use of resources in a variety of landscapes. They also describe the threats that their customary management systems face and provide recommendations to local and national governments about actions that should be taken in order to improve support for these age-old sustainable management systems; on-the-ground initiatives need a supportive policy and legal environment at the national level to thrive and flourish.

Although this project has been carried out focusing on customary sustainable use of biodiversity, referring to Article 10(c) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the outcomes can promptly be applied to any process that deals with sustainable resource management and people’s livelihoods, including a landscape approach. Indigenous peoples have been practicing approaches similar to a landscape approach for hundreds, or even thousands of years. They don’t focus on one aspect of an ecosystem, but on the entire system or landscape, and explicitly consider themselves to be a part of it.

In the cosmological view of many indigenous communities, everything within the ecosystem is intrinsically linked and interdependent—everything is connected. More than anyone else, these communities understand and respect the fact that all parts of the natural environment need the other parts to function and therefore a balance must be maintained. The ecosystem is their source of living and sustainable use is key to sustainable communities.

In fact, the CBD itself, at one of its recent meetings in November 2011, has started to hone in on the linkages between customary sustainable use and the landscape approach. Text from the meeting notes:

“Biodiversity, customary sustainable use and traditional knowledge are intrinsically linked.”

It emphasizes how customary sustainable use is essential to socio-ecological systems, innovations for productive landscapes, and human well-being, while building resilience to climate change.

During the past year, the work carried out by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) project partners mentioned above has evolved more explicitly along the lines of a landscape approach. Some of the partners have embarked on developing community-based territorial management plans (based on the data collected through community resource mapping and the customary sustainable use studies), taking the whole territory, customarily used for physical, social and spiritual needs, as the unit of reference. Different but inter-related ecological systems are found in each territory and the relationship between the natural environment and human communities is at the centre of the project. It could be argued that the communities’ initiatives can bring new levels of definition or understanding of the landscape approach, as they highlight the very close and balanced relationship between the various values and dimensions (physical, social, political, spiritual) of managing a territory in a holistic way.

The project, through the development of territorial management plans, aims to respect and secure traditional communal land tenure systems. However, at the same time, processes for innovative co-management systems have also been initiated as many of these territories overlap other land-use systems, including protected areas. The partners in Northern Thailand, for example, while trying to promote community collective land titling, have also engaged in a process of co-management of the Ob Luang National Park with the park authorities, local government, lowlander communities and NGOs. This has shifted the local situation from one of conflict to one of collaboration.

Although indigenous peoples’ holistic management systems are increasingly recognised and respected for their contribution to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, in reality they are being severely eroded by modern legal and political systems. The most common obstacle and challenge is the lack of secure land and resource rights. Secure rights to access and management of lands, territories, and resources represent a fundamental requirement for indigenous peoples and local communities to maintain and practise customary use and traditional knowledge in their daily interaction with biodiversity. However, in many countries indigenous peoples experience restrictions and violations of their rights, which undermine their customary sustainable systems.

So the key question that emerges from this article is: What public policies should governments and other sectors adopt and promote to support indigenous peoples’ customary management systems and ensure that their land and resource rights are recognised and secured?

Further Reading:

Bélair, C., K. Ichikawa, B.Y.L. Wong and K.J. Mulongoy, eds. 2010. Sustainable use of biological diversity in socio-ecological production landscapes. Background to the ‘Satoyama Initiative for the benefit of biodiversity and human well-being. Montreal: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Technical Series no. 52, pp.22-35. 

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  • Wilson Kipsang Kipkazi
    March 17, 2012 at 2:09am

    Thanks for the good work you are doing towards environmental conservation