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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Sharing Power : Indigenous Communities and the Co-management of Natural Resources

Difficulties for Setting up a Co-management Partnership on “Indigenous Land”

Documents of reference

Borrini-Feyerabend Grazia, Pimbert Michel, Farvar M.Taghi, Kothari Ashish, Renard Yves et al, Sharing Power - Learning by Doing in Comanagement of Natural Resources throughout the World, IIED, IUCN, CMWG, CEESP, 2004

Indigenous peoples are self-identified human groups characterised by peculiar socio-political systems, languages, cultures, values and beliefs, by a close relationship with the land and natural resources in their territory, and often by historical continuity with pre-colonial societies. The imposition of external values, technologies and livelihood systems has been a main feature of colonisation, imperialism and unequal relationships with traditional and indigenous peoples. Today‘s new ideas and concepts, such as sustainable use or co-management of natural resources are easily perceived as a new version of such imposition. However sincere the intention of co-management promoters may be, it is a fact that indigenous control over territories and resources has been and continues to be systematically diminished, not least because of conservation aims (in particular to incorporate territories into official protected areas). Thus, while some indigenous peoples and traditional communities may be willing to enter into management partnerships with other social actors, others understandably remain reluctant to any type of external influence on their livelihoods and environments. They prefer to hold to their ancestral land rights and management systems without interfacing or compromising with other systems (see Box 4.9). This may be a decision in view of cultural survival, especially where traditional knowledge systems are already fragile because of strong external influences, but local resistance to decisions and forms of “development” defined from outside has often been beneficial also to conservation.

Box 4.9. Mayan resistance in Totonicapán: a gentle reverberating echo in the volcanic altiplano (adapted from Gramajo, 1997)

Invasions on the ancestral lands of the K’iché in the volcanic Sierra Madre ranges of Totonicapán were for territorial domination in the pre-Hispanic and colonial eras. More recent invasions have come in the form of the “Green Revolution”: agricultural reforms and rural development projects over the last three decades, which have manipulated use and access to natural resources. Rather than alleviating poverty, however, most interventions benefited the rich and created dependency on modern technology, unaffordable by most peasants. Indiscriminate logging, inappropriate agricultural technologies, “improved” seeds and inadequate water resource management generated pollution, diminished endogenous flora and agricultural biodiversity, and created serious socio-economic impacts and health problems for the native Mayans (95% of the local population). Projects that tried to identify local needs, aspirations and potential ended up reflecting more the opinions of external planners than of local people. “Local participation” has been usually sought only after the design of the project was done and established. The Mayan culture keeps alive its ancestral resource knowledge and social structures through an oral tradition rich in topographic vocabulary, and a world vision focusing on the value of nature, specific ceremonies, social solidarity and consultation with the community elders. A recent welcome trend has been towards re-evaluating indigenous resource management practices in communally owned forests. There has also been a strong, if not always successful, show of resistance to the unsustainable exploitation and degradation of natural resources by outsiders (loggers, entrepreneurs and transport companies that succeeded in gaining concessions). In one particular region the local people, jointly with the reforestation committee and the municipality, reached an agreement to prohibit governmental and non-governmental agencies from developing projects in communally-owned forests. One Elder declared: “…the government wanted to impose on us a project to create a market for our wood. If we would had allowed it, we would have nothing today. We do not think in the government‘s way, for we believe that the mountains can give us all we need, but all in measure. We take just what we need, and no one from our community makes a business out of wood or timber.” Another community imposed grave sanctions against a park ranger who abused his authority for personal benefit, destroying the oldest and largest tree in the forest, which was sacred to the people. In another case, a mayor was imprisoned for authorising logging concessions without community approval. Since then, no mayor has dared to authorise any logging concession.

As only recently fully acknowledged and described, biological and cultural diversity are strongly linked, as are their alarming losses currently experienced in the world. By preserving cultural integrity, the conditions for maintaining a specific type of interaction with the environment and natural resources are also maintained. The interests of indigenous peoples and conservationists may thus broadly coincide and management partnerships may play a vital role to promote both the survival of cultural diversity and the safeguard of biological environments. In the light of the above, are indigenous peoples “social actors” on the same level as all others, such as a private firm or a governmental agency? Many would stress that they are not. Indigenous peoples hold ancestral rights to the environments where they have lived and worked for centuries if not millennia. They usually do not possess the economic strength and legal backing enjoyed by modern entrepreneurs and affluent people. And, importantly, many of them have lifestyles with limited impact upon the land (the very reason why, in their midst, there is still much worth conserving and managing sustainably) and are bearers of valuable and unique local knowledge and skills. In other words, they are both a comparatively weaker and more benign and useful social actor.

The Convention on Biological Diversity stresses that: “special consideration [should be] given to the indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity”1. Such special considerations should involve not only respecting the cultural identity of indigenous and traditional peoples, but also ensuring mechanisms that guarantee fair communication and consultation processes, continuity and/ or revitalisation of their traditional lifestyles (as deemed appropriate by the traditional societies) and the active education and enrichment of non-indigenous partners concerning traditional values, knowledge and practices.

In practical terms, a Start-up Team should make sure that the rights, needs and capacities of traditional communities are duly respected and recognised. It should also veer to avoid their “acculturation”, which may be one of the most insidious dangers of co-management for an indigenous community. Many aspects of the participatory management model proceed from a mainstream logic and value system that, in the attempt of accommodating multiple interests, may overshadow or uproot the fundamental tenets of a traditional society. For example, practices such as assigning economic value to natural resources or promoting gender equality in natural resource management may be perceived as appropriate to most social actors but objectionable and destructive to some traditional communities. These different views should be handled with respect. To this end, the Start-up Team has to be well informed about the values, beliefs, lifestyles and management systems of the indigenous and traditional partners, and aware of the benefits of local cultural cohesion. A Start-up Team is a herald of an opportunity to review and improve resource management practices, not an active promoter of social restructuring and cultural change. It may assist different groups within a society to develop their own views on the issues at stake, but the ultimate decisions about how to handle issues of internal consensus and representation belong to the peoples themselves.

In the last decades, many indigenous communities have agreed on various forms of co-management settings for protected areas. In Australia,47 relatively strong co- management arrangements for protected areas have been developed following the passing of legislation that recognised aboriginal rights to land and natural resources. In 1981, Gurig National Park became the first jointly managed National Park in Australia and since then further co-management arrangements have been developed for other parks in various Territories, according to several “models”. Joint management represents a trade-off between the rights and interests of traditional owners and the rights and interests of government conservation agencies and the wider Australian community. In some arrangements developed subsequent to the Gurig model, the trade-off involves the transfer of land ownership to Aboriginal People in exchange for continuity into the foreseeable future of the national park status and shared responsibility for park management. The transfer of ownership back to Aboriginal People is thus conditional on their support (through leases or other legal mechanisms) for the continuation of the National Park. The land occupied by a Park is simultaneously returned to aboriginal ownership and leased back to a government conservation agency under a co-management board and with the agreement of an arbitration process in case of disputes.

A further, more recent form of protected area established voluntarily on existing aboriginal-owned land— the Indigenous Protected Area model— presents a challenge to all co-management models, as it is more advanced in terms of self-determination of the aboriginal owners, and self-management practices (see Box 4.10).

Box 4.10. The new Indigenous Protected Area model (Australia) (adapted from Smyth, 2001)

Since 1998, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) have become officially recognised and promoted in Australia as part of the national protected area system.2 It was in fact realised that some aboriginal landholders were prepared to “protect” their land and part of the Australia National Reserve System in return for government funds and, if required, other types of management assistance. The first IPA was formally proclaimed in August 1998 over an aboriginal owned property called Nantawarrina in the northern Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Several more IPAs were proclaimed in other states during 1999.

IPAs can be established as formal conservation agreements under state or territory legislation, or under Indigenous Law. Aboriginal land owners there have a variety of legal mechanisms to control activities on their land, including local government by-laws and privacy laws. The declaration of IPAs is the first occasion in Australia whereby aboriginal land owners voluntarily accepted a protected area status over their land. Because the process is voluntary, and fully prompted and promoted by them, Aboriginal People choose the level of government involvement, the level of visitor access (if any) and the extent of development to meet their needs. In return for government assistance, aboriginal owners of IPAs are required to develop a management plan and to make a commitment to manage their land (and/ or waters and resources) with the goal of conserving its biodiversity values.

IPAs are attractive to some aboriginal land owners because they bring management resources without the loss of autonomy associated with co-management regimes (see Table 4.3). IPAs also provide public recognition of the natural and cultural values of aboriginal land, and of the capacity of the Aboriginal People to protect and nurture those values. IPAs are attractive to government conservation agencies because they effectively add to the nation‘s conservation estate without the need to acquire the land, and without the cost of establishing all the infrastructure, staffing, housing etc of a conventional national park. Overall, IPAs can be seen as a particularly strong example of Community Conserved Area (strong insofar as the decision making power is entirely in the hands of the Aboriginal People and the government has understood and legalised that).

In other world regions, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, the experimentation with co-responsibility in PA management between the civil society and the state has also been gaining significant strength and recognition. A recent review identified 79 distinct experiences in Central America50 with an important variety of management types taking advantage of the relative state of flux and openness of the relevant legislations and policies, although the difficulties and potential failures faced by many of these experiences should not be underestimated.3 Experiences in the Andean region also offer a number of inspiring examples, including areas voluntarily subjected to a conservation regime by indigenous and local communities with the explicit intent of obtaining a legal recognition of their customary land tenure rights, and assurance from governments that the land will be protected and not destined to a variety of forms of exploitation. In a climate of tenure insecurity, lack of confidence in state institutions and policies, and after a long history of abuse of indigenous and community rights, people are searching for all possible instruments to secure long-term access to natural resources. Under present circumstances in a number of Latin American countries a protected area regime can offer them such security, besides also attracting funding, support, visibility, and income from tourism to the concerned areas. When this proves true, community benefits related to the establishment of a co-management agreement can be substantial.

1 Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8j.


3 Kaimowitz, Faune and Mendoza, 2003.