Exercising Rights

WCS understands that successfully exercising hard-won rights involves communities becoming effective, transparent, and accountable managers of their lands and waters. Given this, we work closely with indigenous organizations and local communities to help them create conditions that allow grassroots democracy and natural resource governance to grow and flourish, benefitting local livelihoods and conservation.

Formal Recognition Alone is Insufficient

To ensure that current and future generations of indigenous and traditional peoples benefit economically and spiritually from their lands and waters, formal recognition of their rights alone is insufficient. These rights must be respected on a day-to-day basis by other actors, including farmers, ranchers, and extractive industry, as well as the various government agencies responsible for planning, regulation, and oversight of land and resource use.

This requires that indigenous and traditional peoples exercise their rights effectively. Typically, building the capacity to do this is a slow process. As a result, while indigenous and traditional peoples in many areas of the world have won recognition of land and resource rights, the speed and scale of changes being driven by climate change, poorly conceived and implemented development, and unfavorable market linkages threaten to sweep these important victories away or render them irrelevant.

Thus, across the planet, within tropical forests and shrublands, boreal woodlands and tundra, temperate grasslands, and coastal reef systems, WCS helps indigenous, traditional, and local communities to build the equitable and accountable systems they need to make difficult decisions about how to manage their lands and waters sustainably and share the benefits of their efforts equitably with current and future generations.

Photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

Building Capacity

To help construct the governance systems indigenous, traditional, and local communities need to exercise their rights effectively, we take a number of different steps.

Solidify partners' technical and administrative capacities.

Indigenous and traditional peoples have knowledge based on long experience that provides a solid basis for effective management of their lands and waters. Ensuring that our local partners have the technical and administrative skills and tools means that they can adapt and apply their traditional knowledge in innovative ways to tackle rapidly changing social, economic, and ecological conditions.

This includes:

  • Incorporating new technology.
  • Organizing activities across larger areas than people may have experienced before.
  • Generating revenue streams to satisfy needs for formal education, healthcare, and other expenses that people need to live well.

Build bridges with other actors.

To ensure that the actions and decisions of other actors support, rather than undermine, a community’s management of their territory, we help our local partners to develop trusting relationships with other indigenous and traditional people. In this way, we can help groups facing similar challenges share experiences and lessons learned, and coordinate with each other to get the most out of their scarce technical and financial resources.

We also work to link our indigenous and traditional partners to relevant government agencies, civil society partners, and funders, to ensure that their values and interests are reflected in future development planning and decision-making that directly or indirectly may impact their territories.

Systematize the lessons learned.

The forces that threaten the lands and waters of indigenous and traditional peoples, and the speed with which they are transforming ecosystems across the globe, are at a scale larger than individual communities can address. However, if the governance innovations developed by individual groups can be broadly disseminated to others, then the aggregation of their collective actions will grow to a scale that is commensurate with the threats.

There is no substitute for regular and prolonged face-to-face support for grassroots organizations that are directly responsible for land and natural resource decision-making. Work at this level provides the political experience, builds the technical and administrative capacity, and encourages the innovative institutional arrangements and applications of technology that provide the content for consolidating the governance systems that nurture sound management across larger areas.

To address this challenge, WCS and indigenous and civil society partners have begun to collate and synthesize the lessons learned from our grassroots experiences so that these may be shared and applied more efficiently and effectively among more groups and across larger areas. We are already applying these across our programs to ensure that indigenous and traditional peoples have the opportunity to manage their lands and resources to secure their quality of life and contribute to achieving durable conservation of wild lands.

Photo Credit: ©Maria Elena Carbajal/WCS

Community Management in Tamshiyacu Tahuayo, Peru

The Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Regional Community Conservation Area occupies over one million acres in Peru’s Loreto Region. It includes flooded and terra firme forests, provides important habitat for a vulnerable and endemic primate species, the red uakari monkey, and is home to 6,200 people living in 33 communities in, or adjoining, the area.

The Peruvian Agrarian Reform, begun in 1969, led to the expropriation of many large private estates in Loreto, but a clear system of land and resource rights was not implemented. This ambiguity encouraged town-based commercial interests to encroach on forests and fisheries customarily used by rural communities. In response, in 1991, four of the most affected communities persuaded the Loreto Regional Government to recognize a 795,000-acre area as the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Communal Reserve.

Over the following two decades, the communities of Tamshiyacu Tahuayo established a system of oversight and control, based on agreements among themselves, including establishing a management plan that defined areas where communities had hunting rights, areas under strict protection, and areas designated for other uses. These agreements were supported by a monitoring system that provided information on the status of hunted species and allowed them to establish and adjust offtake quotas. This led skeptical regional and national authorities to recognize community rights to manage Tamshiyacu Tahuayo.

Photo Credit: ©Maria Elena Carbajal/WCS
Photo Credit: ©Antonio Escalantel/WCS

In 2005, the communities requested that Tamshiyacu Tahuayo be recognized as part of Peru’s national protected area system. As a result of this and other grassroots initiatives taking place in Loreto, the regional government created a system of Regional Conservation Areas, with support from Peru’s Ministry of Environment, and asked the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo community to lead a pilot effort, demonstrating how a community-based Regional Conservation Area might work. In 2007, the Regional Government recognized Tamshiyacu Tahuayo as the first area in the regional system and increased its jurisdiction to a million-plus acres.

Tamshiyacu Tahuayo is remarkable because it is a community initiative that took place over two decades without relying on external subsidies. While it received essential technical support from WCS and the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) of the University of Kent, to establish its monitoring program, analyze the resulting data, and write proposals to government authorities, the initiative was driven by the four communities that secured recognition of the Communal Reserve, in 1991, with no external budgetary support.

Important challenges remain. While seven additional communities have joined the original four to manage Tamshiyacu Tahuayo, two-thirds of the communities in the area do not participate. Securing their active participation will be essential, as Tamshiyacu Tahuayo attempts to address the threat of land use change driven by the expansion of large-scale cacao production.

Alaskan Indigenous Groups and a Changing Climate

The Earth’s climate is changing as a result of our actions, and nowhere is it changing faster and more visibly than at the poles. In the Arctic, sea ice is disappearing so rapidly that navigation between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Northern Sea Route is already commonplace, and travel by the Northwest Passage and other transpolar routes will likely become routine in the future.

The International Maritime Organization fully recognizes the risks of increases in shipping through these ecologically fragile Arctic waters and has developed a new Polar Code for regulating vessels using the area.

Photo Credit: ©Martin Robards/WCS

Today, polar bears can no longer hunt seals on the ice for much of the year, and walruses are hauling up on land because ice floes are now too few and too small over the shallow areas they need to feed. Alaska Natives are seeing their homes erode into the ocean with rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms, and their traditional hunting practices are at risk of being lost as the wildlife they depend on are being forced to change its behavior.

WCS collaborates closely with Indigenous Peoples in the North American Arctic because we have a common interest: conservation of wildlife within their traditional lands and waters. Together we've developed strategies for conserving walrus, and for reducing whale mortality from collisions with ships. By incorporating both Traditional Ecological Knowledge and modern science into our approaches, we're finding ways for wildlife to retain its cultural and ecological roles in this irreplaceable wild place.

Indigenous Rights in the Greater Madidi Landscape

One of the wild places where WCS works is the Greater Madidi Landscape, a 413,000 square-mile area located in northwestern Bolivia, on the eastern Andean slopes. With an altitudinal gradient that runs from 20,000 to 600 feet above sea level, it is characterized by topographical and climatic variations that contribute to it being one of the world's most biodiverse areas. The landscape encompasses three national protected areas, two municipal protected areas, and eight recognized indigenous territories.

The indigenous territories border and, in some cases, overlap the protected areas, and account for about 25% of the total area of the landscape. Given this, building effective partnerships with the Indigenous Peoples is central to any conservation strategy. WCS began collaborating with indigenous organizations and communities in 2000, when we started to work with the Tacana people to support their efforts to secure formal title to their lands and waters, and develop and implement a strategy to manage the 960,000-acre Tacana Indigenous Reserve once the title was awarded. WCS has since developed similar partnerships with four other Bolivian indigenous organizations.

Photo Credit: ©Robert Wallace/WCS

However, it is clear to both our indigenous partners and WCS that securing recognition of rights is necessary but insufficient. Only by effectively managing these lands, and ensuring that they are fully considered in all development planning for the region, will Indigenous Peoples ensure that formal recognition of rights contributes to preserving the ecological integrity of the landscape, and leads to greater livelihood security and well-being. Based on our experience together, we have identified 10 areas in which appropriate capacity needs to be developed if an indigenous organization is to complete the journey from recognition to effectively exercising its rights. Together, we developed a set of training modules that can be applied by indigenous organizations seeking to secure and govern their territories.

Modules for Building Governance Capacity of Indigenous Organizations

  1. Recognition of territorial rights
  2. Organizational and leadership strengthening
  3. Territorial management plans
  4. Participatory land use zoning
  5. Self-regulation of natural resource use
  6. Managing specific resources
  7. Territorial control and surveillance
  8. Administrative capacity
  9. Sustainable funding mechanisms
  10. Monitoring and research

At WCS, we support our indigenous partners as they exercise their rights through effective participation in regional governance, and successful completion and implementation of their territorial management strategies that contribute to protecting and increasing the environmental, economic, and sociocultural values of their lands. In Madidi, the environment and the products and services it generates are the foundation of the economies, wellbeing, resilience, and cultural sense of self for indigenous and traditional people who call this area home. The forests, grasslands, rivers, and lakes are essential not only to the security and prosperity of local people but increasingly they are important to stabilizing the global climate and maintaining Earth's biological diversity.

Secure land tenure and sound management have reduced the annual deforestation rate on indigenous lands. Between 2005 and 2014, deforestation within the Tacana indigenous territory was 0.09%, compared to 0.03% in protected areas and 0.3% on other lands during the same period. The Tacana derive 52% of all of their income from the direct use of natural resources within their territorial lands and waters. By implementing locally developed strategies for the sustainable use and marketing of natural resources such as timber, fish, caiman (skins and meat), wild cacao, aromatic oils, and native bee honey, the Tacana were able to increase their per capita household income by over 7% per year between 2001-2015.

The lands and waters within the Tacana territory not only contribute to the community's material well-being, they carry irreplaceable spiritual significance as they enable people to live in ways that affirm their identities through their relationships with one another and with nature. For example, hunting is an activity that the Tacana consider important to who they are as a people and something that they wish to pass along to their children. By implementing a wildlife management plan and incorporating hunting monitoring within the curriculum taught in their schools the Tacana people have been able to establish sustainable offtake levels that allow this traditional way of life to continue, protecting an important dimension of their identity for themselves and future generations.

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