Working with Indigenous Peoples for a fairer, greener future
Stories from WWF’s People Protecting Landscapes and Seascapes Initiative
Globally, nature loss and climate breakdown are accelerating, affecting people and communities around the world, especially the most vulnerable.
Supporting people and communities managing their resources sustainably, particularly those that live in some of the most biodiverse places on Earth, is a critical part of creating a fairer, greener future.
Indigenous Peoples’ lands and waters, for example, cover around 25% of the world’s land surface and contain over 80% of its remaining biodiversity. Their continued stewardship is critical to meeting global goals on climate and nature.
That’s why WWF is working closely with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to support their efforts to lead and deliver conservation where they live, and help ensure they have the recognition, security and resources they need.
Country Food - Taloyoak, Canada
Taloyoak on the Boothia peninsula in northern Canada is home to 1,200 people. It’s the most northerly community on the North American mainland beyond which lies only islands, sea, and ice.
Jimmy Ullikatalik the Project Manager of Aviqtuuq project - SBHTA, stands in the cold in Taloyoak
“We’ve been here 10,000 years. We know the land. We know the animals. We want to continue to be out on the land. Here in Aviqituuq, we feel we are one ecosystem with the environment, the wildlife. And we want to keep it that way. Polar bear, wolf, musk ox, caribou, foxes, all kinds of birds. Those are the things we want to protect.”
- Jimmy Ullikatalik, Manager,
Taloyoak Umarulirijigut Association
The peninsula is a traditional hunting area for Inuit, and to ensure they have country food (traditional Inuit food) for years to come, the community is creating the Aviqtuuq Inuit Protected and Conserved Area to protect the land, water and wildlife they depend on.
“Country food is something that is given to us right from birth. A lot of the elders eat country food. We have very limited jobs so no one has the means to go on the land with All-Terrain Vehicles or snow mobiles. And because we cannot go hunting, we have to buy the food that is brought from down south to the stores. Everything is shipped and costs a lot of money. Those foods are not our natural diet and cause a lot of diabetes. We have more health issues every year.”
The community is also setting up a ‘cut-and-wrap’ facility run by locals to create a local economy based on country food that can supply the local community with healthy meat and fish at reasonable prices.
The sun sets on the homes of Taloyoak, Nunavut
“We need to save our culture to save the land. We want to reduce poverty, get healthier and have more income.”
More information about the Aviqtuuq Inuit Protected and Conserved Area is available here.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
When it comes to making decisions about natural resources, one big challenge facing Indigenous Peoples and local communities is that they formally govern only 10% of their lands and waters. This makes it much harder for them to manage their territories sustainably.
And while traditional management rooted in strong cultural ties to nature is often extremely effective, Indigenous Peoples and local communities frequently lack proper support and face significant socio-economic and political challenges, including threats from energy and infrastructure development, agricultural expansion, and industrial logging, mining and fishing.
Degraded area close to a baobab forest, Morondava, Madagascar
That’s why promoting and supporting Indigenous Peoples’ rights - including their right to make their own decisions about their lands, waters, territories, resources, traditional livelihoods and cultures - is a priority for WWF.
Only when governments and other duty-bearers meet their obligations, and recognize, respect and protect these rights, can Indigenous Peoples and local communities fully exercise them, including by managing natural resources sustainably and safeguarding nature.
Community management of rainforests - Northern Highlands, Madagascar
In Madagascar’s lush Northern Highlands, members of the rural Andrafainkona community have come together to tackle a major threat to the rainforest: uncontrolled logging.
Managing the forest through the Andrafainkona Miaro ny Tontolo Iainana (AMTI) community organization - or ‘Andrafainkona protecting the environment’ in English - they set quotas, issue logging permits, ensure local people have the right to use timber for house building, and support community rangers or ‘Polisinala’ who patrol the forest and supervise all logging.
The majority of people living in the Northern Highlands are farmers who grow coffee and vanilla and depend on the forest for fresh water and healthy crops.
Vanilla farmer, Ambodihasina, Madagascar
“If the forests disappear, vanilla production will disappear too. There’ll be no water anymore, and wild animals won’t survive. I encourage friends, family, everyone to join the community organization. It’s the solution to protect Andrafainkona’s nature. There are many women in our village, so if we all join, we’ll be stronger.”
- Rozafy Rasoanirina, Vanilla Producer, Andrafainkona
Community ranger Misna decided to become a ranger because she had always been curious about the forests around her village. “On my first patrol, I saw the sad reality of our forests. They are becoming more and more degraded. Now the situation has improved and there’s not as much damage as before.”
The work of AMTI and the Andrafainkona community to restore the forests of the Northern Highlands shows how effective community management can be in strengthening natural resource conservation, climate resilience and livelihoods.
That’s why since 2017 the ‘Revenus Pour la Nature’ partnership between WWF, Helvetas and OSDRM has been promoting sustainable coffee and vanilla farming across the region and offering training for local communities.
Indigenous Leadership and Governance
Alongside advocacy for recognition of rights, another critical part of supporting Indigenous Peoples and local communities is working with them to strengthen their traditional governance institutions, leadership and decision-making.
To address today’s complex social and environmental challenges effectively, conservation must not only be ambitious but also inclusive and just.
An inclusive approach recognizes the role of all people in caring for the environment, especially rights holders and resource-dependent communities who are most impacted by conservation choices.
In many places, this means enabling Indigenous Peoples and local communities to take the lead in caring for their ancestral lands, rivers and waters in their own ways.
Inclusive conservation is not just about supporting conservation by Indigenous Peoples and local communities but also recognizing they have the right to decide how to manage their territories - as well as when, how and if to involve others.
Together with our partners, WWF works to ensure inclusivity and justice are at the heart of conservation, and we promote a human-rights-based approach that amplifies the voices of those in vulnerable or marginal situations, including by integrating it in our own work.
What makes a healthy river - Caquetá, Colombia
Guadua frames for artisanal fishing in the Araracuara Canyon, Department of Caqueta in the Colombian Amazon, Colombia
For riverside communities in the Colombian Amazon, catfish are not just a vital source of food and income but also an important part of Indigenous culture.
Ivan Yépez Rodríguez is a fisherman and farmer from the Yukuna ethnic group who lives in the Caquetá river basin.
“Fishing can be seen in two ways. One is its importance in our culture. Through fishing, we offer many prayers for newborn babies and children, as well as for our well-being. The other is that it’s an important source of food.”
As top predators, catfish are vital in maintaining a healthy freshwater ecosystem in the Caquetá River but unfortunately two species, milk catfish and dorado, are on the verge of collapse.
“In my lifetime, there’s been a huge change. Commercial exploitation has led to scarcity and threatens the end of everything. People don’t think about looking after natural resources and are ignorant about their cultural importance. They prioritize catching as many fish as possible without thinking about tomorrow or our children’s future. There’s a need for more awareness.”
In El Chorro de Córdoba on the Caquetá River, Indigenous communities are using their knowledge and understanding of the river and its fish to design rules to sustainably manage fishing in their territories. And supported by Tropenbos and WWF, communities are working together across the region.
Forest Entrepreneurs Indigenous Peoples Project that aims to support indigenous communities in the development of sustainable ventures
“Working with children and young people to recover traditional knowledge about fishing that’s been lost, and show them that everything corresponds to the life cycle of fish has been one of the most positive impacts since we started working together.”
The struggle for survival - Saweto, Peru
Forest Entrepreneurs Indigenous Peoples Project that aims to support indigenous communities in the development of sustainable ventures
Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and home to more than 50 different Indigenous Peoples - but their lands are seriously threatened by illegal logging and mining, and many have fought to defend them at great cost.
In 2014, Asháninka leaders Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quintisima Meléndez, and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez in the Saweto community on the border of Peru and Brazil, tragically lost their lives after confronting illegal timber traders.
Named in their honour, the World Bank’s Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples in Peru, known simply as DGM Saweto, supports Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to secure legal recognition and land titles, and exercise Indigenous forest management and governance.
Led by two Amazon Indigenous organizations, AIDESEP (Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle) and CONAP (Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities of Peru), and supported by WWF, the project secured tenure of more than 256,000 hectares of forest belonging to 58 Indigenous communities between 2015 and 2021.
Despite this success, securing recognition of Indigenous communities and land titles in Peru remains an enormous challenge - but the DGM Saweto project shows the value of Indigenous leadership, knowledge, rights and culture in shaping a sustainable future, and offers a model for replication elsewhere.
Find out more about DGM Saweto here and in the clip below.
“More than 500 years of exploitation, abuse and slaughter, and we are still here. With our forest, with our lands. Withstanding. An Indigenous person, as far as he has his land and his forest, a little place to be with his yucca and his masato, he will still be Indigenous, he will still be the culture that survives,” says Lyndon Pishagua Chinchuya, President of the Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Central Selva (ARPI SC)
Environmental and Human Rights Defenders
Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and local communities often face violence, harassment, intimidation and criminalization for speaking out against land dispossession and other abuse.
Since 2012, 1,733 land and environmental defenders have been killed trying to protect their lands and resources - an average of one defender every two days.
Human rights violations, land invasions and lack of legal recognition of lands undermine not just Indigenous Peoples’ ability to continue safeguarding nature but also their rights as peoples and as communities.
Wherever we work, WWF promotes the responsibility of duty-bearers to secure civic space and protect the human rights of all environmental defenders.
Conservation benefits when people benefit from conservation. And one way they can benefit is through local enterprise that provides livelihoods and also supports conservation.
That’s why we also help build strong, equitable and sustainable community enterprises that strengthen alternative and indigenous economic models, and contribute to fair and robust local economies.
Communities often face significant obstacles, whether it’s the administrative challenge of establishing a business or a lack of capital to get things off the ground. To overcome these, we support local entrepreneurs with community organising, business planning, product design, securing investment, and market access.
Oils from the forest - Chiquitano Dry Forest, Bolivia
The Chiquitano Dry Forest in Bolivia is one of the largest dry tropical forests in South America. Covering more than 24 million hectares, it contains valuable timber species such as cedar and oak which make it vulnerable to commercial exploitation and deforestation.
Through Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino (TIOC) Monte Verde, an Indigenous organization in Monte Verde, 130 Indigenous communities are helping manage and protect this unique ecosystem by sustainably using timber and non-timber resources.
“According to what my grandparents said, hospitals were unknown before, or tablets or anything chemical. With what they fed themselves, they were cured. Oils have always been used,” says Ignacia Sepepí, Women Producers Association, Río Blanco Community.
Ignacia Supepí Cuasace, 33 year old, former President of the Association of Women Producers of Copaibo Oil Rio Blanco Community
Women in Monte Verde play a particularly important role in conserving the forest. Engaging in entrepreneurship, they support their families and communities by harvesting essential oils from the forest and producing medicines and products such as shampoo which they sell.
“We’re also part of economic growth, and contribute a percentage to the community. Here I have my special job. There are many natural medicines in the forest that we still don’t know about. And because we have our laboratory, we can offer people something natural.”
WWF offers training and technical support for women in Monte Verde and helps commercialise their products and bring them to market.
Celebrating indigenous culture
For generations, Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world have cared for much of the world’s most valuable forests, grasslands, savannahs, wetlands, rivers, and oceans.
And in many indigenous cultures there is no separation between people and nature, with each part of the ecosystem understood and respected as being part of the whole.
We have much to learn from these ‘biocultural systems’, and the unique knowledge, skills and values of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, as well as how they integrate conservation within their cultural and spiritual traditions.
Through our work, we support and celebrate the cultural and spiritual values embedded in the knowledge, practices, institutions, and identities of communities.
lungtalanana Healthy Country animal repatriation project - Tasmania, Australia
In Australia, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), WWF and the University of Tasmania are working together to restore culture and heal an ecosystem by bringing back lost species to lungtalanana, an island off Tasmania in the Bass Strait.
"This project is about repatriation of culturally significant species back into lands that have suffered the ravages of invasion,” explains Andry Sculthorpe, Land and Heritage Coordinator at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. “It stems from the Aboriginal community’s desire to care for land holistically with cultural values being centre. It’s about animals, plants, fire, community on Country, and creating cultural knowledge development pathways to understanding healthy Country."
'Country' is a term used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to refer to the lands, waters and skies to which they are connected through ancestral ties and origins; and 'on Country' means being or doing something in these ancestral territories.
“Traditions have been carried out on the islands from traditional times to today. So they’re also an important part of the resilience and survival of the Aboriginal community.”
Introduced and invasive species such as weeds and feral cats have overwhelmed and decimated much of lungtalanana’s native wildlife. And in 2014, a catastrophic bushfire ripped through lungtalanana and ravaged around 80% of the island.
Restoration could include bringing back a wombat subspecies unique to the Bass Strait islands. It was once present on the island but became locally extinct on both lungtalanana and nearby Cape Barren Island. Being larger and less vulnerable to introduced predators, wombats are ideal creatures to start the rewilding process on lungtalanana.
Wombatus ursinus Common wombat A nocturnal marsupial Australia
“They're quite large, like little bulldozers. They dig and scratch and burrow, which means that water and nutrients can get deep down into the soils.They’re also spreading seed and fungal spores, which are really important for the productivity of the soil”
- Darren Grover, Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes at WWF Australia
Recognising the importance of cultural knowledge and Indigenous land management, and encouraging community collaboration, are key. “We will only be able to rewild Australia by working with communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous; it can’t be done in isolation,” says Darren. “If you don't have the community involved, have community ownership of those projects, they won't work.”
For ranger, Kulai Sculthorpe, it’s about bringing back the traditional land management that kept Country healthy. “It means so much to be here and carry out the same practices that they were doing thousands of years ago. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Women Rangers Environmental Network (WREN)
For thousands of years, Indigenous women in Australia have been caring for nature and culturally-significant species on Country.
Their role in the culturally-specific, intergenerational transfer of knowledge is invaluable and irreplaceable. And their work on Country across Australia includes protecting traditional First Nations values and the future needs of culture, community and nature.
That’s why in 2017, WWF helped establish the Women Rangers Environmental Network (WREN), providing opportunities for women rangers across Australia to connect, share knowledge, and strengthen their ability to take action.Today, the network links 476 women across Australia who are working together to care for Country.
Get to know some of the many strong Indigenous women carrying on the work of their ancestors and making an impact with their unique skills and knowledge on Country.
Noongar Traditional Owners share endangered bettongs with the Narungga people
In June 2022, a group of 36 endangered bettongs (small marsupials known as woylies in the west of Australia and yalgiri in local Narungga language) were released on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula (Guuranda) as part of the groundbreaking Marna Banggara rewilding project. They began their epic journey in the forests of the Noongar Nation, more than 2,000 kilometres away in southwest Western Australia, and made their way to a new home on Narungga Country, in a cross-cultural exchange like no other.
“Each and every one will leave a footprint on our Country,” said Garry Goldsmith from the Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation.
“The reintroduction of these bettongs starts to bring Country back to where it should be. You can then see what it means to have healthy Country,” said Marna Banggara.
Guardians of the Forest, La Chorrera - Colombia
Chela Elena Umire lives with her family in La Chorrera in the heart of the Colombian Amazon. A Muinane person, she is passionate about protecting the forest for future generations, and is part of a group of local people who are mapping their traditional territory and cataloguing the wealth of resources the forest provides.
“The jungle is very important to us because we depend on it. The land gives food, the palms and all the animals, and we live from it. It’s very important that people who are in other countries and places learn how Indigenous Peoples have preserved the forest over thousands of years. If we don’t look after the forest and natural resources, this will be a desert and global warming will quickly end human life.”
To strengthen Indigenous governance and decision-making, WWF works with the Puerto Rastrojo Foundation to help communities in La Chorrera combine traditional knowledge with conservation science to map and value Indigenous lands and ecosystems, and design a management plan that safeguards the forest.
“For me it has been really important to have the WWF technical team. Even though we live in the jungle with so many riches, we don’t always value them.”
Chela Elena Umir, from the La Chorrera indigenous community and member of the Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA) Technical Team, makes notes, as the team conducts an ecosystem service assessment of the forest surrounding La Chorrera, Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, Department of Amazonas, Colombia
More than half of Colombia’s Amazonian forests are inhabited by Indigenous communities but it has been difficult for them to establish the enormous value of their forests. The work in La Chorrera shows the forests offer much more than just carbon storage, and demonstrates the value of integrating Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and leadership in conservation efforts across Amazonian countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
"My dream for the Amazon is that we all benefit from a healthy environment, that the river follows its natural course, that the forests are kept, and we preserve it in the same way that our grandparents did, using the knowledge they gave us.”
WWF’s People Protecting Landscapes and Seascapes Initiative
To help the world meet global climate and nature goals, Indigenous Peoples and local communities need to be able to conserve and sustainably manage their lands, waters, territories and resources.
Supporting them to do this presents a huge challenge - but also an opportunity. And it’s one that WWF’s People Protecting Landscape and Seascapes (PPLS) Initiative is taking on.
The initiative is working with local communities and Indigenous Peoples to help:
Secure and exercise their rights and responsibilities;
Strengthen their traditional governance institutions and decision-making mechanisms;
Develop sustainable community enterprises that contribute to fair and inclusive economies;
Support their cultural and spiritual values, knowledge, practices, institutions and identities.
Strengthening our existing work with Indigenous Peoples, local communities and partners, we are pursuing an inclusive approach to conservation and standing behind community leadership.
Combining work on the ground - including supporting Indigenous Peoples and local communities to map more of their lands and territories, and offering technical advice on local enterprise development - with advocacy for rights and equality, we hope to galvanize a new approach to conservation together with Indigenous Peoples and local communities that restores the vibrant cultural and natural diversity of our planet.
Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world can only help create a more sustainable future for all of us if they receive the recognition and support they deserve.