Supporting the people who live closest to nature

Posted on 09 August 2020

Indigenous peoples and local communities are guardians of globally important and richly diverse natural areas and cultures.
Their vital role in reversing nature loss, tackling the climate crisis and delivering sustainable development must be recognized, as governments consider major new environmental agreements in coming months. WWF will play our part by ensuring our conservation work respects people’s rights and promotes equity and justice.
Millions of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) around the world are deeply connected to their lands and waters – and for generations have sustainably managed these “territories of life” for their livelihoods and cultures. 

Today, they are guardians of as much as 40% of land that’s been left relatively unharmed so far by human activities – and this must be safeguarded if we are to tackle the crises of nature loss and climate change.
Unfortunately, unsustainable agriculture, logging, mining and infrastructure development are gnawing away at these vitally important natural places – and a frequent lack of legal recognition of their rights to these lands is making it difficult for many IPLCs to continue as guardians of nature and their own cultures. 
Taking action
Insecurity over land rights is just one of many challenges facing IPLCs. The web pages of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples explains how they “face discrimination because of their distinct cultures, identities and ways of life, and are disproportionately affected by poverty and marginalization”. 
Many IPLCs are taking action – building their own strong networks and demanding the recognition of their rights despite sometimes facing intimidation and even violence. They want their rightful say in the future of their ancestral territories. And they want their achievements, concerns and voices, together with their ancestral knowledge and ability to live in balance with nature, to be part of national and international discussions on conservation and development.
Learning from the past 
While intending to safeguard the well-being of nature, conservation activities have in the past, at times, not taken sufficiently into consideration negative effects on IPLC’s.
Today’s conservation movement is learning from the past, looking to better recognize the knowledge and achievements of IPLCs – and, where necessary, rebuild trust. 
Almost 25 years ago, WWF adopted a formal policy recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples. And this has since been backed by commitments on issues ranging from poverty and human rights to gender equity and child safety – together with new ways of working that guide us to better address any risks to people and environment when planning conservation projects.
Our work with IPLCs is longstanding and the resulting partnerships have delivered strong impacts – for example, supporting community efforts to make decisions on how their lands are used, as well as helping with other vitally important community issues ranging from challenging poverty and gender inequality to providing education and healthcare access. 
This involves working directly with communities and individual community members as well as all the others – from business to government – who need to help make systemic change happen. 
Looking to the future
Our global plans for putting nature on the path to recovery in the coming decade commit us to supporting IPLC efforts to have their land and water rights recognized.  And we will keep listening to and learning from all the different peoples and communities with whom we work – vital if we are to continue building ways of working that deliver both social justice and a healthy environment. 
Right now, we are considering how best to make our conservation work truly “inclusive”. This includes a strengthened human rights-based approach that protects the most vulnerable and involves everyone in making conservation decisions. It also means recognizing that there is not just one conservation way, striving for fairness when looking at the costs and benefits of conservation, and championing approaches that increase accountability, trust and solidarity. 
We will also be learning from the findings of an Independent Review we commissioned last year, following serious allegations of human rights abuses by government-employed ecorangers in various parks and protected areas supported by WWF. Respect for human and indigenous rights is essential – and we hope recommendations from the review’s Independent Panel of experts will help strengthen the integration of human rights in conservation projects by both WWF and other conservation NGOs, government agencies and donors.
With  these efforts, along with those of many others, WWF seeks to contribute to IPLCs achieving their rightful leading role in conservation. It’s vitally important for the future of people and nature that they are recognized as guardians of nature – and that they can share their wisdom and experience on how to tackle the deepening crises of nature loss and climate change. Humanity needs them if we are to get back in balance with nature. 
  • Although IPLCs own over 50% of the world’s land according to long-established customs, they have secured legal rights to only 10%.

  • Their lands account for at least 24% of the total carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests – over 250 times more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global air travel in 2015.

  • WWF is a member of the Defend the Defenders Coalition. Every day, indigenous land rights defenders are intimidated and criminalized by governments and corporations to stop them doing their important work in defence of the planet.


Some of our most recent partnerships

• Working in collaboration with WWF and partners, new community conserved areas in Kenya have seen positive impacts – ranging from enhanced livelihoods for the mostly pastoralist Maasai people to an increase in wildlife species and improved wildlife monitoring.


• In the Colombian Amazon, we partnered with the Azicatch indigenous organization, which manages two million hectares of rainforest – helping to develop educational materials for local children to acquire the ancestral wisdom and technical knowledge needed to make informed decisions about the future of this territory.


• In India’s Western Arunachal landscape, we successfully facilitated efforts by indigenous peoples to declare over 100,000 hectares of forests as community conserved areas. This will help to ensure the sustainable use and management of their forest areas and also promote income generation through community-based tourism. 

Members of the Kalpana Women's Group at Mohanpur, near Royal Bardia National Park
© Helena Telkänranta / WWF