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Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas - ICCAs

A Bold New Frontier for Conservation

"ICCAs are natural and/or modified ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological services and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities..."

A Bold New Frontier for Conservation

Indigenous peoples and local communities, both sedentary and mobile, have for millennia played a critical role in conserving a variety of natural environments and species. They have done this for a variety of purposes, economic as well as cultural, spiritual and aesthetic. There are today many thousand Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas across the world, including forests, wetlands, and landscapes, village lakes, water catchments, rivers and coastal stretches and marine areas. The history of conservation and sustainable use in many of these areas is much older than for government-managed protected areas, yet they are often neglected or not recognised in official conservation systems. Many of them face enormous threats.

What are Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs)?

ICCAs are natural and/or modified ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological services and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, both sedentary and mobile, through customary laws or other effective means. ICCAs can include ecosystems with minimum to substantial human influence as well as cases of continuation, revival or modification of traditional practices or new initiatives taken up by communities in the face of new threats or opportunities. Several of them are inviolate zones ranging from very small to large stretches of land and waterscapes.

Three features car be taken as defining characteristics of ICCAs:

  1. A community is closely connected to a well defined ecosystem (or to a species and its habitat) culturally and/or because of survival and dependence for livelihood;
  2. The community management decisions and efforts lead to the conservation of the ecosystem's habitats, species, ecological services and associated cultural values [even when the conscious objective of such management may be different than conservation per se, and be, for instance, related to material livelihood, water security, safeguarding of cultural and spiritual places, etc.].
  3. The community is the major player in decision-making (governance) and implementation regarding the management of the site, implying that community institutions have the capacity to enforce regulations; in many situations there may be other stakeholders in collaboration or partnership, but primary decision-making rests with the concerned community.

The Significance of ICCAs

ICCAs are important complements to official protected areas (PAs) and can play essential roles in PA systems:

  • They help conserve critical ecosystems and threatened species, maintain essential ecosystem functions (e.g., water security), and provide corridors and linkages for animal and gene movement, including between two or more officially protected areas.
  • They are the basis of cultural and economic livelihoods for millions of people, securing resources (energy, food, water, fodder) and income.
  • They help synergise the links between agricultural biodiversity and wildlife, providing larger land/waterscape level integration.
  • They offer crucial lessons for participatory governance of official PAs, useful to resolve conflicts between PAs and local people.
  • They offer lessons in systems of conservation that integrate customary and statutory laws.
  • They are part of indigenous peoples and local community resistance to destructive ‘development’, e.g. rainforests threatened by mining, dams, and logging industries, ecologically sensitive high-altitude ecosystems threatened by tourism, over-exploitation of marine resources by industrial fishing, etc.
  •  They are based on rules and institutions “tailored to the context”, (bio-cultural diversity), skilled at adaptive management and capable of flexible, culture-related responses
  • They are built on sophisticated collective ecological knowledge and capacities, including sustainable use of wild resources and maintenance of agrobiodiversity, which have stood the test of time
  • They are typically designed to maintain crucial livelihood resources for times of stress and need, such as during severe climate events, war & natural disasters...
  •  They play a crucial role in securing the rights of IPs & local communities to their land & natural resources through local governance – de jure and/or de facto
  • They can help prevent excessive urban migration
  • They can be the foundation of cultural identity and pride for countless indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the world

The global coverage of ICCAs has been estimated as being comparable to the one of governments’ protected areas (12% of terrestrial surface).  Globally, 400-800 million hectares forest are owned/ administered by communities. In 18 developing countries with the largest forest cover, over 22% of forests are owned by or reserved for communities. In some of these countries (e.g. Mexico and Papua New Guinea) the community forests cover 80% of the total (Molnar et al., 2003). More land and resources are under community control in other ecosystems. By no means all areas under community control are effectively conserved (i.e. can be considered ICCAs), but a substantial portion is.

The Challenge

ICCAs face critical challenges to their continued existence and functioning:

  • Traditional institutions managing ICCAs have been undermined by colonial or centralised political systems, whereby governments have taken over most of the relevant functions and powers
  • Many ICCAs are under attack due to inappropriate development and educational models, religious intrusions, and externally driven change of local value systems
  • As ICCAs often contain valuable renewable and non-renewable resources (timber, fauna, minerals, etc.), they are often encroached or threatened by commercial users, land/resource traffickers, or even community members under the increasing influence of market forces
  • ICCAs remain unrecognised in most countries, and the lack of political and legal support often hampers community efforts at maintaining them through traditional means
  • Communities’ internal conflicts, inequities and weak institutions can pose difficulties for sustained local governance and management

These and other challenges can be effectively faced jointly by communities and formal conservation agencies, with help from NGOs and others. This is beginning to happen in countries where ICCAs are formally recognised.

(Adapted from