United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Old practices, new solutions: indigenous groups sign up for conservation

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Although thousands of miles apart, the lush Kaya Kinondo forest on Kenya's eastern coast and the sprawling Cerro Chango reserve in the hills of southern Mexico have more in common than one might think. Both are exceptionally diverse habitats, teeming with plant and animal species, but, more unusually, the two areas are also administered by indigenous communities (the Digo-Mijikenda and Chinanteco peoples), whose traditional practices dictate how these rich habitats are managed. In some cases, local customs take precedence over the laws of national governments.

These two remote communities are far from isolated cases. Indeed, it is estimated that 11% of the world's forests are under community ownership.

A new project run by UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), with support from the Global Environment Fund's Smalls Grants Programme, is now bringing greater attention to the links between indigenous communities, conservation and biodiversity.

In these societies, local habitats, landscapes or species are often an integral part of cultural and religious identities. Kenya's Kaya Kinodo forest, for example, was traditionally considered as a sacred site, where prayers and burials took place, as well as a practical resource, providing employment, food and medicine.

Indigenous communities' efforts to conserve their home environments - coupled with efforts to combat threats such as climate change and deforestation - has piqued the interest of increasing numbers of environmentalists worldwide.

Yet detailed information is often lacking on the day-to-day conservation practices in many of these areas. In India for example, around 200 community-controlled areas have been formally documented, but research by a local NGO suggests that as many as 10,000 may exist.

UNEP-WCMC's project set out to gather and compile information on communities living in so-called Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). These are defined as natural sites and habitats that are conserved voluntarily by indigenous peoples and local communities using traditional rules and practices. Some of these areas measure less than one hectare in size, while others stretch for miles, encompassing mountains, lakes and entire landscapes.

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