Main Content

Strong Voices, Active Choices

Partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities to achieve social and environmental outcomes

The Brazilian Amazon; East Africa’s savannahs; Western Canada’s temperate rainforests; Northern Australia’s deserts: what do these habitats all have in common? They are massive carbon sinks, rich in wildlife—and much of their area is managed by indigenous peoples.

In fact, indigenous peoples and local communities own or manage 18 percent of the world’s land, and at least double that is claimed by these groups, though it is not yet legally recognized. These territories contain more than 24 percent of the world’s tropical forest carbon and up to 80 percent of worldwide biodiversity by some estimates, making indigenous peoples and local communities some of the most important partners in the global struggle to contain climate change and preserve biodiversity. Their leadership is key to conservation and sustainable development of their own lands, the territories surrounding them and ecosystems globally.

Unfortunately, these groups face a number of barriers to making their vision for conservation and healthy communities a reality. Issues surrounding land rights and tenure are probably the most well-known challenges faced by indigenous peoples and local communities, but there are a range of other challenges stemming from power imbalances at local, national and global scales. Even when these communities do have land rights, they often are unable to engage effectively in land-use decisions, as they are excluded or under-representation in decision-making processes, or face outside pressure from encroaching development that threaten their cultural and environmental priorities on that land.

Xikrin people in Pot-Kro Village near Rio Bacaja. The leaders and the elders from all the Xikrin Villages met with the Conservancy for 3 days in the Xikrin Village. Photo © Kevin Arnold
Xikrin people in Pot-Kro Village near Rio Bacaja. The leaders and the elders from all the Xikrin Villages met with the Conservancy for 3 days in the Xikrin Village. Photo © Kevin Arnold

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working to address these issues by creating and supporting opportunities for indigenous peoples and local communities to play a stronger role in natural resource decision-making and management. TNC’s approach to partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities on shared conservation and sustainable development goals is called the “Voice, Choice, and Action Framework” – or VCA framework for short.

Developed through an extensive literature review and evidence from current TNC projects, this framework describes TNC’s overarching theory of change for partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities and is meant for use in situations where human well-being outcomes and conservation outcomes are linked and interdependent, where the leadership of indigenous peoples and local communities is essential to achieving shared goals, where power imbalances may hinder achieving sustainable results for nature and people, and where projects may significantly impact local communities.

"These territories contain more than 24 percent of the world’s tropical forest carbon and up to 80 percent of worldwide biodiversity by some estimates, making indigenous peoples and local communities some of the most important partners in the global struggle to contain climate change and preserve biodiversity."

In Northern Australia, for example, traditional management of the savannah landscape has been in place for more than 40,000 years. But when colonization left clans dispossessed of their lands in the 19th and 20th centuries, interrupting natural patterns of indigenous fire management amongst other environmental management activities, the savannah landscape became subject to increased wildfires that damaged habitat and released high amounts of greenhouse gases. Recently, large areas of land have been returned to the management control of indigenous people and with the support of TNC’s Northern Australia program, indigenous partners are increasingly engaging in participatory planning for their territories – called Healthy Country Planning. Healthy Country Planning enables them to envision a future for their lands with economic opportunity that aligns with their cultural priorities. The deep linkage between the sustainable economic opportunities provided through reviving indigenous land management practices like fire burning (e.g. via participation in carbon markets) is clear evidence that these partnerships achieve positive outcomes for people and nature.

Former lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy Dr M. Sanjayan walks with a guide and ranger inside Northern Rangelands Trust Sarara conservancy in Northern Kenya. Photo © Ami Vitale
Former lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy Dr M. Sanjayan walks with a guide and ranger inside Northern Rangelands Trust Sarara conservancy in Northern Kenya. Photo © Ami Vitale

Where sustainable natural resource management and community well-being are interdependent, achieving lasting positive results for people and nature generally requires the presence of four interdependent and mutually reinforcing conditions:

  • Environmentally sustainable and culturally aligned economic development opportunities;
  • Secure rights to territories and resources;
  • Effective multi-stakeholder platforms for decision-making; and
  • Strong community leadership and capacity.

These are the four pillars of TNC’s overarching theory of change about partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities—an approach that aims to help transform the way land and waters decisions are made by strengthening the voice, choice and action of indigenous peoples and local communities to shape and manage natural territory in ways that improve lives and drive conservation.

A stronger voice for indigenous communities leads to the inclusion of traditional knowledge, identity, local priorities, and values in plans and solutions. The ability to exercise and influence choice builds leadership and engagement in decision-making; and greater action provides the opportunity for communities to initiate and participate in the implementation of programs and the management of resources that impact these communities’ well-being, both now and in the future.


Resources

For more information on our four-pillar theory of change for partnering with indigenous peoples and local communities, each case study below provides an example of one pillar in action:

Want to Save the Planet? Empower Women

The empowerment of women is critical to conservation and rural development.

View

Nature’s First Defenders

Are indigenous peoples the most important stewards of our natural resources on Earth?

View

A View from Brazil: Promoting Indigenous Leadership in Pará, Mato Grosso and Beyond

Strengthening indigenous peoples’ voice, choice and action leads to better, more sustainable outcomes for people and nature.

View

Working with Indigenous Australians for Conservation

Supporting Indigenous people to manage their land for conservation.

View


Vca framework infographic full

Infographic: Strong Voices, Active Choices

Indigenous peoples and local communities’ leadership is key to conservation and sustainable development of their own territories, the territories surrounding them, and ecosystems globally.

View