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Redefining territories of life in achieving sustainability


The inter-connectivity between Nature and human life defines the intricate relationship grassroots communities share with their natural surroundings. And, therefore, the thrust is on long term conservation of these territories of life to achieve sustainability.

By Salam Rajesh

The definition of “territories of life” assumes renewed significance and vigour in the context of the current pandemic, even as world bodies re-emphasize on the urgency to restore Nature in the best way possible with the active participation of grassroots communities. Anthropogenic influences on forests, peatlands, wetlands and other natural landscapes are primarily being blamed for factors responsible for inducing negative impacts upon planet Earth, such as the perceived rise in temperature, glacial melts, sea level rise, erratic weather conditions leading to unprecedented floods, droughts, cyclonic storms, and many more natural and unnatural disasters.

The ‘territories of life’ basically refer to the landscape or site specific locations where Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) thrive through ages, generation after generation. These are primarily the traditional lands where IPLCs connect with their existence and whose resources support grassroots communities with food, fodder and shelter. In other words, these spaces support life for the IPLCs. The inter-connectivity between Nature and human life defines the intricate relationship grassroots communities share with their natural surroundings. And, therefore, the thrust is on long term conservation of these territories of life to achieve sustainability.

The Indigenous Territories and Community Conserved Areas Consortium, ICCA in short, published its annual ‘Territories of Life: 2021 Report’ earlier this month. The ICCA Consortium is a global non-profit association dedicated to supporting IPLCs who are governing and conserving their collective lands, waters and territories. With individual practitioners and dedicated conservation groups in more than 80 countries as its members, ICCA is undertaking collective actions at local, national, regional and international levels across several thematic streams, including documenting, sustaining and defending territories of life.

The report looks at an initial seventeen caseload of successful community-led conservation sites from amongst several locations around the globe. Some of these are the Oran sacred grove conservation in western India; Tsum valley in the Western Himalaya, Nepal; Fengshui forests of Qunan in China; Salween Peace Park in Myanmar; Pangasananan territory of life in the Philippines; Qikiqtaaluk territory of life on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada; Christmas Village in Romania; sacred pond Yogbouo in Gampa, Guinea; Komon Juyub communal forest of Totonicapán in Guatemala; Chahdegal territory of life in Iran; and the Tana’ulen territory of life in North Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The report outlines some important key findings in ICCA’s decade long association with grassroots communities. Foremost is the fact that the world now recognizes grassroots communities’ role in the governance, conservation and sustainable use of much of the world’s biodiversity and nature. Grassroots communities actively protect and conserve a huge range of ‘globally relevant species, habitats and ecosystems, providing the basis for clean water and air, healthy food and livelihoods for people far beyond their boundaries’.

The other key finding is that grassroots communities’ ‘contributions to a healthy planet are rooted in their cultures and collective lands and territories – in essence, the deep relationships between their identities, governance systems and the other species and spiritual beings with whom they co-exist’. Grassroots communities, therefore, contribute significantly to the world’s cultural, linguistic, and the tangible and intangible heritages.

Defining a key finding, the report exerts that ‘global spatial analysis indicates that grassroots communities are the de facto custodians of many state and privately governed protected and conserved areas, and they are also conserving a significant proportion of lands and nature outside of such areas’.

The report is vocal in stating that grassroots communities are on the ‘frontlines of resisting the main industrial drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, and they often face retribution and violence for doing so’. The underlying significance is that despite the threats, grassroots communities continue to resist and respond to these threats in diverse ways – socially, politically through non-violent protests and assertion of their fundamental rights.

The report notes that in the face of the threats to their lives and to their territories, grassroots communities have ‘extraordinary resilience and determination to maintain their dignity and the integrity of their territories and areas’. The report further underlines that grassroots communities are ‘adapting to rapidly changing contexts and using diverse strategies to secure their rights and collective lands and territories of life. They have made key advances and continue to persist in pursuit of self-determination, self governance, peace and sustainability’.

Key to these findings is the analysis that ‘mainstream conservation sector has a historical and continuing legacy of contestation for Indigenous peoples and local communities, depending on the extent to which their rights, governance systems and ways of life are recognized and respected. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity for future directions of local-to-global conservation efforts’. This broadly underpins the amount of conflicts of interest between government agencies and grassroots communities in terms of state’s perception of conservation versus communities’ concerns.

In history, past and present, there have been numerous instances where government and grassroots communities have locked in intense forms of conflict over land rights and rights over resource uses, more particularly defined in locations where communities thrive alongside forests and water bodies. In the pursuit of conservation, government legislations often bar grassroots communities from accessing resources that they had access to since ages.

The conflicts of interest sometimes become intense as the question on livelihoods and sustenance for forest dwellers and forest and water body dependent communities are threatened by the act of the State. On the other hand, it is being increasingly accepted that grassroots communities have to be part of the solution in protecting and conserving vital nature reserves such as rainforests, mangroves, peatlands, wetlands and rivers.

The observation of the International Biological Day this year was particularly focused on the theme “We are part of the solution” in defining the significant role of grassroots communities in protecting and conserving nature reserves that houses diverse biodiversity. The UN’s subsidiary bodies like the IUCN and the Convention on Biological Diversity have accepted that where grassroots communities are active in conservation, there has been considerable success in conservation of species and ecosystem.

Concluding with a loud statement, the ICCA report spells out that “Recognizing and fulfilling the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities who are governing, managing and conserving their collective lands and territories is crucial for a healthy planet”. It further stresses that “Supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their rights, particularly to their collective lands and territories and self-determined governance systems and cultural practices, is arguably the biggest opportunity in the post-2020 framework and fundamental to the diversity and wellbeing of all life on Earth”.

It called upon state governments, conservation organizations, private actors and all citizens to take responsibility and be held accountable for their roles in the interlinked global crises the world is facing today, and to come together for the future of life on Earth.

(The writer is an honorary member of the ICCA Consortium. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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