Strong Voices, Active Choices

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

A reef fisherman from Walalung Village on the island of Kosrae, Micronesia.
KOSRAE, MICRONESIA Fishing on the reefs near Walalung Village © Nick Hall

The Brazilian Amazon; East Africa’s savannas; 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.

Twenty-five percent of the world’s land is managed by or designated for Indigenous peoples and local communities. With their territories harboring more than 17 percent of the world’s forest carbon, and much of global biodiversity, Indigenous peoples and local communities are among the Earth’s most important stewards. 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-represented in decision-making processes, or face outside pressure from encroaching development that threatens their cultural and environmental priorities on that land.

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.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are 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 savanna 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 among other environmental management activities, the savanna landscape became subject to increased wildfires that damaged habitat and released large 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.

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

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.

Case Studies

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:

  • Maasai women in Tanzania. Photo © Roshni Lodhia

    Want to Save the Planet? Empower Women

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

  • Koeye River, Great Bear Rainforest.

    Nature’s First Defenders

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

  • Salto Utiariti waterfall in Brazil

    Promoting Indigenous Leadership in Brazil

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

  • Fish River in Australia's Northern Territory

    Working with Indigenous Australians

    Supporting indigenous people to manage their land for conservation. View

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