Land transitions towards securing customary land tenure systems of IPLCs


The territories of life of IPLCs, including their distinct cultural, spiritual and customary relationships with their lands and waters and their intrinsic and vital contributions to human wellbeing, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation, are secured. The collective lands, territories and resources of IPLCs are legally recognised and protected in keeping with international law; land-use classifications and land registration to uphold customary tenure are reformed; and the global coverage of areas conserved, sustainably used and restored are progressively and significantly increased.



Box 54

The Kimberley Declaration: Indigenous peoples and sustainable development

“As peoples, we reaffirm our rights to self-determination and to own, control and manage our ancestral lands and territories, waters and other resources. Our lands and territories are at the core of our existence – we are the land and the land is us; we have a distinct spiritual and material relationship with our lands and territories and they are inextricably linked to our survival and to the preservation and further development of our knowledge systems and cultures, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem management.”1

Community mapping in progress in Indonesia. Credit: Agnus McInnes.
Community mapping in progress in Indonesia. Credit: Agnus McInnes.

The existential importance of collective land and territories for the continued survival of indigenous peoples and of biodiversity has been repeatedly stated and clearly captured in The Kimberley Declaration on sustainable development, agreed by indigenous peoples from all regions of the world in 2002 (see Box 54).

Today, the relevance of this same message for the whole of humanity is better understood, as we collectively strive to repair the damage done to all of life’s diversity, from genes to species and ecosystems, and associated peoples and cultures. It is well established that much of the world’s biological diversity is found on IPLC lands and territories.2 Yet, only about 10 per cent of these lands are legally recognised with customary tenure security for the IPLCs who live there and who have nurtured these distinct territories of life. This leaves up to 40 per cent of the world’s lands vulnerable to land-grabbing and unsustainable use by more powerful actors, which generates conflict, violates human rights and increases threats of rollbacks, violence, and unjust prosecution against IPLCs who defend their lands.

Converging social justice, biodiversity conservation and climate change actions in the coming decades hinges on securing the collective rights of IPLCs to their lands, territories and resources, and on their reciprocal relationships of care, health and wellbeing with the natural world.

Nature is generally declining less rapidly on indigenous peoples’ lands than on other lands. In many parts of the world, the lands of indigenous peoples are becoming islands of biological and cultural diversity, surrounded by areas in which nature has further deteriorated; and in many instances biodiversity is being increased and enhanced through indigenous values and practices3. Indigenous peoples are already ‘bending the curve’ of biodiversity loss on lands they own, manage or control.

Failing to recognise and secure the high conservation values of IPLC’s lands, territories, waters and resources is among the biggest missed opportunities of the past decade. A transition on this aspect of land governance would bring potentially huge benefits for biodiversity.

Benefits of the transition

IPLCs are already delivering multiple material, social, cultural and spiritual benefits to their communities and the whole of society. For example:

  • IPLCs own or manage at least 50 per cent of the world’s land which harbours much of the worlds’ biodiversity, including about 40 per cent of protected areas. A further 40 per cent of all remaining terrestrial areas with low human intervention overlaps with indigenous peoples’ lands.
  • These lands also hold 36 per cent or more of remaining intact forest landscapes, and have lower deforestation rates and higher species richness than other areas.
  • At least 22 per cent of all the carbon in tropical and subtropical forests is stored in IPLC lands.

Securing IPLC customary tenure systems and their distinct and special relationships with their lands will:

  • Significantly increase the current area under conservation, sustainable use and restoration, thereby multiplying already existing benefits;
  • Promote just and inclusive conservation;
  • Contribute to achievement of the SDGs and the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • Enable IPLCs to defend their territories from external unsustainable activities, and prevent conflicts and violent attacks on environmental and human-rights defenders.

Securing customary land tenure systems is one of the most concrete and promising transitions that can be acted upon with immediate effect and that can generate multiple benefits.

Progress towards the transition and guiding examples

International law on the rights of indigenous peoples (including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labour Organization Convention No. 169), the Outcomes of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and international and national jurisprudence on indigenous peoples all confirm the rights to lands, territories and resources based on customary tenure. However, these rights are still poorly respected and implemented across most of the world.

Both the UN FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security4 and the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication5 have been adopted with broad support. If fully implemented, they can facilitate progress at all levels to secure IPLC customary land tenure, as well as gender equality.

The Africa Union Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges In Africa resolves to ensure that land laws provide for equitable access to land and related resources among all land users, including the youth and other landless and vulnerable groups such as displaced persons, and strengthen security of land tenure for women, which requires special attention.6

Whereas in 1979 only one or two parliaments recognised communities as landowners in their own right, in 2019 land laws in 73 of 100 countries recently analysed provide for community property alongside public and private property.7 Good progress is also being registered in relation to recognition of community-based forest tenure. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, “Since 2002, the total area designated for and owned by IPLCs across 58 countries has increased by at least 40% or 152 mha. Whereas only 40 countries had legal frameworks establishing communities as forest owners or designated rightsholders in 2002, at least 54 countries established such legal instruments by 2017, with new pathways for community forest ownership established in Indonesia, Kenya, Mali, and Zambia since 2013”.8

The Land Rights Now Campaign9 and the Land Tenure Facility10 are international partnerships with IPLCs, focused on scaling up recognition of collective land rights.

At the national and local level, some of the recent examples that also bear hope for the future include:

  • In Suriname, 1 October 2019 saw a historic moment as two draft laws were submitted to the Minister of Regional Development: a proposal for a Collective Rights Act for Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Suriname, including land rights, and a proposal for an amendment of the constitution. These legal proposals were the result of years of work, including the collaboration and negotiation between the Minister of Regional Development, tasked with implementing the “roadmap for the realisation of the legal recognition of the land rights of indigenous and tribal peoples (ITPs) in Suriname”, and the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders, to implement the ruling of the 2016 Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favour of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples and, more widely, of indigenous and tribal peoples in the country.11
  • In Bolivia, the Tacana people successfully protect both their rights and biodiversity through self-determination and partnership with conservation agencies in the territories overlapping with Madidi National Park. Strengthening governance has been key to exercising their rights, as law alone is not sufficient, and laws can change. Over decades, under changing laws and regulations, and facing diverse major challenges from highways, resource extraction and the opening up of parks to oil and gas firms, the Tacana people, including in alliances with settlers and conservation scientists, have focused on developing a strong system of governance across the landscape, empowering people to make their own decisions, and have strengthened their fight to protect their biodiverse landscape.12

In Panama in 2019, the Ministry of the Environment signed a legal resolution recognising the rights of the Guna and Embera-Waunan peoples in protected areas. Another law, which recognises the rights of the Naso Tjër Di people, is currently in the Supreme Court of Panama. It recognises and respects the rights of the Naso Tjër Di people, who have long cared for the country’s forests and a UNESCO World Heritage site which was under threat from destructive dam projects. This is a significant step forward for human rights and the environment in Panama.

People gathering on the shore of Gichigami, Lake Superior, to protest the proposed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. Credit: Fibonacci Blue.
People gathering on the shore of Gichigami, Lake Superior, to protest the proposed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. Credit: Fibonacci Blue.

Key components of the transition

  • Upholding human rights standards. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is sufficiently precise to give rise to identifiable and practicable rights and has been accepted as a threshold reflecting the minimum standard of international law to be applied towards securing the land rights of indigenous peoples, including respecting free, prior and informed consent for programmes and projects affecting them. Adopted more recently is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.
  • Adopting and scaling up effective constitutional, legal, policy and institutional frameworks, mechanisms and concrete measures to appropriately and legally recognise and adjudicate the rights of IPLCs to territories, lands and resources and to respect their customary tenure systems, including the rights of women.
  • Reforming land governance, and strengthening regulations and the monitoring of business enterprises for compliance with human rights and environmental standards.
  • Strengthening IPLC governance institutions over lands, territories and resources including using community participatory mapping; and demarcating and monitoring the status and trends of biodiversity, climate impacts, external threats, human rights and other community priorities.
  • Transforming conservation policy and practice from exclusionary models towards rights-based and collaborative approaches that support and promote community-led conservation and customary sustainable use, and that celebrate the mutual relations between nature and culture.
  • Investing in and supporting partnerships to secure collective land rights, including access to justice and improved accountability, remediation and restitution measures to address violations of IPLC land rights, and the protection of environmental human-rights defenders.



  1. First Peoples Worldwide (2002) The Kimberley Declaration. International Indigenous Peoples Summit on Sustainable Development, Khoi-San Territory, Kimberley, South Africa, 20-23 August 2002. Available at:
  2. IPBES (2019) Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo  (editors). Bonn, Germany: IPBES.
  3. IPBES (2019) Summary for policymakers of the global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). Bonn, Germany: IPBES. Available at:
  4. Committee on World Food Security and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2012) Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at:
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015) Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at:
  6. African Union (2017) AU Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges: A Review Of Progress Made. A Report to the Conference of the Specialized Technical Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Environment. African Union. Available at:
  7. Wily, L.A. (2019) Are community land rights becoming mainstream? Land Rights Now. Available at:
  8. Rights and Resources Initiative (2018). At a crossroads: key trends and opportunities in community-based forest tenure reform from 2002-2017. Washington, D.C.: Rights and Resources Initiative. Available at:
  9. Land Rights Now. Available at:
  10. The Land Tenure Facility. Available at:
  11. de Jong, C. (2019) Suriname’s draft land rights act is testimony to the value of collective and sustained local action. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme. Available at:
  12. Equator Initiative (2018) Consejo Indígena Del Pueblo Tacana (CIPTA): Plurinational State of Bolivia. Equator Initiative Case Studies. New York: Equator Initiative. Available at: