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 Facility Smalls Grants Programme implemented by the United Nations Development 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.
In order to build a better picture of how such communities contribute to biodiversity, UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre has developed the ICCA Registry in partnership with an international consortium of NGOs and conservation groups. The registry comprises about 40 questions covering practical information such as the location, area and habitat type of the ICCA as well as details on how the community is governed, its social customs and conservation practices. Four countries have been targeted so far: Mexico, Kenya, Fiji and the Philippines. To date, a total of 13 communities have made submissions to the registry, ranging from fishing ports to mountain villages.
"A key part of this process has been to work slowly, gaining the support and trust of these communities", says project manager Colleen Corrigan of UNEP-WCMC. "While there is valid concern for using caution when mapping these areas, there is also genuine potential to use this initiative to help secure communities and habitats under threat. In five years, we hope to share a much better and deeper understanding of the global contributions of ICCAs to biodiversity conservation and human wellbeing."
But besides the obvious interest to conservationists, what are the benefits for the communities themselves? According to those who have already taken part, the registry can promote the conservation efforts of indigenous groups, helping to attract potential support from governments or other third parties. On a more basic level, the registry allows interaction between different indigenous groups worldwide, allowing communities to share experiences of issues of common concern.
The Maya community from San Crisanto in Mexico has already signed up to the registry. Situated in an area of outstanding biodiversity, San Crisanto boats over 1000 hectares of forest and mangroves and has been home to the Maya since 250 BC.
In San Crisanto, tradition dictates that the whole community is responsible for the governance of the area, with key decisions being taken by an assembly of thirty elders.
The community's conservation efforts have enjoyed real success in recent years. After suffering widespread devastation from hurricanes in 1996, the Maya began urgent repair work to improve the community's canals and regenerate local mangroves: the community's principal ecosystem. This brought a 25% increase in fish populations, an increased number of birds, and the general recovery of the ecosystem.
Today, the community in San Crisanto is continuing to pursue conservation and regeneration activities, with the Maya also benefitting from increased revenues from ecotourism. Education and training projects have also highlighted the importance of conservation within the community. According to community representatives, taking part in the ICCA Registry has been a key part of promoting their conservation work.
"The publication of information and data will allow more people to know about our project", says Jose Ines Loria from San Crisanto. "[The ICCA Registry] allows us to share our experience with other communities and to show those who are sceptical that community conservation and development is possible."
UNEP-WCMC now plans to expand the registry to encompass more indigenous communities across the world, thereby giving greater recognition to other, little-known success stories.
It is hoped that by mapping and revitalizing ancestral practices that often date back thousands of years, new solutions to modern problems such as habitat loss, climate change adaptation, and combating deforestation can be found.
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