How the World’s Rural Poor Are Leading Conservation

By Darryl Vhugen, Senior Attorney at Landesa; TreeHugger

It is as counterintuitive as it is true: Around the world, communities who have resided on the land the longest often have the most tenuous rights to that land.

From the San in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert to the Maya in Guatemala’s highlands, an estimated 220 million indigenous people have lived on the same land since time immemorial but with no formal, documented rights to that land.

As world leaders prepare for the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, there is good reason for delegates to focus on local control and protections of the forests by these groups as a key element of conservation efforts. Indigenous groups have often served as informal guardians of large tracts of forest land or biodiversity hotspots. They have sometimes single-handedly preserved or managed these precious resources.

And now, a new report from the Rights and Resources Initiative—a global coalition of organizations working for forest-rights reforms—concludes that forests protected by indigenous communities from Asia and Africa to Latin America have lower rates of deforestation and carbon emissions.

But whether it is forest or agricultural land, providing indigenous people with legal control over the land makes them better stewards, and makes conservation efforts more successful.

This is a critical time for indigenous people; under growing pressure from the global land rush, population growth and climate change, indigenous groups are in a heated battle to defend their ancestral land.

According to the RRI study, a growing number of governments around the world have begun to consider the fundamental role land rights play in both conservation and rural development, and are increasingly recognizing the land rights of indigenous peoples. Currently almost one third of all forests in developing countries are recognized as legally controlled by indigenous communities.

And my organization, Landesa, has seen in our own work an increasing number of governments that understand what providing indigenous communities with secure land tenure over their agricultural plots gives these groups, often among the poorest on the planet. With formal rights to their land, they often have a way to invest in their land, improve it, and use it sustainably: a path out of poverty.

What’s more, ensuring that indigenous communities have secure rights over their land has considerable impact on stability and the potential for conflict. India’s Minister for Rural Affairs Jairam Ramesh explained this in a recent speech,

“It is the continued insensitivity of government administration on land issues that has resulted in discontent in central and eastern India. Today you have a large population in these areas, predominantly in tribal areas who are alienated from the mainstream and civil administration. To my mind at the core of this lies the inability of governments to be sensitive to land related issues.”

Consider the 320,000 tribal families in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh alone who have reported to the government that all or part of their land has been stolen. Or the hundreds of thousands of tribal families in the state of Odisha, one of India’s poorest, half of whom do not have any formal rights to their land, despite the fact that their ancestors have often lived on and used that same swath of land for generations.

The fixes are simple and cost effective.

The state of Odisha, in partnership with Landesa, has trained hundreds of educated rural residents to fan out across “tribal areas” to identify landless families and usher them through the bureaucratic process of applying for title to the land they have relied on for generations. As of March 2012 the program has identified and filed applications for 28,000 landless households. Our government partners intend to dramatically expand this program to help families in 18,000 villages.

Likewise, the state of Andhra Pradesh, in partnership with Landesa, has developed a program in which educated village dwellers are trained as Paralegals who help resolve land disputes. Across the state, 400 paralegals have already helped about 300,000 families, many of them tribal, regain their land or defend their property against threats. An expansion of this program is also in the works. The annual cost of each paralegal is $2,000.

Both of these programs have multifaceted impact:

  • Economic Development: Families who have secured title to their land can invest in their land without fear, and help spark economic development.
  • Security: Families who have secure title don’t have to live in fear and are less likely to have their property threatened.
  • Sustainable Development and Conservation: Families who own their land will take better care of it.

It is both intuitive and true that the world’s indigenous communities can be provided with effective tools to protect their ancestral lands and the resources they contain, and establish a foundation for a more stable and prosperous future for themselves and their children.

The answer is right under our feet.

But much more needs to be done. Just as the leaders of the G8 nations announced a new initiative to direct $3 billion in private sector investments in agriculture in Africa, the governments represented at Rio+20 should commit to concrete measures to ensure that the land rights of indigenous peoples are respected and recognized.


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Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V5 years ago

life is about choices

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V5 years ago

Life is about choices.

Melissah Chadwick
Past Member 5 years ago


Jacqueline Baruch

Indigeous people on take from the land what they need. More people should live like this. We can't eat or drink money no matter how much one has. All countries should learn to be more conservative and less money hungry.

Michael C.
Michael C5 years ago

Tribes in the Amazon are currently faced with the issue of land and ownership. It was never an issue to the people, the land was there and they had always cared for, for it was the land that provided for them.

‘The Silent Holocaust’

In the Peten of Guatemala, the indigenous Maya refused to get out of the way of the military and the rich, As General Montt put it, “If you are with us,” Gen. Montt explained, “we’ll feed you; if not, we’ll kill you.”

Guatemalan Genocide against Mayan Peoples
Death Toll: 250,000
200,000 murdered, 50,000 “disapeared”

500,000 to 1.5 million Mayan civilians fled to other regions within the country or became refugees abroad

In the 1970s and 1980s rabid anti-communist proxy wars broke out in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With US backing, Guatemala ran a brutal counter-insurgency campaign which peaked in 1981-83 under President Efrain Rios Montt. Mayan villages were torched, tens of thousands of villagers tortured, raped and executed as suspected terrorists. More than 200,000 were murdered.

Christine C.
Chandra C5 years ago


Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda5 years ago

We've been so accustomed for so many hundreds of thousands of years that the aggressive winner takes all and the losers be damned, that I wonder how w can turn this attitude around. Of course the indigenous people know and care for their land. Has this ever stopped naked aggression?
Didn't Genghis Khan destroy the irrigation system of Afghanistan? Before that Afghanistan was a center of civilization and learning, with ample food and timber for the inhabitants. After that it degenerated into a survival economy with lots of splinter groups and warlords, all trying to wrench survival out of the hands of their neighbors for themselves. This affects the people of Afghanistan until now and probably is one of the causes of the international conflicts there to this day.
Unfortunately, most people only care for their own bottom line and not for the welfare of the indigenous people and ultimately, their own long range welfare.

Kelly R5 years ago

Thanx, for the information

Mary Donnelly
Mary D5 years ago

Great post.