Strengthening territorial governance and indigenous and tribal organizations is a pre-requisite for maintaining the territories’ well-being and ecosystems over the long-term. This means establishing more effective, inclusive, participatory, transparent, and culturally appropriate mechanisms for making decisions, managing resources, resolving conflicts, sharing benefits, applying norms, disseminating information, and interacting with external actors (F. Edouard, personal communication, April 26, 2020).
Traditional community governance in forest regions was based largely on kinship relations, communal assemblies, and traditional leaders (Padilla and Contreras Velozo, 2008). Community norms about the use of natural resources were mostly informal. Local leaders and groups did not handle much money and villagers participated in many community activities on a volunteer basis. Community efforts to influence policies were sporadic and community economic initiatives rudimentary (Roper, 2003).
The traditional governance approaches were not always inclusive, especially with regards to the equitable participation of women, but they resolved many local problems. But as time went by, the growing demands on the communities pushed the traditional approaches to their limits. Faced with an onslaught of government programs, foreign-funded projects, and NGOs, the communities felt the need to create more formal organizations with larger budgets. To hold a village assembly, all one needed was to convene it; but bringing together leaders from many dispersed communities requires another level of resources (Bebbington and Biekart, 2007). In response to increasing threats from external groups, the territories have had to adopt more sophisticated and expensive advocacy strategies, including activities at the international level (Wolff, 2007; Toohey, 2012).
This presents institutional challenges for the communities and their organizations. Historically, they could rely mostly on volunteer labor and poorly paid part-time staff. But now they also need people with greater management, technical, and administrative skills.
To obtain funding, influence policies, compete in markets, negotiate with companies, handle legal problems, and operate at larger geographic scales, indigenous and tribal peoples have had to adopt more formal organizational structures. They created territorial governments, community forest enterprises, cooperatives, federations, regional coordinating bodies, territorial funds, indigenous political parties, community radios, and their own NGOs. Some of these are second, third, and even fourth-tier organizations operating at multiple scales (e.g. local, provincial, national, regional, and global) (Rosales González and Llanes Ortiz, 2003; Padilla and Contreras Velozo, 2008; Larson and Soto, 2012; Dupuits, 2015; Becker and Stahler-Sholk, 2019).
Most of these organizations are still relatively new and fragile and must be accountable both to the agencies that fund and regulate them and the communities they serve. It is not easy to balance the demands and expectations of these two worlds. While the former thinks in terms of documents, logical frameworks, procedures, and financial calculations, the communities tend to value family relations, ethnic and local identities, oral communications, and traditional norms. The organizations need leaders, technical staff, and advisors prepared for and linked to the external world, but that sort of people often have educational levels and cultural behaviors that clash with those of the communities.
Traditional indigenous and tribal peoples’ governance involved individual communities. But many of the territories and organizations include multiple communities. That presents new challenges, which are only beginning to be addressed (Box 6).
Indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories are spaces for the production and reproduction of their systems of communal living, for exercising their freedom, and for manifesting their cultures, spiritual beliefs, and ancestral knowledge. They share their territorial spaces with other living beings, with whom they maintain a direct relationship, where each guarantees the sustainability of the other.
Rights over territories (and not just land), allows indigenous and tribal peoples to exercise authority and power, as does a public entity (such as a municipality or a district), within the limits of its jurisdiction and competencies. As such, it gives them the right to make decisions about and use their resources for the common good. That way they can participate as collective entities in the decisions that affect their territories. Within those territories they can follow their own norms, customs, and traditions, in coordination with other government authorities. They can regulate their own forms of social organization and political representation and orient and administer their economies and make use of their natural resources.
Together they can freely work towards their own spiritual, economic, environmental, social, and cultural sustainability. The territory provides a basis to exercise their collective rights, a vital space for them to development, with autonomy and respect for their authorities. It allows for production that is careful to maintain an ecological equilibrium and avoid environmental degradation, as part of a system of sustainable growth.
Various Latin American Constitutions and national laws recognize and guarantee the existence of indigenous and tribal communities or their equivalent as the basic units of rural social organization. Some give these communities, or groups of communities, legal status and attributions and/or recognize them as government entities. These laws refer to indigenous peoples’ right to use their own traditional authorities and internal mechanisms to resolve conflicts within their territories. They also recognize their right to make decisions, judge, and enforce agreements using their own traditions (as long as those traditions do not violate the inherent rights of all human beings). As such, they recognize indigenous peoples’ jurisdiction over their own internal affairs.
Indigenous legal systems are diverse, and the functions and attributions of indigenous jurisdictions vary depending on the cultures and traditions of the specific indigenous or tribal people involved. Although the indigenous organizations have common objectives, there are subtle differences in their positions on these issues.
For example, the Indigenous Coordinating Body of the Amazon Basin (COICA) argues that juridical pluralism is an undeniable and observable reality that dates to prior to the creation of the nation states and its autonomous independence simply needs to be respected. In contrast, the Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) believes it is possible to create new Pluri-national States where indigenous peoples’ could be recognized as co-equal components of the nation state itself (FILAC, 2012).
Independently of the specificities of each case, from an indigenous perspective, the formal recognition of the peoples and communities and their own autonomous organizational opens important legal and political opportunities to participate in public life, exercise authority, and obtain and defend their rights over key resources.
Even so, the reality is that governmental recognition and support for indigenous peoples own authorities and mechanisms for relative autonomy (e.g. comarcas, indigenous territories, autonomous regions, indigenous districts) is still somewhat exceptional; and that creates ongoing tensions with the state. Indigenous movements demand access to justice, but also their ability to resolve their conflicts through their own traditional authorities, according to their own customs (FILAC, 2012).
The reforms in this area are still incipient but could evolve towards the creation of an administrative regime to ensure these rights, already enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The new relationships with indigenous and tribal peoples must be oriented to overcome the failures to respect their individual and collective human rights, which often occur, exacerbated by discriminatory practices and deficient legal mechanisms.
These aspects are relevant for how to define or redefine policies and orient funding for forest preservation in indigenous and tribal territories. As this report has shown, those forests have suffered much less destruction than other forests in the region, however, that is rapidly changing and the threats to those forests and their inhabitants are increasing. To revert these new negative trends and implement the measures this report proposes, it will be important to take into account these issues related to indigenous and tribal peoples’ autonomy.
For effective territorial governance, this new generation of organizations must strengthen its technical and administrative capacity, without abandoning its origins and losing its social capital and cultural identity. The latter give these organizations local legitimacy and is essential for community organizations and enterprises to succeed (Escobar-Izquierdo, 2015; Hodgdon et al., 2015; Martínez-Bautista et al., 2015; MacQueen et al., 2020).
“Hybrid” arrangements, which combine traditional governance with more professional approaches, offer one partial solution. In these arrangements, community assemblies and traditional authorities still have the last word but delegate some decisions to professional managers or technical specialists. For example, some Guatemalan and Mexican forest communities have established separate forestry enterprises and hired managers to administer them to make them more efficient, but the managers are still fully accountable to the traditional authorities and community assemblies (Gazca-Zamora, 2014). Other traditional authorities have encouraged local professionals to establish NGOs to support them or have negotiated arrangements with outside NGOs, which agree to provide technical or administrative assistance under the leadership of the traditional authorities.
Many funders channel their support through intermediaries because they perceive grassroots organizations to be too weak to administer funds. That can create tensions and undermine the sense of local ownership and development of local capacity. Sometimes there are no feasible alternatives but using intermediaries should usually be a last resort. The starting point should be a good assessment of each group’s capacity, which can be used to decide how much intermediation is needed (Uquillas and van Nieuwkoop, 2003).
A scarcity of trained local people with skills and experience in project management, administration, community organization, advocacy, communications, law, mapping, environmental monitoring, agronomy, and silviculture is a key constraint. There are more educational centers and students than a few years ago, but public investment in education in indigenous and tribal regions is less than it should be, especially for higher education. The deficit is even greater with regards to education appropriate for the local conditions.
Short courses can be good for teaching specific skills such as the use of drones, GPS, social media, or accounting software, but cannot substitute for sustained investment in education that meets the needs of local groups. New intercultural institutes and universities have emerged to train young people in these regions and some well-consolidated indigenous peoples, such as the Guna in Panama, and certain forestry and agroforestry communities in Michoacán, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and Puebla, in Mexico, have provided scholarships for young people to get training and come back and work for their communities. The program to train “indigenous agroforestry agents” in Acre, Brazil, is another innovative initiative (DiGiano et al., 2018). However, many more such initiatives are needed.
Meaningful participation of women in decision-making and benefit-sharing is essential for good territorial governance. In the last few decades, many local, national, and regional organizations of rural indigenous and tribal women have emerged (Donato et al., 2007; Rousseau and Morales Hudon, 2018). They work on many topics relevant both for women specifically and for the whole communities. Women have also achieved much higher profiles in many organizations that include both men and women. Some organizations have created women’s commissions and approved quotas for women’s participation in leadership positions.
There are still strong obstacles to the full and equitable participation of indigenous and tribal women in the territories. Cultural norms and tenure policies favor men (Flores et al., 2016; RRI, 2017). Women have greater workloads and less access to education and the external world, and that can contribute to problems of self-esteem (Weiss and Alvarez 2017). Women also face a vicious circle, where lack of leadership experience makes it harder to attain leadership positions where they could acquire such experience (Zambrano and Uchuypoma, 2015). To overcome these problems, gender equality must be prioritized, and that commitment sustained over time.
Any initiative that seeks to improve the forest conditions in the indigenous and tribal territories over the long term cannot ignore these aspects of territorial governance and organization and the need to invest in them. To resist the growing pressures on the territories’ forests it is essential to strengthen the peoples’ institutional and organizational mechanisms.
While there are no recipes for that, there are relevant principles: