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Human Welfare
    Indigenous People
        CEO's Note

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Since our beginning in 1987, CI has been committed to working with indigenous and traditional peoples worldwide, not only to protect biodiversity, but to preserve indigenous cultures and the traditional knowledge they possess. Many of the biodiversity hotspots and high-biodiversity wilderness areas where we work include indigenous and traditional peoples, and their territories cover a large amount of biologically important land in many regions of the world.

>> Tibetan Buddhists Tap Into Cultural Reverence for Nature
>> Chachi Choose Conservation Over Timber Concessions in Ecuador
>> Kayapó Defend Amazon Homeland and Earth's Unspoiled Nature
>> Grassroots Conservation in Guyana Takes Hold
>> Conserving Biodiversity and Saving Lives

Four Key Issues
Indigenous communities, comprising some 370 million people in 70 countries, often depend on plants and animals from healthy ecosystems for their food, fuel, clothing, medicine, and shelter. Their economies, identities, spiritual and cultural values, and social and political institutions are also built upon robust biodiversity. These populations are diverse, with many groups having languages, cultures, and customs unique from their closest neighbors.

Colonial histories, modern policies, and discriminatory acts have exploited and marginalized indigenous communities, directly contributing to four principal problems:

  • land tenure disputes,
  • lack of capacity to manage critical natural resources,
  • persistent extreme poverty, and
  • repression of local voices and rights in key decisionmaking processes.

Indigenous peoples often lack official title to lands their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, and national land-tenure policies frequently deny claims based solely on ancestral ownership. Without secure title, it becomes difficult to challenge government policies, development projects, and industry initiatives that are carried out on indigenous lands without prior and informed consent of the communities.

Such projects frequently exhaust the natural resources on which indigenous peoples depend, undermine traditional practices, and fail to generate revenues for the communities. Traditional knowledge – part of the cultural legacy passed down through generations – has also been exploited by outsiders who have failed to appropriately respect or reimburse communities, resulting in financial and cultural losses.

CI's Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Initiative
In recent decades, the global community has paid increasing attention to these unique issues and concerns through the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, renewal of the International Decade of Indigenous People (2005-2015), and through improved legislation, recognition, and programs for their own peoples by sovereign governments.

In 2003, CI created the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Initiative to further support our commitments and to review and work with traditional groups at the local, regional, and global levels. In cooperation with our field programs, partners, and indigenous groups, the initiative is designed to ensure and support the development of the appropriate tools, knowledge, and resources to enable the groups to continue their efficient and effective stewardship of their land, and achieve sustainable community development.

One focus of our initiative is to ensure that our staff and partners are sensitive to the intricacies of working with indigenous peoples to better understand them, and build stronger relationships – a critical step toward building effective working partnerships.

The Connection to Poverty
This recognition and awareness follows decades of struggle by the world's indigenous peoples to create understanding of their plights and condition. Yet they remain among the poorest people on Earth. A study has demonstrated that in five Latin American countries, simply being indigenous directly increases the probability of being poor. Of the two billion people estimated to live within the biodiversity hotspots, about 25 percent – many of them indigenous and traditional – live on less than a dollar a day.

Such severe poverty forces communities to place extreme pressure on their natural resources to meet subsistence needs. These resources are often already diminished or damaged by encroaching land-use. Human population growth compounds the problem: hotspots tend to have higher population density and faster population growth rates than the rest of the world. The result of increasing poverty and growing population is mounting threats to the habitats, resources, and species that are essential to indigenous and traditional livelihoods, and are a high priority for protection.

These circumstances demand that conservation organizations partner with indigenous peoples to collaborate in countering the growing threats to their lands, resources, and livelihoods. Conservation International remains committed to indigenous and traditional peoples through our conservation efforts and continuous engagement, not only at the local project level but through unique partnerships, grant funding, capacity building, and the tracking and development of policies that affect both biodiversity and indigenous peoples.

Resources and Links

CI Wide
CABS: Human Dimensions of Biodiversity

On The Web
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


© Cristina G. Mittermeier
CI has worked for many years with Brazil's Kayapó indigenous community to protect its roughly 28-million-acre territory in the southeastern Amazon.

© CI, Haroldo Castro
CI partnered with Guyana's Wai Wai community and the national government to establish a community-owned conservation area encompassing traditional lands in the Konashen District.

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