Many indigenous peoples and local communities around the world act as custodians, stewards and guardians of the land, water, sky, soil, mineral deposits, natural resources and biodiversity traditionally occupied or used by them. The idea of custodianship/stewardship/guardianship[1] builds on their relationships with their territories, which include cultural, spiritual, and social practices directed towards the protection of natural cycles, ecosystems, species and landscape features.

For the CBD Tkarihwaié:ri Code of Ethical Conduct to Ensure Respect for the Cultural and Intellectual Heritage of Indigenous and Local Communities custodianship[2] recognises “the holistic interconnectedness of humanity with ecosystems and obligations and responsibilities of indigenous and local communities, to preserve and maintain their traditional role as traditional guardians and custodians of these ecosystems through the maintenance of their cultures, spiritual beliefs and customary practices”.

The custodianship role of indigenous peoples and local communities is fundamentally different from the mechanism whereby authorities designate areas to be officially ‘protected’ constraining the use of natural resources by regulatory means alone.

Acting as custodian means “conserving nature willingly, while living with it and from it, and holding it in trust for future generations.[3] In many ways being custodian of a territory is synonymous with governing it – de facto if not also de jurefor the long term, with a sense of responsibility and care.

Indigenous or local community custodianship may include the use of state legislation and regulatory instruments, and state authorities may enter into shared governance custodianship arrangements with indigenous peoples and local communities. The custodian role generally adapts to the context, and it needs to be understood in context.

The custodianship role of indigenous peoples and local communities has been noted by states at the international level. The 1992 Rio Declaration acknowledged for the first time the communities’ special and ‘vital role in environmental management and development, thanks to their knowledge and traditional practices’. Since then, international law has increasingly recognized the need to support community custodianship. These recognitions build on the understanding that, in order to maintain such role, indigenous peoples and local communities need to exercise their capacities and rights related to knowledge, practices and natural resources.

Recognition of custodians of ICCAs— territories of life

For a territory to qualify as ICCA—territory of life it is necessary that an indigenous people or local community acts as custodian of its lands, waters, biodiversity and other gifts of nature. The custodianship role of indigenous peoples and local communities is essential both to protect and perpetuate the territories of life that are well defined and to seek to improve the condition of those that are disrupted or desired.

It might be the case that the people or community is no longer, or not yet, able to fulfil its desire to take care of the territory. The desire and commitment to act as custodians, however, might be impaired by conditions that are external to the community or people. Examples of those problematic conditions range from polluting factors or poachers originating from outside the territory to conflicts with state or private agents that impede the community governance institutions from implementing and applying rules (see #Governance institutions).

If this is the case, some legal recognition, or even just some social recognition by the State, neighbouring communities, civil society, and/or international organizations of the role and self-determining authority can offer valuable support (see #Appropriate recognition). In general, #secure collective tenure to land, water and natural resources is a powerful pathway to encourage, protect, recreate and enhance the collective capacity, will and self-assumed responsibility to act as custodian of an ICCA-territory of life.

Spirituality, mainstream faiths and conservation

More than 80% of world population identifies itself as having religious/spiritual beliefs[4] and many world faiths share the idea, expressed in distinctive but compatible ways, that human beings have custodianship duties and #collective responsibilities  towards the environment. This may be because nature is perceived as a divine gift, or because it is the very incarnation of the creator god/god(s) or spirits.

Local spiritual beliefs are often better described as indigenous than as mainstream, or as “folk variants of mainstream religions”.[5] Many of them have developed and transmitted traditional environmental knowledge, practices and customs— such as a profound respect for specific places and ‘sacred sites’, or the prohibition to damage or eat certain species— that promote sustainable lifestyles and nourish a sense of belonging to a territory.

Several mainstream faiths (such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism) call the faithful to fulfil their stewardship/custodianship duties and contribute to support them in caring for their environment— locally and globally. Mainstream faiths, however, have highly diverse ‘streams of thought’. The values of hierarchical elites may not be embodied by lower clergy and believers. And the custodianship/stewardship duties may not be easily translated into practice.[6]

Since the 1986 Assisi Meeting of Prayer for Peace where leaders of all major world religions expressed their views on the importance of protecting the environment, recognition of the role of faiths for environmental collective actions has been increasing. As an example, the UN Faith for Earth Initiative aims at inspiring faith-based conservation and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. The Alliance of Religions for Conservation also supports environmental initiatives by faith communities. Opportunities to support territories of life seem to exist at the interaction between faith initiatives and indigenous peoples struggles (see, for instance, the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the Laudato Sí Encyclica of 2014).

Key references:

Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010; Verschuuren et al. (eds.), 2010; Convention on Biological Diversity, 2011; Ruiz and Vernooy, 2012; Mcleod and Palmer, 2015; Frascaroli, 2016; Frascaroli and Fjeldsted, 2017.   

See also: Pope Francis, 2015; and a short film on Culture, Spirituality and Conservation by the SCB Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group and the IUCN CEESP Theme on Culture, Spirituality and Conservation at

[1] We acknowledge that different peoples and communities use different terms not only for their territories of life but also for their own roles related to those (e.g., ‘custodians’, ‘stewards’, ‘guardians’ and others). The ICCA Consortium has historically used the term ‘custodians’ and it mostly employs it here for simplicity. In various contexts, other terms are more appropriate and should be used.

[2] Convention on Biological Diversity 2011b.

[3] Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010.

[4] Verschuuren et al., 2010, page 2.

[5] The distinction between mainstream and indigenous faiths is useful but also problematic, as many mainstream faiths are indigenous to certain places and cultures, such as Zoroastrianism, Daoism, and Jainism (Verschuuren et al., 2010, page 3).

[6] Frascaroli and Fjeldsted, 2017.