If management is what is done, in a given environment, to reach desired results based on given means and resources, governance is about who decides about the management activities (and budget), how those decisions are taken, and whether they are ultimately implemented (which includes ensuring that appropriate and sufficient resources are available).

Governance has more roundly been defined as the process of “interactions among structures, processes and traditions that determine how power and responsibilities are exercised, how decisions are taken and how citizens or other stakeholders have their say”.[1] Practically, for a given territory or area, governance is about “holding authority and responsibility and being accountable for the key decisions according to legal, customary or otherwise legitimate means”.[2] It is about “taking decisions and ensuring the conditions for their effective implementation”, i.e., “the process of developing and exercising authority and responsibility over time […], including in relation to learning processes and evolving institutions in society”.[3]

Governance is possibly the most crucial element necessary to define ICCAs—territories of life. Rather than depending exclusively on property rights and titles (which are important but not essential), territories of life are rooted in the effective capacity and will of indigenous peoples and local communities to govern their territories. In ICCAs—territories of life we find indigenous peoples and local communities that, through their own #governance institutions, do (or strive to) make decisions, implement their own rules of access and use, achieve goals, learn, share, live and embody their own values and sense of identity in relation to nature, other humans and other spiritual (more-than-human) beings.

The CBD and IUCN distinguish four broad governance types for protected and conserved areas (see #Protected area; #Conserved area) according to which actors have main authority and a responsibility to make and enforce decisions. Those types are: (A) governance by government (as for a conventional national park, run by a government agency); (B) shared governance by various actors together (e.g., for a protected landscape, where decisions are taken by a board that includes national ministries, local municipalities, universities and conservation NGOs); (C) governance by private individuals or organizations (e.g. for a private protected area, where decisions are taken by the landowners); and (D) governance by indigenous peoples and/or local communities (e.g. for an ICCA—territory of life, where decisions are taken by the relevant people or community). The recognition of a specific type of collective governance by indigenous peoples and local communities in international conservation policy is extremely important, because it pays tribute to their crucial role in conserving nature and maintaining biodiversity on our planet – with benefits for the entire humankind.

The ‘appropriateness’ of a given governance type depends on the history of occupancy and rights of each territory or area, as well as in the nature of place-based relationships and practices of sustainable self-determination of their possible custodian communities. As noted in the voluntary guidelines adopted by CBD Parties in 2018, the type should be “tailored to the specific context, socially inclusive, respectful of rights, and effective in delivering conservation and livelihood outcomes”.[4]

In the last decades, the IUCN and the Parties to the CBD have increased their recognition of the “multi-faceted values of collective governance by indigenous peoples and local communities”[5] and identified ‘good governance’ principles and values to be respected and fostered. These include: “ appropriate procedures and mechanisms: for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities; […] for the effective participation of and/or coordination with other stakeholders; for [the recognition and accommodation of] customary tenure and governance systems […]; for transparency and accountability; for equitable sharing of benefits and costs, [and for] consistency with Articles 8(j) and 10(c) [of the CBD] and related provisions, principles and guidelines”.[6] In other words, decisions about protected and conserved areas should be taken and implemented “legitimately, competently, inclusively, fairly, with a sense of vision, accountably and while respecting rights”.[7]

According to the Centre for First Nations Governance,[8] there are five pillars for effective (and likely appropriate) governance: 1. People (joint strategic vision, sharing of meaningful information and participation in decision-making); 2. Land (territorial integrity, economic realization, respect for the spirit of the land); 3. Laws and jurisdiction (expansion of jurisdiction and rule of law); 4. Institutions (cultural alignment of institutions and effective inter-governmental relations, results-based organizations, transparency and fairness); and 5. Resources (human resource capacity, financial management capacity, performance evaluation, accountability and reporting, and diversity of revenue sources).

What is governance diversity?

We speak of governance diversity when a variety of actors are engaged in a conservation system. For instance, a national system of protected areas that includes areas governed by different types of actors (e.g., municipalities, private entities, indigenous peoples, associations, NGOs, diverse ministries and agencies) under different arrangements (e.g., shared governance, delegated management) is more diverse than a system that, let us say, includes only national parks under the same park agency.

A system of diverse territorial units can be identified also within a single protected area, such as when the area was established in overlap with pre-existing territories of life under their own governance authorities. Promoting and recognising and the collaboration of diverse governance actors in such overlaps can also be considered as ‘enhancing governance diversity’.[9]

Systems with high governance diversity require concerted and systematic efforts to coordinate among players. They are, however, more inclusive and generally perceived as more legitimate. As they may devise and implement a larger variety of solutions to problems, they are also likely to be more resilient and sustainable.

What is governance quality?

We speak of governance quality or ‘good governance’, when decisions are made while respecting a number of principles enshrined in the constitution, legislation, policies, cultural practices and customary laws of a given country, and/or internationally agreed as part of international decisions and conventions. The IUCN principles of good governance for protected areas comprise: legitimacy and voice; direction; performance; transparency; accountability; and fairness and respect of rights.[10] ‘Quality’ is a property that can refer to the governance of a system of territorial units, but most often refers to the governance of single territories or areas.

What is governance vitality?

Recently, discussion has gone beyond governance diversity and quality to explore the concept of governance vitality.[11] The concept was introduced as the ability of a governance setting “to learn, evolve and meet roles and responsibilities in ways that are timely, intelligent, appropriate and satisfactory for everyone concerned”.[12] The term ‘vitality’ comes from the Latin word vita, which means life. In some way, it links the agency of people with the agency of the rest of nature… the vitality of nature itself. A governance system that has vitality maintains functionality through time and changing circumstances. It has stamina (capacity to persist) and is resilient in facing problems and challenges, but is also resourceful and pro-active, showing the will and capacity to seize opportunities in any given context or set of circumstances. Vitality of governance is very apparent in such positive agency—action taken autonomously towards meaningful, purposeful goals. This, if necessary, reaches the capacity for transformative change.

A vital system of governance generates and circulates knowledge relevant to the decisions at stake. At least two types of knowledge appear fundamental to well-informed governance for conservation: local #traditional knowledge, at times passed-on among generations and knowledge produced by relevant purposeful research and technological innovation (not last, sophisticated means such as remote sensing and geo-spatial observation of change).[13] Drawing from knowledge of different type and origin, a vital governance system prevents problems and threats and derives benefits from opportunities. This implies that it is well-informed, discerning regarding the meaning and importance of diverse types of information— strategic and timely.

Further, a governance system that manifests strong vitality needs to be capable of remainingsteadfast in the face of appeals (e.g., short term gains, easy and selfish choices, corrupting factors, etc.) that would spell out disaster in the long run. In other words, the decisions it makes are meaningful and positive in the long term, as appropriate to the context. A possible interpretation of this sees vitality of governance as necessarily rooted in asystem of ethics, or at least a worldview capable of drawing from and offering inspiration and moral guidance to society about the decisions to be taken for the territory or area at stake. Some of us refer to this as being ‘life-affirming’, where life refers to nature and biodiversity but also to society in general, and to the persistence and wellbeing of custodian communities in particular.

Finally, another element of vitality of governance that may not be immediately apparent and rarely fully present, is the capacity for empathy and care. Agents of decisions that are knowledgeable and morally sound can be functioning well, but a deep appreciation of nature and people adds something intangible but extremely powerful to their will and capacity to collectively conserve nature. Beyond ‘governing a territory or area’, becoming its #custodians means cherishing and nurturing in that specific place a respectful and enduring relation between humans and non-humans— something more akin to an umbilical connection or a bond of love than a scientific or economic relationship. Drawing from its capacity to function, being resilient, pro-active, creative, well informed, discerning, meaningful, life-affirming and caring, a vital governance system is likely to make sound choices, that deliver positive outcomes for both nature and people.[14] Through that, it should normally gaina measure of social trust and respect, solidarity and collective support. Yet, what may be locally positive may not be appreciated at a different geographical scale, or vice-versa. This is why even governance that has gained a measure of institutional strength at a particular level needs to be secured at diverse levels.

Key references:

Graham, Amos and Plumtre et al., 2003; Dudley (ed.), 2008; Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013; National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2013; Almeida et al., 2015; Borrini-Feyerabend and Hill, 2015; Convention on Biological Diversity, 2018a; Convention on Biological Diversity 2018b.

For a synthesis of rapid consultation on governance of protected and conserved areas, see: Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2014.  See also: Governance for the Conservation of Nature – three short films; IUCN page on Governance, equity and rights

[1] Graham, Amos and Plumtre, 2003.

[2] Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013.

[3] Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2014.

[4] Convention on Biological Diversity, 2018b.

[5] Almeida, 2015.

[6] Convention on Biological Diversity, 2018b.

[7] Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013, quoted in Convention on Biological Diversity, 2018b.

[8] National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2013.

[9] Stan Stevens, personal communication, 2019.

[10] #Governance and references therein.

[11] The discussion on the concept was initiated around the 2014 Sydney World Parks Congress (see IUCN, 2014 and Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2014). A succinct volume dedicated to governance vitality for protected and conserved areas is currently in preparation.

[12] Borrini-Feyerabend, and Hill, 2015, page 192 and following.

[13] This is clearly fundamental with regard to climate change and other global change impacts, and for that governance vitality requires ongoing monitoring, adaptation, and information gathering for near and long-term planning and action, besides the wisdom and capacity to work with communities to support decisions and implement adaptation measures.

[14] At least in the long term, when immediate sacrifices are necessary to achieve long term goals.