ICCAs — territories of life

For the ICCA Consortium, the term ‘ICCAs—territories of life’ stands for “territories and areas governed, managed and conserved by custodian indigenous peoples and local communities”.[1]

This refers to an age-old, widespread, diverse and dynamic phenomenon that has many different manifestations and names around the world. Examples include: wilayah adat, kaw, himas, agdals, tagal, yerli qorukh, faritra ifampivelomana, oran, ili, asang, rumak, qoroq, qoroq-e bumi, sapari, baldíos, crofts, regole, aschii… In diverse political contexts, they may be referred to as ‘commons’ and ‘greens’, ancestral domains, ‘country’, community conserved areas, territorios autonomos comunitarios, comunales, territorios de vida, territorios del buen vivir, sacred natural sites, locally managed marine areas and fishing grounds, and many more.

For the custodians of such ‘territories of life’, the connection between their community and territory is much richer than any single word or phrase can express. It is a bond of livelihood, energy and health. It is a source of identity and culture, autonomy and freedom. It is a link among generations, preserving memories from the past and connecting to the desired future. It is the ground on which communities learn, identify values and develop relationships and self-rule. For many, it is also a connection between visible and invisible realities, material and spiritual wealth. With territory and nature go community life and dignity, and self-determination as peoples.

Territories of life are at the core of the purpose of the ICCA Consortium and its Members. Drawing a synthesis from their worldwide characteristics and existing analyses,[2] the Consortium has adopted a working definition:

An ICCA—territory of life exists wherever:

  • There is a close and deep connection between a territory or area and its custodian indigenous people or local community. This relationship is usually embedded in history, social and cultural identity, spirituality and/or people’s reliance on the territory for their material and non-material wellbeing.[3]
  • The custodian people or community makes and enforces[4] (alone or together with other actors) decisions and rules about the territory or area through a functioning #governance institution (which may or may not be recognised by outsiders or by statutory law of the relevant country).
  • The governance decisions and rules[5] (e.g., regarding access to, and use of, land, water, biodiversity and other gifts of nature)[6] and the management efforts of the concerned people or community overall positively contribute to the #conservation of nature (i.e., the preservation, sustainable use and restoration, as appropriate, of ecosystems, habitats, species, natural resources, landscapes and seascapes),[7] as well as to community livelihoods and wellbeing.

Territories of life across diverse contexts and regions demonstrate these three key characteristics to varying degrees. Their community custodians have called attention to their importance, wishing for them to be maintained and strengthened.

  • Defined ICCAs—territories of life fulfil these three characteristics, while
  • Disrupted ICCAs—territories of life are known to have fulfilled them in the past but are unable to do so today because of historical processes and disturbances that can still be reversed or counteracted.
  • Desired ICCAs—territories of life have the potential of developing the three characteristics, and their custodian communities are ready to work for this.

Do territories of life need ‘recognition’?

Separate from being ‘defined’, ‘disrupted’ or ‘desired’ is the element of recognition of the ICCAs—territories of life. This has to be, first and foremost, self-recognition by the custodian community itself—a matter of internal discussion and self-awareness and pride.[8] Then recognition can take place by peers, such as other indigenous peoples and local communities, who are often essential in providing support and advice. Further steps involve the recognition[9] by local authorities, the concerned municipality(ies), regional government(s), national government(s),[10] international organisations or other social actors, such as court(s).[11]

While it is rare that a thriving ICCA is not self-recognised, ICCAs can flourish while being fully recognised, partially recognised, or not recognised at all by peers, by various levels of government or by other external actors. A case for concern is when ICCAs— territories of life are badly or inappropriately recognised.

ICCAs registries are lists of mutually recognised territories of life, which are established through peer-support and review processes, which vary in diverse situations and cultures. The international ICCA Registry held by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) of the UN Environment agency was started by gathering a disparate set of individual cases.[12] It is being enriched, and will also be reviewed, with the help of peer-support and review processes in various countries. ICCAs—territories of life are also listed in less specific databases, such as the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA), also hosted by WCMC.

Beyond being appropriately or inappropriately recognised, ICCAs—territories of life can be appropriately or inappropriately supported. Again, inappropriate support is a cause for concern. The ICCA Consortium has devoted much attention to understanding ways by which ICCAs—territories of life can be #appropriately recognised and #supported — at the heart of its statutory mission and reason to be.

Examples of defined, disrupted and desired ICCAs—territories of life

A defined ICCA

A self-recognized ICCA— the Yapú ‘Umu-Kaya Yepa’ Resguardo (Vaupès region, Colombia).[13]
Colombia recognizes political and administrative autonomy of indigenous lands framed under the Resguardos title. Indigenous peoples are recognized as having collective land rights that are inalienable, non-seizable and held in perpetuity. All this guarantees long-term security of tenure.[14]Moreover, they receive funds to autonomously develop their own health and education systems. The 150000-hectare tropical forest of the Yapu territory of lifehas historically been governed and managed by local spiritual leaders (Kumuã), applying customary laws according to traditional values (though the establishment of the Resguardo dates back only to 1982).

The Yapu ICCA is not part of the national protected areas system and thus would not be protected should the Colombian government agree to mining, oil and gas concessions on its subsoil – which could be highly destructive. The custodian community, however, possesses collective land rights. Its customary institution can proclaim and enforce customary norms and its people have the freedom to live according to their traditional knowledge, values and rites. All this has so far allowed for the territory to remain well conserved while its biodiversity is sustainably used by its custodians.

Disrupted ICCAs

ICCAs destroyed by ‘development’— the territories of life of indigenous pastoralists in Southern Ethiopia.[15]

For centuries, the pastoral and agro-pastoral communities of Ethiopia’s drylands have lived in a harsh environment by making careful use of several complementary natural resources—water, pasture, forests, land, and wildlife. Access to such resources was based on individual and collective customary rights, variably exercised at different levels in society at different times, combined with mobile lifestyles, mechanisms of mutual assistance and solidarity within and across groups, and specific norms to protect trees and other key environmental features.

The territories of pastoral communities included areas of high biodiversity value that remained well conserved for centuries, such as the juniper forests and tulaa wells areas of the Oromo Borana, the wet plains of the Daasanach in the Omo Delta, the oxbow lake forests of the Kara and gallery forest of the Mursi, in the upper reaches of the Omo Valley.

When the territories of these communities were incorporated within the Ethiopian State, in the late 19th Century, their systems of communal rights and governance by customary institutions were not recognized. Furthermore, ‘development’ initiatives undermined the food systems and overall livelihoods of the communities, which resulted in food-scarcity.

Today, the communities still wish to reinstate their governance institutions and land-based practices.[16] But the construction of the Gibe 3 dam has blocked the regular flooding of the Omo River, drying up the territories of all traditional communities of the lower Omo Valley. As if this was not enough, other large portions of their territories, including parts that were under official conservation in national parks, have been confiscated or leased out for irrigated agriculture. As a result, the ancient territories of life of the lower Omo Valley can no longer sustain the traditional livelihoods of their custodian communities.

A disrupted ICCA seeking restoration

An ICCA that was and today cannot fully be— the Herero of the Ehi-rovipuka Conservancy, Namibia.[17]

In Northern Namibia some Herero communities have recently established the Ehi-rovipuka Conservancy as an area where, according to Namibia law, wildlife can be sustainably managed by a custodian community. The Conservancy borders with Etosha National Park, one of the most important protected areas of Namibia and the ancestral land of Herero communities, who were evicted from their homelands a century ago. The communities are currently asking to obtain certain access and use rights over the park lands and resources to re-create their original ICCA and restore the integrity of their sustainable land-based practices. While the road for recognition is long, the existence of the ICCAs—territories of life movement can support their claims with the Namibian government.

From a disrupted towards a restored ICCA

The ‘engineered’ restoration of a sacred ICCA— the Warriparinga Wetlands, Australia.

The Kaurna Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains have lived and celebrated their dreaming tradition in Warriparinga, a sacred natural site, for thousands of years. Today, the Warriparinga comprises 0.035 km2 of wetland running along the Sturt River (Warriparri) and is part of a regeneration project. The initiative was developed by a collaboration between the Kaurna and the City of Marion, applying novel engineering tools to reduce the pollution of the Patawalonga river system and restore native vegetation and wildlife. The project worked in tandem with the establishment of the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre, engaged in the conservation and transmission of Kaurna heritage and the Dreaming Story of the Land to new generations. The centre develops indigenous cultural tourism, education and training activities in the spirit of reconciliation between Aboriginal and European communities.

From a disrupted to a fully restored ICCA

Back to the future—Kawawana Community Conserved Area.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the territory of life of the eight Djola communities of the Mangagoulack Rural Municipality (Casamance region, Senegal) had been thoroughly disrupted. Overfishing, rising salinity and deforestation of mangroves had contributed to the degradation of the estuarine environment, closely accompanied by a downward spiral in the local economy. Both fish biodiversity and overall catches had plummeted. All this took place as fishers from outside the area had been coming for years with powerful motor engines and destructive gear, exhausting the local fisheries.

The local communities wanted to go back to their traditional territorial governance and management practices… but had no way to enforce any fishing rules. Based on their local knowledge and spiritual world view, they were convinced they could restore plentifulness to their ecosystem and their lives… but, would they be allowed? In fact, they manage to do just that, and their hopes proved fully justified.

In 2009, empowered by the knowledge that Senegal is Party to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and that the CBD encourages the recognition of ‘community conserved areas’, they managed to re-create their own governance structure and management plan for the territory they considered their “local heritage to be preserved by us all” (in Djola language kapoye wafwolale wata nanang, abbreviated as Kawawana). Though feats of patience and diplomacy, and also by stressing their adherence to Senegal’s Decentralisation Law– they then succeeded in getting Kawawana recognised by their Rural Municipality, the Regional Council and the Governor of Casamance.[18]

By 2010, they were again able to enforce their restored fishery rules. And today their riverine ecosystem is again full of fish, oysters and wildlife… and their livelihoods and food systems have been fully restored.

From a disrupted to a defined ICCA

An ICCA in Europe— the Froxán Common Woodland, Galicia, Spain.[19]

The Froxán community has a long history of life and cultural development in the Galician municipality of Lousame, Nordwest Spain. Although the community commons is reflected in manorial deeds dating 1409, 1527 and 1709, the land was usurped by the State in the 1930s. In 1977, the community was again recognized as legitimate holder of the Froxán Common Woodlands –100 hectares over which they were granted governance rights. The area had previously been subjected to mining and the introduction of exotic tree species by state forest services.

Once in control, the Froxán community began restoration activities (e.g., refilling mine pits and shafts to stop acid drainage, restoring native forest species and habitats, eradicating invasive species and recovering a peat-land that had been drained in the 1970s) while continuing its traditional use (such as gathering firewood, using spring water and collecting chestnuts and mushrooms) and cultural-spiritual practices (using aromatic herbs and medicinal plants in festivities such as Midsummer Solstice or Mayday).

Moving beyond traditional activities, the community also engaged in educational activities in nearby schools and with adults and non-governmental organizations, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers through the Brigadas deseucaliptizadoras. The community has also participatorily developed a biodiversity inventory and a management plan for wetland restoration that was selected as a national pilot case for climate change adaptation experiences. Today, the Froxán Common Woodland is listed in the ICCA Registry and the World Database of Protected Areas (see #Appropriate support).

A desired ICCA that emerged via a democratic process

An island important as bird habitat adopted by local communities in Lake Victoria (Uganda).[20]

Musambwa islands have long been an important bird habitat and nesting site in Lake Victoria. In recent years, the collection of bird eggs by visiting fishermen had become excessive and had engendered severe environmental consequences. The concerned communities responded to this by submitting resolutions to their sub-county Councils, which were then consolidated at District Council level in a few local rulings (by-laws) and an ordinance establishing Musambwa islands as a bird sanctuary. This is an example of conservation initiative from the grassroots up… which made excellent use of democratic processes and the possibility of decentralised decisions responding to the desires and needs of the local communities. The initiative was supported by a GEF SGP project, but the impulse was genuinely local.

Towards a ‘secured’ ICCA?

An ICCA in the Thar Indian desert– the Aain Mata Oran.[21]

The Thar Desert of India is one of the most densely populated deserts in the world. The village is Sodakore—comprising 236 households dedicated to animal husbandry and agriculture—is custodian of the Aain Mata Oran, dedicated to the Jagdamba / Kumtarai Jogmaya deity. The oran is viewed as both common property and a sacred area, used for grazing but where tree felling is forbidden. The vegetation in the oran, in fact, is in much better conditions than in its surroundings, which are unfortunately very degraded.

In India, a legislative provision for the formal recognition of community conserved areas exists with the Forest Rights Act. In 2018, the Supreme Court has declared all orans as ‘deemed forests’, hopefully providing protections from pressures of encroachment and mining. The implementation procedures of this ruling, which is not yet available, should secure all orans under the governance and stewardship of their custodian communities. This is very much the hope for the Ain Mata Oran.

Key references:

Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010 (reprinted 2012); Kothari et al., 2012; Borrini-Feyerabend and Campese, 2017; Farvar et al.

See also: ICCA Consortium web site; ICCAs and the ICCAs Consortium—Conserving the Territories of Life – short movie; Emblematic ICCAs descriptions from the ICCA Website; ICCA Registry.


As explained in the text, the term ICCAs is not an acronym but an abbreviation. Two decades ago, the term was actually ‘CCAs’, an acronym for ‘Community Conserved Areas’ (IUCN, 2004). It was later completed with an I to emphasize the role of indigenous custodians, who also highlighted they have ‘territories’ rather than mere ‘areas’. The more recent formulation ‘territories of life’ was later adopted by many custodians in the Consortium to express the rich and multi-dimensional character of the environments they care for. ICCAs, however, is retained as the formulation has entered international policy, providing visibility to the phenomenon.

[2] These include Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004a; 2010; IUCN, 2004; Kothari et al., 2012.

[3] The strong relationship may refer to the entire territory or only special places within it.

[4] Either directly or through entrusted parties (#Governance).

[5] Decisions and rules may or may not be written, and at times simply merge with what is culturally perceived as proper and acceptable behaviour.

[6] Throughout this lexicon, the term ‘gifts of nature’ is used in place of ‘natural resources’ to describe both living and non-living natural elements whose values are perceived beyond the purely economic.

[7] Importantly, conservation is achieved as a result of management practices… but may not reflect a stated objective of the custodians.

[8] Corntassel notes that focusing primarily on self-recognition allows communities to bypass the reproduction of colonial, racist and patriarchal practices embedded in a ‘politics of recognition’ by settler states (see Coulthard, 2014).

[9] Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010. See also #Appropriate recognition.

[10] Several territories of life are trans-boundary, and particularly so those of mobile indigenous peoples.

[11] An important judgement of the Supreme Court of India has recently concerned the recognition of orans in Rajasthan.

[12] #Conserved areas. See also UNEP-WCMC, 2016.

[13] Asatrizy and Riascos de la Peña, 2008.

[14] One of the principles identified by E. Ostrom as needed for well-functioning commons. See also Robinson et al., 2018; #Governance Institutions.

[15] Bassi 2002; Bassi and Tache, 2011.

[16] See the ‘Yaaballo Statement on the Borana Conserved Landscape’ and the attempt to establish the Mursi-Bodi Community Conservancy http://coolground.org/?page_id=163.

[17] Hoole and Berkes, 2009; Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010.

[18] The recognition refers to a Community Conserved Area (Aire du Patrimoine Communautaire) established within the fluvial public domain.

[19] Cidrás et al., 2018; Serrano et al., 2018.

[20] John Stephen Okuta, quoted in Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2010, page 55.

[21] Aman Singh, personal communication, 2019.