Local communities

One of the first and foremost questions that arises when dealing with an ICCA—territory of life concerns the ‘who’. Who has singled it out and established it as a special place? Who has given it a name? Who has kept governing, managing and caring for it through time? At times the answer involves distant historical origins and sacred narratives of indigenous peoples… but when the answer is ‘the local community’, it may appear vague. Yet, ‘local community’ has crucial significance not only in anthropological, social and economic terms but also, and increasingly so, in legal terms.

The definitions of ‘local community’ available in the literature are numerous and diverse. In the ICCA Consortium, we use the working definitions and understand the differences between ‘local communities’ and ‘indigenous peoples’, which are described briefly below. In general, we consider local communities those communities that do not identify themselves as indigenous (at times even for strategic reasons, to avoid the marginalisation and stigma associated with indigenous peoples in some countries). For some commentators, however, there exist objective distinctions and a local community differs from an indigenous people as it “does not fit a strict test of indigeneity”.[1] In some countries, including countries signatories of UNDRIP, indigenous peoples are even generically referred to as ‘local communities’ to avoid having to respect procedures such those included in ILO 169.[2]

In 2011, the CBD Conference of the Parties convened an ad-hoc expert meeting to shed light on the use of the term ‘local communities’.[3] The CBD report stated that the term is ambiguous and differently interpreted by different state legislations (e.g., a group of people with collective legal personality or a group of people legally represented by a CSO or NGO). The report stressed self-identification as the most appropriate way to establish who may be indigenous and local and/or traditional communities and highlighted that, in international law, a definition is not a pre-requisite for protection. Wherever CBD uses the term ‘local communities’ it thus refers to communities with a long association with the lands and waters that they have traditionally lived on or used, whose collective rights should be recognised regardless of the existence of a universally accepted definition.

As a working definition used by the ICCA Consortium, a local community is: “a self-identified human group that acts collectively in ways that contribute to defining a territory and culture through time.”

A local community can be long-standing (‘traditional’) or relatively new, can include a single ethnic identity or multiple ones, and it usually ensures its own continuity by natural reproduction and care for kinship and its life environment. Communities can be permanently settled or mobile. While their attachment to specific localities may be as strong as that of settled communities, mobile communities[4] are usually not referred to as ‘local’, as their locality may change dramatically with the seasons.

The members of a local community have frequent opportunities of direct (possibly face-to-face) encounters and usually possess shared social and cultural elements, such as common history, traditions, language, values, life plans and/or sense of identity that bind them together and distinguish them from other sectors of society.[5] It is usually clear who is part of the community and contributes and/or responds to its governance system, and who is and does not. Most members of a community possess clear and strong (historical, cultural, spiritual, etc.) links with a specific territory or area, which typically derive from a history of settlement and use of natural resources (permanently, seasonally, in transhumance patterns or nomadically) combined with cultural and spiritual attachment and sense of responsibility.

A community’s economic organization also reflects its common interest in the local environment and resources, with locally adapted rules for common pool resource management,[6] and rules to allocate resources adapted to local conditions. A sense of cohesion, common identity and shared interests is essential for community members to be able to “act collectively to enhance mutual interest”.[7]

A functional community possesses local ‘administrative’ institution(s) and a ‘political’ leadership perceived as legitimate by its members. Through those, it can usually foster compliance with agreed rules and practice conflict-resolution. Many community members also recognize themselves as sharing a common political identity, which enables them to exercise, and/or claim for, collective rights and responsibilities with respect to their territory and neighbors (see #Collective Rights; #Collective Responsibilities). Leadership, legitimacy, and cohesion generally also require the demarcation of communities’ jurisdictional boundaries, either spatially or through inclusion/exclusion rules on access to resources.

Community institutions, rules and even their territories of reference are dynamic, adaptable and evolving—a fact that fosters their relevance and resilience through time.

Is it important to distinguish between indigenous peoples and local communities? A matter of recognised rights

While indigenous peoples and local communities share many features, their self-identification as one or the other brings along important legal consequences. Indigenous peoples are recognized as subjects in international law. Furthermore, in international and often also in national law, they are recognised as holders of collective rights. Such collective rights are centred upon their self-determining authority and grounded on their indigeneity. These rights, which are usually not accorded to local communities, are not conditional to ‘living sustainable lives’.[8]

Interestingly, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights recently treated two cases of local communities as holding the same rights as indigenous peoples. Specifically, in the 2005 Moiwana Village v. Suriname case, and in the 2007 Saramaka People v. Suriname case, the Court recognized two local communities, composed of descendants of former African slaves, as legitimate owners of their ancestral lands regardless of their lack of legal title. This followed the same rationale applied in the case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua (2001) which, instead, focused on indigenous peoples (#Rightsholders).

Despite these court rulings, international law still appears to distinguish between local communities and indigenous peoples in terms of recognised collective rights. On the other hand, echoing principle 22 of the Rio Declaration,[9] the concept of ‘local communities’ has been acknowledged in international law by article 8j of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and has surfaced in many other international agreements, conventions, resolutions, policy documents and guidelines[10] issued by UN bodies, UN treaties and other international organizations.[11] Noticeably, in all these international documents, local communities are considered because of their relationship with the environment, rather than simply because of their existence as communities.[12]

Is it straightforward to distinguish between indigenous peoples and local communities?

Distinguishing between indigenous peoples and local communities may be important, but at times difficult. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) offers an example of such difficulties and complications.[13] In the DRC, only Pygmies groups are legally recognized as indigenous peoples, while all others are regarded as local communities. The rationale stands on the fact that the Pygmies are considered as the first inhabitants of the DRC. Some non-Pygmies, however, claim to have occupied certain forests before the arrival of the Pygmies.

The national law, on the other hand, does not foresee different treatment for indigenous peoples and local communities, disregarding the mandate of international law to recognise the special rights of indigenous peoples. In addition, there are strong cultural bonds between Pygmies and other ethnicities living together in the same localities. And yet, in mixed communities, roles may be asymmetrical and exploitative, ranging from disrespect to virtual enslavement of Pygmies. There are also cases in which non-Pygmies claim to be Pygmies in order to share some of their traditional spiritual powers and roles, in particular those related to territories and natural resources.

The ICCA Consortium respects the self-definition as indigenous people or local community. Regardless of such definition, it strives towards securing their tenure of the territories of life for which they act as custodians.

Key references:

Ostrom, 1990; Becker and Ostrom, 1995; Barrow and Murphree, 2001; Borrini-Feyerabend, Kothari and Oviedo, 2004; Antkowiak, 2013; Jonas, Makagon and Shrumm, 2013; Bessa, 2015.

See also: La Via CampesinaRangeland Initiative of ILC; International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

Court cases:

  • Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, Inter-American Court on Human Rights, No.79, Ser. C (2001).
  • Moiwana Village v. Suriname, Inter-American Court on Human Rights, No 124, Ser. C (2005).
  • Saramaka People v. Suriname, Inter-American Court on Human Rights, No. 172, Ser. C (2007).


[1] Bessa, 2015, page 332. Noticeably, there is an important difference between self-definition and specific test requirement.

[2] Ghanimat Azhdari, personal communication, 2019.

[3] Convention on Biological Diversity, 2011a.

[4] Farvar, 2003.

[5] Some modern communities, on the other hand, pride themselves of including a rich variety of languages, cultures and backgrounds.

[6] Ostrom, 1990. #Governance Institutions.

[7] Barrow and Murphree, 2001.

[8] Jonas, Makagon and Shrumm, 2013.

[9] Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration states that: “Indigenous people and their communities, and other local communities, have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.”

[11] Example include: the Nagoya Protocol; the International Tropical Timber Agreement; the Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture; the Agreement for the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; the Convention to Combat Desertification; Resolutions of the Conference of the Parties and Guidelines of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; Resolutions, policy documents and guidelines of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF); and, recently, the UN Declaration on Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas.

[12] Jonas, Makagon and Shrumm, 2013, page 26.

[13] Bikaba, 2013.