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Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) are two groups with important similarities and differences. They are both essential allies in uplifting issues associated with environmental health and social justice. They may both include people who are regularly underrepresented and disproportionately harmed by the actions of corporations and other parties. Meaningful discussion regarding IPLC must consider the lands and natural resources on which they rely. In many cases, the health of the land and survival of the people and their way of life are symbiotic.

The term “indigenous peoples and local communities” continues to be used throughout the conservation community, signaling a positive trend for the recognition of these distinct groups. Yet the term is often not defined, leaving these groups in a perilous position when it comes to asserting their rights or implementing policy. Herein, we define the term within the context of international law and specifically its use in application to the Convention on Biological Diversity.


There appears to be consensus around the term “indigenous peoples,” which, as defined by United Nations Special Rapporteur Martinez-Cobo includes: “those [peoples] which having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems” (1984).


Yet, when coupled with the term “local communities” as the term indigenous peoples now often is, the term takes on additional connotations. It is important when engendering a robust discussion on governance to carefully tease out the distinctions, where they exist, between these two groups. Per the Guidance for Discussions Concerning Local Communities within the Context of the Convention on Biological Diversity:


… “Local community” remains, to some extent, an ambiguous term. It can refer to a group of people which have a legal personality and collective legal rights and this is considered a community in the strict sense. Alternatively, a “local community” can refer to a group of individuals with shared interests (but not collective rights) represented by a non-governmental community-based organization (NGO) (2011).


Therefore, while indigenous peoples are often local communities and local communities can often contain indigenous peoples, the two groups are not always identical. They are both important and potential allies, but it is important to recognize that the rights of the two groups can often be distinct.


LandMark, a Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands, provides thorough and helpful definitions distinguishing the two groups. They refer to “local communities” as simply “communities”.



Communities are groupings of individuals and families that share common interests in a definable local land area within which they normally reside. Communities vary in size, identity, internal equity, and land use systems, and may distribute rights to land in different ways. However, communities are similar in these ways: 1) They have strong connections to particular areas or territories and consider these domains to be customarily under their ownership and/or control. 2) They themselves determine and apply the rules and mechanisms through which rights to land are distributed and governed. The rules themselves alter over time, as do the mechanisms through which these are upheld (e.g. from autocratic chiefs to committees). Many rules are customary, based on tried and tested customs followed by forebears. Others are new, developed by the community to address new challenges (e.g., land shortage) or to be consistent with constitutional rights of members who are also citizens of modern states (e.g. as relating to women’s land rights). 3) Collective tenure and decision-making characterize the system. Usually, all or part of the community land is owned in common by members of the community and to which rights are distributed. Sometimes, community lands are traditionally entirely subdivided into family lands but over which the community exercises authority, establishing the means by which family rights are recognized, held, used, and transferred.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples are the sector of the world’s communities who identify themselves as Indigenous Peoples. They adopt this definition on various grounds, such as having stronger relations to their land than other nationals, longer origins in the locality, or distinctive cultures and ways of life that run special risks of being denied or lost in modern conditions.  Many communities consider themselves indigenous to the locality but do not define themselves as Indigenous Peoples. This is especially so in Africa and Asia. Moreover, there are many commonalities in land tenure and governance between Indigenous Peoples and other communities. The distinction between Indigenous Peoples and other communities is made on LandMark mainly because their rights may be subject to special national legislation and which must be reviewed distinctly from laws affecting the rights of other communities. In addition, Indigenous Peoples are the subject of specific internationally-recognized collective rights, including rights to land and natural resources (e.g., International Labour Organization Convention 169, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Community Lands

Community Lands are all lands that fall under the customary governance of the community whether or not this is recognized in national law. Community land is variously described as the community domain, community land area, community territory, or other terms (e.g., Tanzania refers to village lands, Ghana to customary lands, China to collectives, Cambodia refers to indigenous lands, etc.).

Indigenous Lands

Indigenous Lands or territories refer to the collectively-held and governed lands (and natural resources) of Indigenous Peoples. As with other community lands, some indigenous lands may be allocated with group consent for use by individuals and families. Other indigenous land is managed as common property. In some cases, indigenous land is held by individuals or families (e.g., New Zealand). Traditional indigenous territories are estimated to encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface.

Two points are critical here when considering the roles of these two groups. First, indigenous peoples and (local) communities can often be distinct groups, but nonetheless remain essential allies in uplifting both communities and their common issues associated with environmental health and social justice. “Local communities” can often include members of “major groups” or civil societies (i.e., women, farmers, children, immigrants) recognized by the United Nations and other bodies who are regularly underrepresented and disproportionately harmed by the actions of large corporations and other parties. The second critical point is that a meaningful discussion regarding indigenous peoples and local communities cannot occur absent the recognition and inclusion of the lands and natural resources utilized by these groups. For these groups, in many cases, the health of the land and the survival of the people and their way of life are symbiotic.

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