World Environment Day 2020: three lessons from indigenous peoples and local communities on restoring our relationship with nature

World Environment Day is an opportunity to not only celebrate nature, but the peoples and communities who protect and steward it worldwide. Here, three lessons from indigenous and local communities in Colombia, the Day’s host, are highlighted: women’s knowledge is critical for protecting biodiversity; frontline communities’ efforts are defending their human rights and collective territories preventing further losses of biodiversity, and culture and traditional knowledge are vital for sustainable use and ecological restoration.

Read more on Forest Peoples Programme’s website. 

Network of Weavers of the Ipiales Indigenous Reserve, Colombia

By Edhith Bastidas, Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network and the Center for the Promotion and Indigenous and Social Development YANAPANAKUY, Colombia

The Indigenous Reserve of Ipiales is located in the Department of Nariño in the southwest of Colombia. Its population is approximately 25,000 people belonging to the village of Los Pastos.

Through an alliance between the Ministry of Health, Women and Gender of the Reserve and the Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network and the Center for the Promotion and Indigenous and Social Development YANAPANAKUY, a project to support the recovery and revitalisation of a local fabric based on indigenous knowledge began in March 2019. The initiative addresses other areas such as the path for recognition of the territory, environmental conservation, the recovery of seeds and especially of medicinal plants, the recovery of their own food and the knowledge about food preparation. This holistic approach gave life to the Network of (Women) Weavers of the Indigenous Guard of Ipiales, to which men, boys, girls and young people are also part.

Visible results have already been obtained, including:

  • The recovery of knowledge regarding the preparation of sheep wool through shearing, spinning, twisting, dyeing, washing, warping and weaving with techniques and materials typical of the indigenous people
  • Construction of a community chagra of medicinal plants, which has allowed revitalising their own knowledge about herbal remedies and the biodiversity of the territory
  • Recovery of traditional foods of great nutritional value, including for consumption in the project workshops. Food is served in dishes and utensils that are traditionally used in the community and are friendly to Mother Nature, avoiding the use of plastics and other contaminating materials
  • Revitalisation of one’s spirituality and cultural strengthening through indigenous ceremonies that are carried out before the workshops and other activities
  • Peer-learning and sharing, through community visits to other communities
  • Income contributions for families and especially for women weavers from the sale of products obtained by participating in fairs and other events. For example, in relation to Kolla Raymi, a sacred celebration of the moon, fertility and femininity, an exhibition and market for the sale of products from the project and other similar initiatives of indigenous peoples and rural communities was organised.

Restoration and reforestation of the Cañamomo Lomaprieta Indigenous Reserve, Colombia

By Héctor Jaime Vinasco, Governing Council of the Resguardo Cañamomo

The Cañamomo Lomaprieta Indigenous Reserve in Colombia was created by a royal warrant issued by Carlos I of Spain in 1540. It covers 4,837 hectares and involves 32 communities. The history of Cañamomo Lomaprieta has been concerned largely with territorial defence; its rich gold deposits motivated the conquistadores to found villages within the indigenous territory, and it became a centre for slavery. The indigenous inhabitants were exploited almost to the point of extermination.

In spite of this history, however, the Indigenous community has maintained its ancestral community traditions of respect, care, and balanced management of its relationship with Mother Earth. These practices are now being changed by state economic production schemes and by pressures on forest areas for cultivation. These and many other factors have affected the natural balance, and this means that today new policies and thinking are needed that focus on un-learning harmful practices and on environmental and agro-ecological thinking. It is still possible to recover, protect and conserve our environment, but for this to happen we must strengthen local people’s sense of the care for our natural heritage and develop an environmental management plan that will allow us to maintain healthy surroundings.

Our entire organisation, our authorities and our community members have concentrated our efforts and will continue to do so on environmental restoration within the territory. To this end a strategic plan is being developed focusing on seven areas: water, solid waste management, risk management, environmental education, biodiversity, climate change and mining.

Our activities to date have included the following:

  • Environmental workdays and a “Plant a Tree for the Resguardo” campaign, which has involved community tree nurseries and the planting of 61.000 trees
  • Establishment of living fences and maintenance of an inert fence
  • Management of wild species of flora and fauna and creation of a nursery for local species
  • Analysis of domestic wastewater and its decontamination
  • An “I don’t take garbage to my house” campaign focusing on proper management of waste, recovery of forest strips, and maintenance of tree plantations
  • Creation of an Environmental Council and an Environmental Recovery Association
  • Development of an environmental education policy and a natural heritage programme
  • Organisational strengthening

These actions have been carried out without external financing. We are strengthening the social fabric of our community, generating intergenerational unity, and involving both women and men. We are carrying out these actions in the context of conflict, hate speeches and threats against our indigenous leaders, in order better to defend our territory. Our actions are a hope, a light amid a chaotic and turbulent world of armed conflict.

Note: Resguardos indigenas are “the collective property of the indigenous communities for which they are established and … are inalienable, imprescriptible and unseizable.”

Engendering biodiversity: Zenú Women, San Andrés De Sotavento, Colombia

The Zenú women of Colombia use their critical knowledge of natural resources and cultural practices in the meaningful space of the front yard, or patio, which survives despite the fragmentation of their ancestral territories over the past three centuries. The Zenú de San Andrés de Sotavento reserve is located in the Caribbean region of Colombia, and although the Zenú people possessed a land title for 83,000 hectares of land dating from the Colonial era, their territory underwent a series of fragmentations, first at the hands of the Spanish State and then later by the newly established and strengthened Colombian State in the republican era.


Zenú women interact in three fundamental ways with the biodiversity to contribute to the survival and well-being of their people: first, the Zenú front yard is used for raising small animals, fruits, and vegetables for food and to involve children in learning activities; second, dozens of wild and cultivated medicinal plants are used to support the indigenous health system; and third, conservation and sustainable use of wild palms for the production of cultural materials such as construction goods, dyes, ornamentation, firewood, and artisanal creations incorporating centuries-old patterns. Such practices are vital contributions to sustainable agriculture with organic composting, seed selection for greater biodiversity, auto-consumption rather than market dependency, and support for bee populations, among many benefits. They also help maintain, reproduce, and transmit Zenú identity and culture to future generations.

Source: Mujeres Zenu: manejo, uso y conocimiento de la biodiversidad: un aporte a la soberanía alimentaria, la medicina y la cultura material by Astrid Álvarez in Las mujeres indígenas en los escenarios de la biodiversidad.

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Environmental leadership workshops for indigenous youth in Mountain Province, Philippines

Josefa Cariño Tauli, Ibaloi-Kankanaey, Philippines

Many initiatives led by indigenous youth are contributing to achievement of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and when they are supported, they have the potential to effect and innovate positive change in their communities. This was made clear to us through a series of youth-led seminar-workshops on the role of indigenous youth in environmental leadership that we had organized for senior high school students in the municipalities of Besao and Sagada in the Cordillera Region, Philippines. This project was supported by Conservation International’s Indigenous Leaders’ Conservation Fellowship.

The workshops included sessions on the rich biodiversity of the Philippines, case study presentations on youth-led environmental projects in the country, and guidance on planning and managing environmental advocacy projects. Students were then grouped and tasked to come up with their own initiatives and to pitch these to the group.

Everyone came up with commendable plans providing solutions to environmental issues – from songs written in the indigenous language on the effects of climate change, to gardens and greenhouses for indigenous medicinal plants, to guided nature walks around the municipality.

The workshops revealed that indigenous youth participants had taken to heart their role as inheritors of the land, resources, knowledge and values passed on to them by their ancestors – knowledge and values which we rely on greatly for achieving our 2050 vision, and which has great potential in terms of innovative, culturally appropriate solutions to emerging environmental problems. This initiative is called Project ‘Tawid’, the Kankana-ey word for ‘heritage’—and many indigenous youths know and appreciate that our land, our resources, and our culture are our ancestral heritage, which we pass on to the next generations.

Pgaz K’Nyau community social enterprise as alternative livelihoods for young generations, northern Thailand

Nutdanai Trakansuphakon*, Pgaz K’Nyau Association for Sustainable Development (PASD)

The Pgaz K’Nyau (Karen) practice rotational farming as a self-reliant economy for our own food consumption. But today, we also need cash incomes for our expenses in everyday life.  PASD works with Pgaz K’Nyau communities on community social enterprise because today young people migrate to work in urban areas. Then the communities lose their young people, leaving a gap between elders and youth. Elders don’t have space to transmit their knowledge to the new generations. The concept of social enterprise is a great tool to sustain and improve the livelihoods of our indigenous people while still preserving cultural identity.

In Hin Lad Nai village, we started to design community social enterprise by young people and they are the owner of this brand. We started to think about how to use NTFPs – for example wild honey, tea, bamboo shoots and adding Pgaz K’Nyau knowledge and wisdom to run this brand.

We believe that our wisdom and traditional knowledge will ensure our brand to be sustainable. Hin Lad Nai branding and marketing of honey products don’t promote their products as better than other brands, but communicate the community story through the tasting of honey combined with how they have taken care of their forest based on their traditional knowledge. The honey created has diverse tastes: each bottle of honey does not have the same taste because these products are based on diverse flowers from the biological diversity in Hin Lad Nai ecosystem. The Hin Lad Nai honey brand, is spreading wide and creating a big impact on wider Thai society. People in the city like not only these good honey products, but also made by people coexisting very well between humans and nature.

Creating more and more added value to the diverse products is motivating young people to come back to their community, to play an important role in innovations and new types of occupation for themselves. They have created opportunities for younger generations willing to return home with hope and security in their futures in their home community.

From the sale of products, part of their income goes to collective fund of the community: 20 baht for one bottle of honey, 20 cents from 1 kilo of tea leaves, etc. From Hid Lad Nai brand products, 30% of profits goes to the community cooperation collective fund. This fund is kept for collective activities , particularly caring and conserving our environment e.g. fire break and fire control in summer time, replanting or increasing local trees and plants for biodiversity, and for urgent needs such as serious cases to go to hospital, education for young people and follow up of government policies.

We try to upscale the Hin Lad Nai honey brand model by sharing with other Pgaz K’Nyau communities. The honey and coffee network has established a new Pgaz K’Nyau brand name linking five Pgaz K’Nyau communities from four provinces. Young leaders from these communities have designed a common plan to promote their new brand, established their governance board and strengthening their network for future sustainability goals of their self-reliant economy.

*A new generation activist and social worker, working to add value to local non-timber forest products (NTFPs) of Hin Lad Nai and other communities as alternative social enterprise.

Communities in Pitas, Sabah, Malaysia fight to protect mangroves

The villages around the Telaga River in Pitas, Sabah, Malaysia depend on the local mangroves for their livelihoods, through farming, fishing and foraging. However, their way of life has been threatened by a shrimp project that is being promoted by the Malaysian Government, allegedly to reduce poverty in the area. The project, operated by Sunlight Inno Seafood Sdn Bhd, a joint venture between state-owned Yayasan Sabah and a private investment firm, had been dogged by controversies from the start.

Between 2012 to 2014 1,000 hectares of pristine mangrove forest were clear-felled to make way for the aquaculture project. The six affected communities, with a population of approximately 3,000, complained that the mass-clearance meant important breeding ecosystems for the species that they depend on were destroyed. Promises of jobs generally failed to materialise. After complaints from the villagers and environmentalists the company was fined for failing to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the swamp clearing in 2013 and ordered to stop work until an EIA was submitted. However, to the consternation of villagers the subsequent EIA was approved in 2015.

Mastupang Somoi, Chairperson for a village action group noted in response that “the company do not have any approval to develop this area. We were not informed that this was an approved project.” As part of the land clearance the company stands accused of displacing villagers; of denying them their right to their customary lands and access to traditional areas of natural resources; of polluting wells and tributaries with soil and siltation; and of damaging sites that are sacred to the villagers.

The affected communities have come together – with the support of NGOs such as the Sabah Environmental Protection Association – to protect what is left of their mangroves. They wish to halt the further expansion of the project, and to ensure that the government support their own self-determined development. These communities are now focusing on developing a management plan to protect the remaining 2,500 hectares of mangrove.

Criminalisation of a Dayak community in Long Isun, Kalimantan, Indonesia

“Dayaks can’t be separated from the forest, our lives are spent in the forest. Without her we lose our identity.”

Inui Yeq, spiritual leader, Long Isun

So-called ‘responsible logging’, which has been brought into the community as part of a larger conservation project, has caused serious conflict between Long Isun and a neighbouring community, Naha Aruq. This is primarily thanks to a flawed participatory mapping process carried out for the conservation project.

In 2014, the Long Isun community protested the initial entry onto their land of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified logging company PT Kemakmuran Berkah Timbers (KBT), including onto their ancestral grave sites. Community members halted logging tractors in order to force dialogue, in accordance with Dayak customary law.

However, in response, the police arrested village representatives in retaliation. One community member, Theodorus Tekwan, was jailed for 109 days – only to be released without charge. Tekwan noted of his arrest: “I remember boats full of police coming and surrounding me and my wife while we were in our garden … It was like they were arresting a terrorist.” On his eventual release Tekwan was intimidated into signing a document stating he had only spent one evening in jail. The criminalisation of Tekwan deterred the community from putting up any formal resistance for over two years, but the community has now continued their struggle, through engagement with the FSC over the lack of consent for certification of logging in their lands.

Shipibo-Conibo people protect their territories from palm oil in the Peruvian Amazon, Peru

Federación de Comunidades Nativas del Ucayali y Afluentes (FECONAU) and Forest Peoples Programme (FPP)

The traditional lands of the Shipibo-Conibo indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in the Peruvian Amazon extend to more than 85,000 hectares. Historically, these lands have provided abundant game and fish, medicines, construction materials and clean water.

“We would go to our lands, to eat paiche and all kinds of fish from the lake. My father would hunt there, my grandparents would hunt there. We walked freely there…”

Luisa Mori González, President of the Mothers Club and community leader

However, only 218 hectares have been formally titled. Since 2012 the palm oil company Plantaciones de Pucallpa S.A.C (now Ocho Sur P SAC) has illegally acquired and deforested approximately 7,000 hectares of the untitled lands to convert them to palm oil plantations.[i] This has brought a massive environmental impact, with loss of lands and animals, as well as contamination from the spraying of agricultural chemicals. It has also brought violence, with armed groups of land traffickers clearing forests and those who protest facing death threats and intimidation. At the same time, this ongoing dispossession is fundamentally corroding the community’s way of life and ability to survive on their lands.

Despite these threats, the community has made multiple efforts to hold the company to account. Plantaciones de Pucallpa was a member of the RSPO, and a formal complaint was made in 2015, which led to a ‘stop work’ order. The community have also appealed to the company’s European financiers, the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investments Market, and various United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms, as well as launching a criminal case in Peru, which has resulted in a high-level investigation led by the Special Prosecutor for Organised Crime.

Despite the RSPO stop work order, suspension orders from the Ministry of Agriculture and Peruvian courts, and widespread condemnation from Peruvian forest and agricultural ministries, Ocho Sur P’s operations continue. There is a general failure of enforcement, and the company has avoided suspending work, and large fines, through selling off its assets to other new companies it has created and withdrawing from the RSPO and London Stock Exchange.

The community has also filed a ground-breaking constitutional lawsuit against the Peruvian Government for failing to process their land titling claim, which facilitated the company’s land grab. The case was heard by the Constitutional Tribunal in September 2019, with judgement pending at the time of writing.

In December 2019 the community secured a major victory when the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, the NBIM, took the decision to divest from Alicorp, a consumer goods company which investigations had shown were buying palm oil derived from Ocho Sur’s plantation.


[i] Forest Peoples Programme (n.d.) The struggle of Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya against the expansion of oil palm. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme. Available at: