By Peter Veit
Much of the world's land is occupied and used by Indigenous Peoples and communities—about 50 percent of it, involving more than 2.5 billion people. But these groups are increasingly losing their ancestral lands—their primary source of livelihood, income and social identity.
Governments, corporations and local elites are eager to acquire land to extract natural resources; grow food, fibers and biofuels; or simply hold it for speculative purposes. Most communities hold land under customary tenure systems and lack formal titles for it. While national laws in many countries recognize customary rights, the legal protections are often weak and poorly enforced, making community land especially vulnerable to being taken by more powerful actors.
Communities, however, are not standing by idly. They're increasingly taking action to protect their lands.
Here are five ways communities are defending their land rights:
Children living in Kenya's Mau ForestPatrick Shepherd / CIFOR
As Indigenous Peoples and communities learn of their rights, more are turning to the courts to help realize them. In 2008, the Kenyan government began a campaign to evict the Ogiek, an indigenous group of hunters and gatherers, from their ancestral home, the Mau Forest in the Rift Valley. The following year, the Ogiek filed a complaint against the government to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights which referred it to the African Court on Human and People's Rights, a continental court based in neighboring Tanzania. Last month, the Court delivered its judgment, ruling that the government had violated several articles of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, of which Kenya is a signatory. It recognized the Ogiek's indigenous status and their right to the forest, and awarded reparations for forcible evictions. The ruling from Africa's highest institutional human rights body sends a powerful message to all African governments of the need to respect indigenous rights.
Protestors in Ecuadorpato chavez / Flickr
2. Demonstrations and Protests
Community members are marching to state capitals, staging protests and meeting directly with government leaders. In December 2017, following a two-week march by hundreds of indigenous people in Quito, Ecuador, President Lenin Moreno agreed to a moratorium on new auctions of oil and mining concessions without the consent of local communities. When the government then announced a new oil auction and handed out several new mining concessions in February 2018, protestors returned. In March, nearly 100 indigenous women camped out for five days in front of the government palace in Quito's central plaza. Moreno granted them a meeting, and the women pressed him again to limit oil drilling and mining in their territories, and to combat the violence that often accompanies the industries. Moreno assured them he would heed their demands. The women vowed they would return if the matter is not addressed.
Aerial view of the Brazilian AmazonNeil Palmer / CIAT
3. Monitoring and Patrolling
In the absence of government support, many communities have organized their own patrols to monitor their land and evict intruders. Brazil and other countries have long struggled to contain illegal logging. In the state of Maranhão in northeastern Brazil, only 20 percent of the original forest cover remains. Nearly all of this forest is in indigenous territories and protected nature reserves where commercial exploitation is banned, but loggers linked to criminal syndicates continue to cut trees. In 2014, after repeated calls to government went unheeded, indigenous Guajajara and Ka'apor communities organized their own patrols to rid their land of illegal loggers. They have captured loggers cutting timber or setting fire in their lands, confiscated their chainsaws and seized their trucks. The Maranhão government has praised the work of the indigenous patrols and offered to train and equip them to help enforce environmental regulations.
Logging in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.Josh Estey / AusAID
4. Mapping Land
Much community land is not represented on any official government maps and, as such, is essentially invisible. Many communities are therefore preparing precise maps of their land using hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and other tools. These maps are challenging official government narratives. In Indonesia's Malinau District, East Kalimantan, loggers and palm oil companies have long sought the customary forests of the indigenous Dayak. When one palm oil company began to log the forest of Setuland village, villagers jumped into action. After threatening to force the company off their land, the company withdrew. The Dayaks realized they needed a map of their land that documented their boundaries, customary forest, homes and longhouses, as well as the damaged forests where the company had illegally cut their trees. With the help of an Indonesian geographer, villagers used drones to map and then monitor their lands. Now, if a logging or palm oil company enters onto their land, Setuland will be armed with their own map to help them confront the challenge.
Community members in the Philippines detail documentation of their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim. Jason Houston / USAID
5. Registering and Titling Land
Indigenous Peoples and communities are also registering their customary land rights into a government cadaster and obtaining a formal land titles or certificates. Doing so integrates their customary rights into the legal system, establishes formal land rights and helps communities protect their lands. The Higaonon, an indigenous group in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, holds its land under customary tenure systems. The lack of clear boundaries, however, has led to conflicts with neighbors who have extended their plots onto Higaonon land. In response, the Higaonon applied for a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT), a formal land ownership title. Despite a 1997 law requiring the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples facilitate the demarcation and registration of ancestral lands, the agency has only issued 182 CADTs with many more applications waiting to be processed. Moreover, fewer than 50 CADTs have been formally registered, limiting their effectiveness to protect indigenous land.
A woman in Indonesia's Dayak community weaves a basket. Rainforest Action Network / Flickr
While no measure can guarantee land security, these actions have helped communities protect their homes. Scaling these measures, however, has proven challenging.
Communities need help securing the appropriate technologies like GPS devices or navigating often complex land titling processes. And governments must reform and better implement the laws to better protect indigenous and community land.
Being assertive in protecting their lands has also exposed community members to new risks. Clashes between communities and those seeking their land have escalated in recent years. Last year, 197 land and environmental defenders were killed, the bloodiest year since Global Witness began keeping records on this issue. We all need to do a better job of protecting not only community land, but also land defenders.
Pope Francis: Indigenous People Should Have Final Say About Their Land https://t.co/YJMNM5Sha5 (@EcoWatch) #NoDAPL— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1487554202.0
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.