Promise and perils: Recognizing indigenous forest territories

"The fundamental point is not to over-romanticize or over-simplify a reality that’s out there," explains CIFOR scientist Anne Larson.
For many communities, securing land rights is just part of a larger process. CIFOR.

Related stories

Indigenous peoples around the world are gaining ground – but gaining rights to tropical forests creates new challenges. Supporters of indigenous rights are finding the issue more fraught and politicized than expected.

“It’s kind of foolish to think this sort of power transfer over territory is not going to be problematic,” says Anne Larson, a principal scientist at  the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and lead author of a new study on the struggles to realize indigenous territories in Nicaragua, Bolivia and the Philippines.

“There are some obvious reasons for the difficulties involved in land claims, including the intrusion of non-indigenous agricultural, ranching and mining interests into indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands,” Larson adds.

“Another reason, however, is that the recognition process itself is invariably more complicated than many assume.”

It is this latter reason that Larson and co-authors Peter Cronkleton of CIFOR and Juan Pulhin of the University of the Philippines set out to explore.


For those concerned with the welfare of tropical forests, the relationship between indigenous territories and forest conservation is important to pin down.

Recent research in the Brazilian Amazon confirms that indigenous land rights have bolstered protection against deforestation. Research in Cacataibo, Peru shows that indigenous communities retained 91 percent of forest cover within their territories, compared to 66 percent retained by communities nearby.

The World Resources Institute argues that both deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions are minimized when indigenous lands are officially recognized, and a recent CIFOR study on Papua shows that indigenous groups are also highly effective monitors and guardians of forest resources beyond timber.

And a systematic review by CIFOR took a “bundle of rights” approach to studying how property regimes affect the environment. It revealed a more complex situation.

In the course of her research, Larson saw good reasons to expect a positive relationship between indigenous territories and forest conservation.

“But it depends on the causes of deforestation,” she says.

“If the drivers of deforestation are coming from outside the community, then recognizing indigenous territory can allow people to better defend their borders and exclude certain actors with conflicting interests.”

But greater indigenous control over land means exactly that. And the outcome may not necessarily please those interested only in forest conservation.

“In some areas it’s at least possible that having greater control over their land may lead indigenous communities to decide that they want to invest, just as the private sector might, in converting tropical forest to oil palm.”

Larson says it’s important to separate out these issues and resolve each on its merits.

“If there’s a reason to recognize a community’s rights, whether historical, cultural, or ethical, then in my view that’s a separate issue from the effect those rights will have on how they are going to manage the forest. For the latter, indigenous people should be subject to the same rules of the game – not stricter ones – as the private sector or the state.”


In showing the dangers indigenous communities faced in Nicaragua, Bolivia and the Philippines, the study authors caution against over-simplifying their struggles for recognized territories.

One immediate source of conflict is the issue of legal authority: who is the power actually being transferred to?

The authors hone in on this question, showing that in none of the cases was there an already existing entity that could assume the title.

“So you now have to create some kind of entity to organize across communities, to which the government can hand over power,” she says.

This proved a considerable challenge, Larson says, and played out differently in each case according to the nuances of national, regional and local (often divisive) political processes.

The fundamental point is not to over-romanticize or over-simplify a reality that’s out there

Anne Larson

As well as agreeing to name a legally representative entity on the title, claimants need to decide who can engage in negotiations, both with the government and with foreign investors, such as mining and logging companies. Then there’s the additional question of precisely which powers will actually be transferred to the legal entity, and if and how they will govern the territory internally.

“There’s this assumption that because indigenous groups are organized and claiming land, that they must have all these governance structures figured out.”

It’s almost always more complex than that, Larson says.

“The fundamental point is not to over-romanticize or over-simplify a reality that’s out there, and instead to support the development of solid self-governance institutions and processes in indigenous communities and territories.”


The creation of these entities is not simply subject to disagreement among indigenous groups – far from it. Rather, outsiders often play a crucial role in steering, and sometimes in thwarting, their creation, in order to pursue their own claims to indigenous lands.

Larson says this should be no surprise.

“Part of the reason that indigenous people are having to struggle for rights over their land is precisely because there are other people moving into their territories, and the state, historically, has often supported the outsiders.

“So you already have the basis for conflicts, especially because the people moving in have different intentions – often agricultural or ranching – for using the land than indigenous people, who may be more reliant on the forests.”

In the Bolivian case study, for example, indigenous territorial claims had broad legal support from national policy. But the process for defining territories is frequently interpreted to favor the ‘pre-existing’ claims by outsiders that had established themselves on the land claimed by indigenous peoples. In addition, when territories overlay other official administrative boundaries, such as municipalities, territorial authorities are left with ambiguous mandates. They have the responsibility to govern, but resources and power are held by other entities.


It’s not simply a matter of hectares on a map

Anne Larson

Even when land claim processes successfully result in the formalization of indigenous territories, the problems facing indigenous groups within these territories are rarely over, according to the study.

“Government recognition of these indigenous territories is not the end of a process,” Larson says. “It’s just the beginning!”

“There’s so much that comes after that to make it meaningful, to allow people to manage their own territories and to find ways to move toward the livelihoods goals the communities living there choose to pursue”.

Ongoing support is crucial in this regard, and governments, NGOs and donors would do well to take heed of the lessons emerging from this study’s cases.

“It’s not simply a matter of hectares on a map,” says Larson.

“Indigenous communities almost always need support in keeping out the people who shouldn’t be there, and helping with the many problems – such as poverty and livelihoods, or ‘development’ – that they were already facing.

“Unfortunately, land conflicts have also led to violence, including in some cases the murder of indigenous leaders by people who want their land,” Larson adds.

Given these challenges, Larson says that recognition of territory is best thought of as “a step along the way” in pursuing more just, equitable and effective indigenous rights.

“But that’s not to say that recognition isn’t both validating and powerful for indigenous groups and their supporters,” Larson says. “It almost certainly is.”

Anne Larson is based in Lima, Peru for CIFOR and can be contacted at

This research was supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Ford Foundation and PROFOR/ World Bank.

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting