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The world’s remaining ‘wild places’ are often envisaged to be packed full of biodiversity, and bereft of one troublesome species: Homo sapiens. But a new global study shows that about 40% of protected and ecologically-intact landscapes are actually under indigenous peoples’ custodianship.

“And that’s very exciting,” says John Fa, Senior Associate at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and one of the lead researchers on the project. He says the work highlights the need to give indigenous peoples the tenure recognition and resources they require to continue to manage these areas effectively.

“The study shows that indigenous peoples have been in these parts of the world for many, many years – we’re talking millennia in some cases – and therefore they should be given whatever support they need to make sure that that land continues in the best possible way,” he says.


The researchers mapped out the areas of land that indigenous peoples manage or have tenure rights over: in total, at least 38 million square kilometers in 87 countries or politically distinct areas across all inhabited continents, making up more than a quarter of the world’s land surface.

Onto these maps, they overlaid the earth’s terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes, such as boreal and tropical primary forests, savannas and marshes.

“It sounds very simple to say it like that,” laughs Fa, “but of course there’s a lot of work that goes in behind that.” It took a large international team three years to gather enough credible information to create the maps, because “the data is relatively dispersed,” he says.

It’s also political: state-sanctioned data, which is the most accessible, may leave off information on Indigenous lands in places where tenure is contested. For example, says Fa, the Pygmy people of the Congo Basin “are not really recognized as the owners of the land in which they’re in” by government bodies. So the researchers had to map their distribution via “extrapolations of where we think they are, using modeling techniques and so on,” he says.

This raised ethical issues around using and displaying the information. Within the paper, the authors published the maps in pixellated form, so as not to reveal indigenous peoples’ exact locations. “Where there are land tenure issues, we didn’t want to make it much more difficult for people by saying ‘this is exactly where they are,’ ” Fa explains. “We have a tremendous responsibility, because these are quite vulnerable people in many ways, and if we don’t do things properly, they could be affected.”


What can we learn from this work for conservation practice? As the authors point out in the paper, indigenous lands “represent one of the oldest forms of conservation units,” and many indigenous land management systems “have already proven to be remarkably persistent and resilient.” So there are things to learn from these systems about sustainable human-landscape relationships more generally, say the authors.

However, the paper resists easy or romantic generalizations about indigenous people’s affinity with global conservation goals. The research results don’t “necessarily mean that they want to conserve the land in the way that we [Western conservationists] think that it should be conserved,” Fa points out. “They might actually want to cut down all the forest, and have something else there.”

The paper’s point, he says, is rather that since indigenous peoples live in and control such a high percentage of these high-conservation-value landscapes, they need to be at the forefront of decision-making about such lands’ future trajectories. Many such places are under threat from unsustainable development. If indigenous peoples’ management rights are recognized, and they have the support and resources to do so in ways that fit with their own aspirations, “they have the potential to be the leaders and champions of conservation in these areas”, says Fa.

This research forms part of CIFOR’s Bushmeat Research Initiative.

For more information on this topic, please contact John Fa at
This research was supported by USAID.
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