Is the formalization of collective tenure rights supporting sustainable Indigenous livelihoods?

Insights from Comunidades Nativas in the Peruvian Amazon
In the Native Community of Inkare (Bajo Urubamba River, Peruvian Amazon), and Asháninka carries out their daily chores. Photo by Miguel Guerra Loza

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Titling Indigenous territories has been discussed in global fora as an essential tool to promote forest conservation. Activism by Indigenous Peoples and their allies has established titling as key to protecting Indigenous land rights and livelihoods, and research papers reiterate the effectiveness of community land management as a climate change mitigation strategy.

At the COP26 climate summit a group of donors committed to spend at least $1.7 billion by 2025 in support of Indigenous Peoples, local communities’ land rights and forest stewardship.  Furthermore, some countries include community and co-managed areas in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.

Yet, despite the global discourse around land titling, after receiving formal land rights, it is not always easy for titled communities to improve their livelihoods and manage forests sustainably. We explored these challenges in an article recently published in the International Journal for the Commons, and synthesized in an InfoBrief.

Based on our research with six titled Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, our results showed that formalization alone—although a prerequisite to secure Indigenous land rights—is insufficient to solve some of the problems putting pressure on forests.

The Comunidad Nativa and Its Challenges

The limits of land titling become clear when one considers how land and resource use for Comunidades Nativas—Peru’s titled Indigenous Amazonian communities—is regulated by the state. In Peru, the 1974 Law of Native Communities initiated a process of recognizing Indigenous Amazonian communities and granting them collective, inalienable land rights. In subsequent years, however, reforms put forests under government control, requiring Indigenous communities to follow complicated, bureaucratic processes to enter into usufruct contracts with the state to derive financial gains from logging.

A shift from government support for collective rights to individual property rights, and the promotion of farming, cattle ranching, logging and hydrocarbon exploration in the Amazon also put pressure on Indigenous communities and lands. Policies and loans to promote cash crop cultivation, many times without adequate training and tools, placed community members in the position of needing to seek other income, often though unsustainable and inequitable avenues.

Given this context, we based our research around understanding how people in indigenous Awajún and Asháninka communities in the Ucayali and San Martín regions of the Peruvian Amazon perceive their livelihood options and make decisions about their territories.

Land Conflicts and Livelihood Restrictions

Asháninka communities explained how the process to extract timber legally from their territories was overly complicated and expensive, involving so many government actors and steps, that it was easier to rely on informal deals with timber companies. But these relationships often lead to communities falling into debt as loggers – the only sources available for short term loans – made loans to community members that they then had to pay through timber. These informal logging relationships often perpetuated an inequitable cycle, where communities had to keep logging in order to pay the timber companies. They also exposed communities to fines from Peru’s forest agency.

Awajún community members rented land to Andean migrants to make ends meet. Often, at the end of the leases, the renters refused to leave and demanded land rights. Local governments have encouraged Awajún people to rent the land, settle for other types of economic agreements, or grant usufruct rights to migrants. Our respondents noted that short term rentals and lack of conflict resolution mechanisms often led to undesirable outcomes, including increased deforestation and dispossession.

In both examples, official channels for resource extraction and conflict resolution were cumbersome and restrictive, favoring informality. There were also other ways that land-titling related laws imposed challenges on the communities, undermining their ability to conserve forests. For example, we found that while communities are made up of families with different livelihood strategies, policies and conservation initiatives insisted on treating them as cohesive units of production with similar livelihood goals. Community members prioritized getting cash into the hands of individual families, but government and non-governmental organizations prioritized communal projects and non-cash benefits like farming support, which did not always enable resilient livelihoods given that Indigenous Peoples need cash incomes to subsist.

Interviewees also indicated that the power of their community’s president could be a catalyst for debt and conflict. Communities are not homogenous entities with a single perspective, yet the Law of Native Communities established a model where presidents are legally able to make decisions on behalf of community members. In our Ucayali case studies, presidents had racked up thousands of dollars in debt to logging companies that could only be paid with more timber from the communal forest. “It is the Comunidad that is in debt now,” explained one interviewee.

Going Beyond Land Titling

We found that the rights that Indigenous Peoples are meant to receive through land titling require an active and supportive role of the state; evidence shows that most of the government’s support stops at the granting of title. The result is that Indigenous Peoples are not enabled to exercise their recognized rights and play a more central role in addressing the climate crisis.

This is important in Peru as the government has received international funding for titling, signed international agreements for Indigenous rights, and included community-managed land in its NDCs. However, land titling reforms and regulations restrict communities’ land management options.

Ultimately, our findings call for a transition from a punitive to an enabling role for government agencies and the adaptation of the forestry and tenure system to reflect actual local resource management practices and livelihoods. There is need to invest in targeted capacity, institutional, and technical development to support Indigenous Peoples in navigating the legal aspects of resource use and their internal decision-making mechanisms. This would also strengthen their organizations to participate more equitably in the decisions that affect their territories and futures, and to have a more informed involvement in the markets for their products.

This work was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.

For more information on this topic, please contact Juan Pablo Sarmiento at
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