Indigenous territories account for at least 36% of the world’s “intact forests” and Indigenous Peoples and local communities (ILPC) live in or manage about half of the planet’s lands, making these areas a critical imperative in efforts to combat climate change and species loss.
Yet in many places, IPLCs lack formal recognition of their customary lands and resources, jeopardizing their basic human rights and heightening the risk that these areas could be damaged or destroyed. For these reasons, helping IPLCs secure land rights is increasingly seen as a central component of efforts to address climate change and achieve conservation goals.
Nonette Royo, the executive director of the Tenure Facility, is one of the most prominent advocates for advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and women. Royo spoke with Mongabay about progress and obstacles in the push to advance local peoples’ tenure rights as well as the Tenure Facility’s approaches.
“Many models are now emerging to get these types of approaches, which require deep listening and letting communities lead the process, and adjusting or adapting their own agenda, and being willing to be transformed in the process,” Royo said. “This is most needed in the conservation space. This means respecting all rights, not just of people (as individuals or collective), but of their ways of tending with nature and co-beings with nature.”
Research published in recent years has shown that Indigenous territories have experienced substantially lower rates of forest loss than non-Indigenous lands. Given that Indigenous territories account for at least 36% of the world’s “intact forests” and Indigenous Peoples and local communities (ILPC) live in or manage about half of the planet’s lands, these areas play a critical role in addressing the major environmental challenges we face, from biodiversity loss to climate change.
Yet in many places, IPLCs lack formal recognition of their customary lands and resources, jeopardizing their basic human rights as well as heightening the risk that these areas could be damaged or destroyed, exacerbating global environmental problems. For these reasons, helping IPLCs secure land rights is increasingly seen as a central component of efforts to address climate change and achieve conservation goals.
Nonette Royo, a lawyer from Northern Mindanao in the Philippines who has been working at the intersection of rights and the environment for more than 30 years and has co-founded several organizations, is one of the most prominent advocates for advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and women. Royo is now the executive director of the Tenure Facility, which was created to provide financial and technical support to IPLCs in their struggle to secure and strengthen their rights, including legal recognition of their land tenure. Royo has served in that capacity since the Tenure Facility became an independent organization in 2017 when it was spun out of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
In its short existence, the Tenure Facility has already made a substantial mark in the rights space, helping its partners secure or advance their tenure across 14 million hectares, an area larger than Greece or the U.S. state of New York. The timing of this achievement has been particularly critical given the surging interest in “nature-based solutions”, which has increased appetites among governments, companies, and investors to monetize forests, wetlands, or other carbon-dense ecosystems. Communities that have secure tenure for their customary lands potentially have a greater say in how those lands — and the services they afford — are used and how the resulting financial streams are distributed.
While the process for securing tenure varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, a common early step across projects involves a community documenting its customary land use practices and territory, which it can then use as a tool to leverage legal rights frameworks at local, national, and international levels. That’s an area where there have been significant changes in recent years due to the wider availability of technological tools, according to Royo.
“Mapping technology has advanced so much that it frees up budget and time to spend in social or community organizing and social mobilization,” Royo told Mongabay. “Mapping technology also advanced forest monitoring and pushed for enforcement each step of the way.”
But tenure mapping isn’t as simple as seeing where forest exists on a satellite image — it’s a product of traditional knowledge. That means it can’t be outsourced to a company or government: Communities must lead the process, says Royo.
“Now that technology has advanced for accuracy and speed in map-making, there is more focus on legitimacy, meaning ground-truthed information.,” Royo said. “Mapping and delineation of territories are mainly ‘social’ processes. This means that no amount of speed and high-resolution mapping will be acceptable, nor can match the credibility and legitimacy of a deliberate, tactical and incremental social mapping process that is trust-based, and community-led. This is also what governments cannot, on their own, develop.”
This lesson illustrated by this mapping example has often been overlooked or ignored by the conservation sector, especially among agencies and organizations that employ top-down approaches to their work, argues Royo.
“Many models are now emerging to get these types of approaches, which require deep listening and letting communities lead the process, and adjusting or adapting their own agenda, and being willing to be transformed in the process. This is most needed in the conservation space. This means respecting all rights, not just of people (as individuals or collective), but of their ways of tending with nature and co-beings with nature.”
Royo spoke about these issues and a range of other topics during a December 2021 interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NONETTE ROYO
Mongabay: How did you get your start working at the intersection of Indigenous Peoples, natural resources and land rights?
Nonette Royo: I started not on my own but by virtue of growing up in the middle of this ‘intersection’, in Northern Mindanao where Indigenous Peoples—both those who are still in their territories and those who already lost them—are working hard to defend their land, their standing forests, and their cultures in the face of threats to their lives, criminalization, horizontal conflict, and displacement.
That space was violent—I lost friends—and swore to find a ‘legal’ arena to fight it. We started with the Ancestral Domain law, and even before that was formalized, local and Indigenous peoples started mapping territorial boundaries and forests to produce the evidence of their land rights and long-term occupation. They used this evidence to bring loggers and miners to court.
Mongabay: You’ve been working in this space for more than 25 years. What are the biggest differences in this field between when you got your start and now?
Nonette Royo: The biggest difference between then and now: mapping technology has advanced so much, that it frees up budget and time to spend in social or community organizing and social mobilization. Mapping technology also advanced forest monitoring and pushed for enforcement each step of the way
Another change is global and national policies and mindsets have changed toward combatting climate change and supporting local and Indigenous peoples’ rights for their key role in protecting nature and scaling up nature-based solutions. This means that even belligerent governments have to signed up to the Paris Agreement, made commitments, and expressed openness for partnership with forest stewards.
Sadly, conflict and criminalization still accompany the relentless, nature exploitation-based national economic ‘growth’ ambitions.
Mongabay: In the past several years, the conservation sector has become a lot more vocal about championing the impact Indigenous peoples and local communities have in achieving traditional conservation outcomes, like maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems. What do you think is responsible for this?
Nonette Royo: I think a combination of factors, including bottom-up organizing and pressure from more grounded conservationists in working on-site under the banner of big or research-based conservation organizations, who work closely with and learned a lot from Indigenous Peoples to show ‘proof of concept’. These peoples’ efforts have oftentimes been at odds with their fortress conservation colleagues.
I’ve also seen it from top-down attempts at implementing integrated conservation and development programs or ICDPs as well as the ‘bridge’ programs. Among them, I helped run the global USAID-funded Biodiversity Support Programme consortium between WWF-WRI-TNC in Indonesia. That program helped jumpstart rights-based approaches to conservation, through funding for IPs territorial protection to protect their biodiversity, and implement ‘adaptive management’. And, together with the Ford Foundation and participatory mapping consortium JKPP, the network JAPHAMA was born. That planted the seeds of the largest Indigenous Peoples Alliance, AMAN [Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of Nusantara – Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara].
Mongabay: The Tenure Facility is nearly five years old as an independent entity. How does the facility work? Nonette Royo: The Tenure Facility supports rights-holders groups, Indigenous peoples, and local community groups, who are implementing their tenure, applying existing international and national laws, policies, procedures, and jurisprudence. They do this whilst protecting, monitoring, and enforcing agreements to secure their land, forests, natural resources, land, and waters in their territories.
These include four pillars: arriving at shared goals, mapping boundaries (and resolving boundary conflicts), verification with relevant government units, and governance and territorial integrity.
Each require respect of knowledge holders, shared values, rituals and trusted facilitators. All are context-dependent and generally include a process of consent or consensus-building to protect larger, contiguous territories. In the last 4.5 years, Tenure Facility’s IPLC partners have been able to advance their tenure to approximately 14 million hectares, including registration and protection of key forest landscapes.
Mongabay: What have been the key lessons from the Tenure Facility’s work to date?
Nonette Royo: Key lessons include:
1) Medium-Large funding. Funding in the form of larger grants of approximately $1m/year are adaptive to models of ‘doing development differently’ (DDD). We are still working on this—we’re currently in the ‘inception-full implementation phase’;
2) Direct support. Direct support to IPLC organizations or the NGO partners they trust and are fully accountable to them;
3) Built-in Capacity Building. Tenure Facility is respectful of community-driven processes that define their capacity needs as they go, from concept to proposal development to implementation to monitoring. It is designed with ‘periodic follow-up plans’ review to capture what is learned, what mistakes are committed, and what types of adjustments, skills, or knowledge levels can be added or integrated.
4) Legitimacy and trust. Now that technology has advanced for accuracy and speed in map-making, there is more focus on legitimacy, meaning ground-truthed information. Mapping and delineation of territories are mainly ‘social’ processes. This means that no amount of speed and high-resolution mapping will be acceptable, nor can match the credibility and legitimacy of a deliberate, tactical and incremental social mapping process that is trust-based, and community-led. This is also what governments cannot, on their own, develop.
Mongabay: And what is the Tenure Facility’s biggest impact to date? Is there a particular project or initiative that best exemplifies what the Tenure Facility is trying to achieve?
Nonette Royo: The biggest impact is that in the last 4.5 years, Tenure Facility IPLC partners were able to advance their tenure to about 14 million hectares, including registration and protection of key forest landscapes.
An example is Panama, where the protection of national parks and forest areas was stronger where Indigenous peoples mapped and registered land rights. The Supreme Court declared that the Naso Tjër Indigenous traditional municipality, or ‘Comarca’, was constitutional even though it overlaps La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because they are the best protectors of it.
In Indonesia, the co-management of customary forests and parks has been reinforced through mapping and registration, including the mobilization of the Presidential Task Force on Agrarian Reform to resolve land conflicts and register more land to meet the Agrarian Reform targets.
Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest obstacles or challenges to achieving the Tenure Facility’s goals in the near-term? And long-term?
Nonette Royo: The biggest obstacles are in enabling more IPLC organizations to ramp up and revitalize or recollect their own systems and “Ways of Doing” that are consistent with their “Ways of Being,” and to use this to directly access their own financing (or more broadly, their visions of sustainability).
Additionally, these strengthened systems will also enable them to generate their own funding from securing forests and restoring land in their own territories (after the grant ends).
The Western system of top-down accountability does not quite fit the IPLC ways of distributed, circular and transparent systems of accountability. Their ways and needs are small, consistent, incremental and longer-term (inter-generational). Their solid partnerships and relationships are based on trust and tested through time and through the value of ‘inter-dependence’ or ‘reciprocity’ or ‘mutuality’.
Mongabay: What has been the impact of COVID-19 on your work and the communities you serve? Do you think society will retain any lessons from the pandemic?
Nonette Royo: Covid 19 both devastated and strengthened many communities. Generally, those whose territories are more secure and accessible to public help had better ways of coping, surviving with their own practices, negotiating with external parties, and sharing their own bounty to those who had none. See Partners’ Stories of Resilience and the ‘2020 Annual Report, No Vaccination against Deforestation’.
Mongabay: A combination of high-profile controversies in conservation in recent years and the global outcry following George Floyd’s killing last year has put a spotlight on discrimination, colonial legacy, inequity, and lack of inclusivity in the conservation sector. Are you seeing any effect of this greater awareness in the conservation sector generally?
Nonette Royo: Yes. The conservation sector began learning years ago, and these lessons are now ready for harvesting.
Are they ready? How can we tell it is not business-as-usual? At least, unlike before, the intention for IPLC participation in conservation decision-making is not just ‘in theory’, but is applied, and still quite challenged in practice. There remain many questions: How much openness is there to look at other worldviews in conservation? How much of the areas or territories now alleged to be ‘co-managed’ with IPLC has truly delivered proof of concept? What are the rights? What incentives? What sanctions? What capacities? What accountability do researchers have? In the IPLC territories where they find themselves working, accountability to or with whom, apart from government? Recently this is most prominent in the COP and the pledges of $1.7 billion. The jury is still out.
Mongabay: What does inclusion really look like when it comes to leadership and engagement in the conservation space?
Nonette Royo: Leadership means learning how to follow. Conservation organizations among many of us, badly need to learn this in-situ, with nature and people who protect or live with nature. There is a term called ’Allyship’ which I consider most helpful as an approach.
Many models are now emerging to get these types of approaches, which require deep listening and letting communities lead the process, and adjusting or adapting their own agenda, and being willing to be transformed in the process. This is most needed in the conservation space. This means respecting all rights, not just of people (as individuals or collective), but of their ways of tending with nature and co-beings with nature. There are Biocultural Rights and ‘Biocultural Community Protocols’ that guide us, and that conservation organizations can adapt and use
Mongabay: There is some pushback from local and Indigenous communities against the 30×30 target who fear it could be another territorial grab. What would you like to see in terms of ensuring that the implementation of the 30×30 is done collaboratively with these communities and takes the subsistence needs of local populations into consideration?
Nonette Royo: It is not easy to answer nor easy to simplify the answer to this question. Speaking about just my own experience in the last 30 years, directly supporting mapping and governance of IP territories overlapping conservation areas, their values of co-dependence with nature meant reconciling existing worldviews on conservation with sustainable use. Conventional approaches of conservation do not match this. As recent research shows, 40% of the current world protected areas are in IPLC territory and is more protected because of that. Recognizing their tenure rights to the territory is primary to get effective and sustained collaboration for its protection. This means creating new ways of integrating clear tenure policies in conservation, linked with systems for payments, i.e. for ecosystem services, co-management, including developing other technically innovative direct financing to IPLCs as rightsholders and/or as stewards of their cultural landscapes, within conservation areas.
Then in expanding these areas in the next 30 years, it is best to learn from what had been failures in ‘narrow-minded’ conservation co-management schemes. Rights holders are the best partners. In fact, we need to learn fast as there is not much time, and the failing to secure the world’s “safety net” that sustains us all is not an option.
With openness, the right tools, genuine partnerships – meaning openness to local collective and Indigenous worldviews of rightsholders – and an integrated shift in ‘growth’ and ‘development’ paradigms, it is possible to get to 30×30.
Mongabay: Beyond what you’ve covered so far in the interview, where does conservation need to do better?
Nonette Royo: Land rights recognition and integrate these with all the other rights I mention above. Then from there, develop genuine partnerships, and mutual financing, with all actors.
Mongabay: The past year has been brutal for environmental defenders with rising violence and criminalization of their activities. Do you have ideas on how the situation can be improved?
Nonette Royo: Support more land rights defenders’ ‘facilities’ including quick-reaction teams of social media reporters, lawyers, advanced technology (security), funds for protection and immediate transfer of threatened activists, and the creation of neutral, safe spaces.
Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Nonette Royo: GET INVOLVED in whatever way you can, in any place you feel called to act, and NOW.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Bill McKibben and others discuss action and rejuvenation after COP26 climate summit failure, listen here: