Guest Post – Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend of the ICCA Consortium: Seeds of nature and culture at the grassroots

Grazia Borrini-FeyerabendICCA is a sort of lingua franca abbreviation for “indigenous peoples’ and community conserved territories and areas”, a reality that bears thousands of local names around the world.

For instance, my colleagues in Latin America call them territorios de vida (territories of life) or territorios del buen vivir (territories of the good life).

These are places that nourish and support the lives of communities and sustain nature at its best. Some call them “jewels of biological and cultural diversity”, but this may remind you of stones, which are precious but dead. I rather think of them as “seeds of nature and culture”, kernels of life, unique combinations of place, memories, knowledge and energy that can create and sustain the future.

Many ICCAs are in remote areas where communities are still able to govern themselves and their natural resources without much interference from the forces that today control much of the world. A large number of such communities are indigenous peoples, who developed their customary institutions and values through centuries of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

But you can find ICCAs also in industrialised countries, in those special pockets where history and culture managed to remain strong and alive. And you even find new and emerging ICCAs wherever people rediscover that they can create their own “communities of life” and live well from and with nature.

The ICCA Consortium

For many years a number of individuals and organisations had collaborated in what can be thought of as a “movement to enhance equity in conservation”. In 2008, some of them, significantly including many representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities, informally created and international association called the ICCA Consortium.

Two years later the association was legally established in Switzerland, dedicated to do all that is possible for ICCAs to be properly recognised, supported, and protected from the many and powerful forces that go against them.

Today, about 100 organisations and 300 individuals are members of the ICCA Consortium representing local communities, indigenous peoples and civil society organizations from more than 75 countries. It’s the tip of an iceberg, many more organisations and peoples could join.

Starting long before the legal establishment of the Consortium, we worked with international policy, influencing from within the policies of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the decisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We sought to advance the understanding that conservation can and does happen at the grassroots, often with better results, and invariably with lesser cost for society in general, than conservation that is administered by governments or the private sector.

But international policy can remain hot air unless it is recognised and implemented at the national level. So we have also engaged in initiatives in many countries, which we advance with our members who are active there. Country by country, the legal, social, political and economic issues are different, and they need to be tackled by organisations and people who understand the context.

The ICCA Consortium helps in each country to create a critical mass of organisations and individuals who are aware of the values of ICCAs and are determined to work together to protect and support them. That’s why we are a Consortium — different organisations need to join forces in a variety of national contexts, which need to be respected if we wish to be relevant.

We also work a lot at the local level, because we wish to have our feet on the ground, to demonstrate that ICCAs exist and that they are meaningful for people and nature. ICCAs maintain biological diversity and cultural diversity, and they truly help people to sustain their lives.

Our work on the three levels is combined: the international feeds the local, the local feeds the national, work in a country inspires activites in another one. In sum, the ICCA Consortium has a pretty large spectrum of activities, and we strive to make sure that those are mutually enriching and supportive.

We do not have command and control operations, but enabling operations. We try to facilitate what our members want and can do. And we do not have dedicated offices or heavy administration. The personnel of the Consortium are all semi-volunteers, linked through Internet communication.

Reversing the decline of fish in Casamance, Senegal

A concrete example of a community that came together and became active is in the region of Casamance, the southernmost part of Senegal. Much of Senegal’s environment is relatively dry land, but this southern part is lush and tropical – forested with mangroves and harbouring various and abundant coastal and marine life, as in the immense estuary of the river Casamance. In the past, such biodiversity was carefully governed and managed by the local communities who lived there.

These two terms – governed and managed – are different in important ways. Management is “what you do” with the natural resources and governance is “who decides what to do”. So, when I say community governance and management, I’m talking about a situation in which a community collectively decides what to do about its natural resources and then makes sure that those decisions are respected.


In the past there was collective local governance about the embroidery of bolons of the estuary — that intricate and very productive maze of semi-salted water channels constantly breathing with the tide. The community reached decisions about who could fish and who could not, where, when and with what gear they could fish, who could harvest mangroves or sea shells and where they could do so.

Unfortunately, governance of the fisheries in the estuaries was disrupted after independence, when the national government affirmed that everyone who is Senegalese can just go and fish anywhere in the national waters.

What happened was that large numbers of northern fishermen, with powerful motor boats and nets, moved down to the rich waters of Casamance and created havoc in a situation where the local rules (and a lack of powerful fishing gear and major market outlets) had maintained a sustainable use of the natural resources for centuries.

With new fishing technologies and the rampant desire for cash income the natural system simply could not cope, and the local fisheries all but collapsed.

The role of the ICCA Consortium in Senegal

When I first met the fishermen of the Casamance villages, about eight years ago, they were in a deep crisis. On the one hand, they were materially very poor, possessing next to none of the kind of comforts we are accustomed to in urban environments. They had no electricity in their homes. There were a few dilapidated primary schools and just a basic health post run by some nuns. Only a dirt road connected the villages.

The young men were moving to the capital in the North to look for work. And any job would do for them. Because of the collapsed local fisheries, it was clear that fishing in their own village waters would never be able to support them or even feed their families. Fishing, which had been the primary source of protein, the primary source of income, the primary source of everything, was gone!


What was still there, however, was a rich social and cultural environment, made of solidarity and many visible and invisible presences in nature. And the fishermen from eight villages had created an association that did not do much, but was still there.

We met with some key people in the association and asked:”What kind of governance of natural resources did you have in the past? What governance do you have now? Is that related to the abundance or depletion of fisheries?”

For all the people we talked with, the problem was crystal clear. They knew how to conserve their local resources and they wanted to, but they were not allowed to. They needed to convince the government to restore their own traditional governance and management rules.

We said, “Look, your government has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention says that ‘community conserved areas’ should be promoted and supported. Maybe your government is ready to help.”

Kawawana: The community conserved area

A few months later, early in 2009, the ICCA Consortium came back to the villages. We financed a few meetings and we supported the delegates of eight villages, representing about 12,000 people, to develop a governance structure and a management plan for their local “community conserved area”. We brought in a few experts (a marine biologist, a governance expert, a rural economist) to help with their plan, but basically they did it all themselves.

They called their community conserved area Kawawana, which is an abbreviation of the Djola phrase Kapooye Wafolal Wata Nanang, or “our patrimony that we all need to conserve”.


The community devised a careful zoning plan for Kawawana, with three zones. In the “red zone” the spirits live and no one can fish or even enter at all. In the “yellow zone” everyone can fish with proper and non-destructive gear. And in the “orange zone” only the local fishermen can fish, but only for local consumption. They can sell their catch, but only locally, at a fixed price that everyone can afford. This is true food sovereignty, is it not?

Patiently, and with a remarkable sense of diplomacy, the community got its governance structure and management plan approved by the local municipality, then by the regional council, then by the governor.

Nobody had ever done something like this in Senegal before, because there was no understanding that this was possible, that it would be allowed. And the community even paid for its own training with the fishery department to be able to stop violators, and they now fish collectively to be able to sustain the costs of surveillance.

With the rules devised and enforced by the community itself, the environment showed an impressive restoration. People say that they quadrupled the fish catch, and all types of fish that they wanted are now back again.

Most importantly, the community has a sense of having regained its life. And other communities in surrounding areas are imitating them. The model is spreading!

This is also where the ICCA Consortium can help. We are helping the Kawawana people to run an interactive radio program in the local language, to carry out inter-village visits, and to hold local meetings.


The Kawawana community is not seeking to regain self-determination as an “indigenous people”. I believe they deserve to be called indigenous, but they have not chosen to call themselves as such, although they are aware of their own separate ethnic identity. They feel part of Senegal, they don’t want to break away. But they want to be able to govern their natural resources meaningfully and to be able to live well with them.

The curious thing is that, prior to the creation of Kawawana, a conservation NGO had come in the very same areas to promote so called “Community Marine Protected Areas”. They came with lots of resources and they came with the full support of the national government. They ended up “convincing” a few and imposing the idea on the rest of the communities.

But this never worked! The important thing about ICCAs is that they are not something that comes from outside. It really comes from the culture and the history and the will of each community.

For Kawawana, the luck was also to find some local champions – generous people, willing to stick their head out, to call for common solidarity and to promote the organisation of the community. And also willing later to withdraw, take a step back, and let the community take charge.

ICCAs are multiplying!

There are at least three more self-aware marine and coastal ICCAs in Casamance, one of which has also been officially recognized, and two more in the North of the country. And now the ICCA Consortium is about to embark on a much more ambitious initiative, supporting the discovery of existing of potential ICCAs all over Senegal. This involves supporting a variety of emblematic cases and communities in different ecological environments while figuring out what policy changes are necessary for ICCAs to be truly recognised and supported as the magnificent asset they are for their own communities and for countries and nature at large.

This is just an example of what we do in Senegal. But the Consortium and partners are working in dozens of countries around the world. We hope to be active in more than forty countries in five continents by 2017.

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