eCo-partners: Indigenous people and local communities for ecological sustainability

Written by Gabrielle Suleida Felongco and Gisele Sylvie Ferreira
Illustration by Sophia Dumlao
Published 24 November 2021

Beyond the river banks of Bislig City, Surigao del Sur lies a lush tropical forest. Endemic creatures, such as the rufous-lored kingfisher, perched on tall trees soar through the lowland— rich diversity trails in the land— among the safest sanctuary where they can thrive. 

 For centuries, the Manobo people conserved wildlife in the southern region of Mindanao and protected the area from degradation. The community calls this territory “Panganasanan,” which is an old Manobo word that means a place where food, medicine, and other necessities are obtained [1]. They use different techniques to preserve their land ranging from restricting access to wildlife sanctuaries to providing limits to hunting. They owe such traditions to the belief that spirits guard nature and its resources. 

Panganasanan is among the areas in the Philippines that remain ecologically intact because of Indigenous practices. They are vital to the United Nations’ goal to protect at least 30% of the Earth’s land and sea by 2030. Transformative efforts need to happen to fight the climate and biodiversity crisis— starting with unifying actions. 

Pillars of Conservation 

Indigenous spirituality, practices, and beliefs serve as the driving force for preserving diverse and ecologically intact places around the world. A recent study showed that indigenous people manage at least 28% of the total global land area. It accounts for about 40% of global protected areas and approximately 85% of the areas proposed for biodiversity conservation [2]. Protected areas managed by countries, some even overlapping with Indigenous territories, only account for 14% of the Earth’s land area [3]. It indicates that local communities and indigenous groups conserve more of the Earth’s land than national parks and forests. 

In the Philippines, 85% of the key biodiversity areas are within ancestral domains. These ancestral domains are “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Conserved Areas and Territories” or ICCAs. ICCAs are sacred spaces, home to indigenous groups and cultural landscapes and seascapes [4]. 

It raises the need for steps that ensure a lasting and sustainable relationship between life in nature and those that live in direct contact with it. In Calawit, an island in the western Palawan region, one of the primary sources of livelihood for the Tagbanwa is the harvesting of oysters, more specifically, Placuna spp. (windowpane oysters, “cachipay”). Such harvesting was typically only done by men. However, 15 women from the Tagbanwa group were given ownership over 130 hectares of ancestral waters to manage the oysters. One of the tribe members, Rosita Eguia, expressed how she was excited to “not only create a sustainable fishery, by caring for their natural resources but also preserve their rich culture” [5]. It shows the need to include everyone, a part of a community, for conservation efforts to flourish truly.

Sustaining the Efforts 

The role indigenous people play in sustainability is often overlooked despite the contributions they have made. The primary factors that threaten their ancestral land and damage their indigenous leadership in conservation include habitat loss, dissolution of traditional governance, loss of cultural links, traditional knowledge, and management practices. Moreover, ancestral territories are often subject to legal and illegal mining, the spread of industrial agriculture, oil drilling, deforestation, unsustainable tourism, and urbanization [4]. In the Philippines, half of the areas identified as mining sites are on indigenous land [6]. Large companies resort to intimidation, forcible displacement, violence, and criminalization to acquire their ancestral land. 

These actions undermine the rights of Indigenous groups and, therefore, increase the risk of losing ecologically intact areas in the country. A study from 2012 indicated that indigenous people, specifically the Binongan communities in Abra Province, have a web of values that they uphold: 1) self-dignity and respect for others, 2) relation to the environment, and 3) spirits and the supernatural world. Thus, typical western consumption methods, such as mining, disrupt this [7].

Current solutions to the pressing ecological issues can only do much. There needs to be a shift in the paradigm of conservation wherein local communities and indigenous groups educate the people about good land management practices.

Working as One 

The idea of accomplishing the 30 by 30 goal can appear quite daunting. The increasing effects of the climate crisis require a massive reframing of perspectives. At the very center is establishing a renewed relationship between man and nature. The campaign to protect 30% of the Earth not only needs people’s cooperation in conservation efforts; its goal is also to give full respect to indigenous rights and ownership of their land. Stronger and equitable relationships between local communities and indigenous groups can develop effective conservation practices. 

Conserving unique biodiversity relies on the knowledge and practices developed by local communities and indigenous groups over years of interacting with nature. The integration of Indigenous communities in conservation plans in the country has already gained momentum in recent years. 

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been working with 16 different Indigenous groups in the Philippines to help with the inventory of resources and documentation of indigenous practices and knowledge. In 2016, the UNDP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and additional help from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), placed the Philippine ICCA Project in motion. The project aimed to protect and manage biodiversity by strengthening the Indigenous Peoples’ practices and guiding them in the management of resources. Furthermore, the project went beyond its expected target of registered and documented ICCAs by 130% or from a previous goal of 118,848 hectares to 154,868 hectares. The project helped in strengthening the indigenous leaders’ skills and knowledge in spreading global information for articulating their needs and interest, decision making, and participation in policy and legislative development [4].  

Creating policies that support indigenous people and local communities’ rights and needs are essential in achieving the 30 by 30 goal. It leads to culturally appropriate actions toward sustainability of our natural resources and safeguards a healthy and equitable future for the natural world and its people. 

Let us hope that in the future, the Philippines will thrive with preserved sanctuaries much like Panganasanan


  1. Tabanao G. Pangasananan [Internet]. Territories of Life. 2021 [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from: 
  2. Garnett ST, Burgess ND, Fa JE, Fernández-Llamazares Á, Molnár Z, Robinson CJ, et al. A spatial overview of the global importance of indigenous lands for conservation. Nature Sustainability. 2018;1(7):369–74.  
  3. Jones B. Indigenous people are the world’s biggest conservationists, but they rarely get credit for it [Internet]. Vox. Vox; 2021 [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from: 
  4. UNDP Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Partners in Conservation Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines Leading Conservation Efforts [Internet]. United Nations Development Programme | UNDP – Exposure; [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from:
  5. Chan J. On a Philippine Island, indigenous women get their say on marine conservation [Internet]. Mongabay Environmental News. 2020 [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from: 
  6. Bear S. Mining on indigenous territories in the Philippines [Internet]. ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri; 2020 [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from: 
  7. Wetzlmaier M. Cultural impacts of mining in indigenous peoples’ ancestral domains in the Philippines [Internet]. SSOAR; 2012 [cited 21 November 2021]. Available from:

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