Story | 11 Jan, 2021

COVID-19, Indigenous peoples, local communities and natural resource governance: a preliminary study

CEESP News: contribution by Gretchen Walters and Samir Laouadi, University of Lausanne *

A collaborative study reveals how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), especially those who govern, manage and conserve their lands and waters. The situation generates both negative effects and adaptive and resilient responses.

a) Wapichan man fishing on the Rupununi river, Guyana. Fish and wildlife are key sources of food. b) The Rupununi Savannah, Guyana. Photos © Quadad De Freitas

How are Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) being impacted by and responding to COVID-19? This was a question that we set out to ask, as a group of 16 authors, co-organised by the ICCA Consortium and the University of Lausanne, from research institutions and civil society organizations from 14 countries around the world. We studied access and use of natural resources, solidarity, decision-making, the role of governments and IPLCs in managing COVID-19, and the uptake of traditional medicine.

These themes are explored through a preliminary analysis of a global online survey, using a story-based method, in English, Spanish and French representing 133 respondents from 40 countries. The study presents in-depth case studies from Benin, Fiji, France, Gabon, Guyana, Guatemala, India and Madagascar, highlighting challenges and opportunities in how IPLCs respond to COVID-19.

The initial analysis of surveys and case studies shows that COVID-19 has impacted communities in different ways. Though it is impossible to generalise, early outcomes have emerged regarding IPLCs responses to COVID-19, resilience and rights of IPLCs.

IPLCs responses:

  • In many cases, the government was absent or unable to react quickly, and communities and their leaders stepped in. Leaders were able to act fast, despite a lack of medical facilities. Communities with more rights could respond quickly, deciding to self-quarantine before governmental measures were enacted.

  • Traditional medicine was often used to counteract some COVID-19 symptoms (see above figure).

Resilience and rights

  • Lockdowns negatively affected the ability of IPLCs to defend their lands, especially if the private sector was not locked down and able to disrespect community rights.

  • IPLCs that are able to govern and access their lands and waters appeared to be more resilient. Through access, they were able to secure food and medicine for themselves and for outsiders and returning emigrants in need.

  • Market access, strongly promoted by the development community, has both strengths and weaknesses in a situation like this. Communities that relied heavily on markets to buy and sell, or for employment, were generally less resilient.

  • Communities living near protected and conserved areas, who invested in wildlife tourism and rely on income from visitors, are now struggling to meet needs that had been covered by tourist fees.

COVID-19, Indigenous peoples, local communities and natural resource governance: a preliminary study       Photo: Université de Lausanne

Above: Use of traditional medicine to counteract symptoms of COVID-19. (a) Traditional medicine was often considered to be highly used. The number on top of each bar notes the number of stories (b) 50% of the stories of Indigenous and local practice concerning traditional medicine were associated with feelings of pride. 

Results underscore the importance of self-empowerment and recognition of IPLC rights, which allows them to use traditional medicines, meet subsistence requirements during lockdowns, help community members and neighbours to sustain livelihoods, and to govern, defend and conserve their territories.

These key actions may help to support IPLCs to navigate future pandemics while protecting their lands and waters:

  1. A rights-based approach to crisis responses is needed, in which priority is given to tenure and rights as they pertain to communities governing their lands and territories.

  2. Governments and development workers should recognise and protect the rights of IPLCs to govern their lands and territories because that is where the resources (water, food and medicine) needed to cope with pandemics are to be found.

  3. Companies must not use crises as reasons to stop engaging with IPLCs or to move into their lands.

  4. Crisis response measures to COVID-19 should: be jointly conceived with IPLCs; value diverse perspectives and approaches; and recognise the actions that many IPLCs undertake independently.

  5. Governments and NGOs should learn from and disseminate COVID-19 success stories carried out by IPLCs.

  6. Greater diversity of funding is needed for conservation initiatives that engage with IPLCs, with priority given to direct funding of ICCAs and local communities.

  7. Long-term partnerships between protected and conserved areas and IPLCs are needed, which ensure that IPLCs’ access to natural resources is not put at risk in times of crisis.

This paper will be published in a next edition of the IUCN Parks journal, due out in February 2021: .

A further analysis will be made in 2021, in collaboration with the ICCA Consortium.

Share your story with us!

The survey is still open in 3 languages (Spanish, English and French) and we kindly invite all people from Indigenous peoples or local communities, as well as organisations and researchers that work with them, to contribute.

English version

Spanish version

French version

* By Gretchen Walters1, Neema Pathak Broome2, Marina Cracco1, Tushar Dash3, Nigel Dudley4, Silvel Elias5, Olivier Hymas1, Sangeeta Mangubhai6, Vik Mohan7, Thomas Niederberger8, Christy Achtone Nkollo-Kema Kema9, Appolinaire Oussou Lio10, Njaka Raveloson,7June Rubis11, S.A.R. Mathieu Toviehou10, Nathalie Van Vliet12 

1 University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland  2Kalpavriksh, Maharashtra, India   3 Independent researcher and consultant, Odisha, India.   4Equilibrium Research, Bristol, United Kingdom.  5Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, San Carlos, Guatemala.   6Wildlife Conservation Society, Fiji Country Program, Suva, Fiji.   7Blue Ventures, Bristol, United Kingdom; Blue Ventures Madagascar, Antananarivo. Madagascar.   8ICCA Consortium, Genolier, Switzerland.   9Université Omar Bongo, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines,  Libreville, Gabon.   10Groupe de Recherche et d’Action pour le Bien-Etre au Bénin, Benin.   11 Sydney Environment Institute, Camperdown, NSW Australia.   12Center for International Forestry Research, Jawa Barat, Indonesia