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Indigenous Peoples and the GEF

Many Indigenous Peoples live in territories that are biologically and culturally outstanding in the global context, and that are also under threat due to economic development pressures generally and climate change in particular.  Indigenous Peoples are distinct communities where the land resources upon which they depend are inextricably linked to their identity and culture.  Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and ecosystem management practices are recognized as highly relevant for environmental conservation, sustainable development and climate adaptation.  Loss or destruction of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and resources due to natural or developmental changes can threaten economic impoverishment, loss of identity, and even cultural survival. 

While there is no single definition of Indigenous Peoples, self-identification is an important criterion for determining indigenous status. Other social and cultural criteria that may be relevant to identifying Indigenous Peoples include collective attachment to land, the presence of customary institutions, indigenous language, and primarily subsistence-oriented production (GEF 2012). There are more than 370 million recognized indigenous people in 70 countries worldwide. Indigenous peoples are also recognized ethnic minority in some countries. For example, the majority people in 60 per cent of land in China are ethnic minorities.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) unites 182 countries in partnership with international institutions, civil society organizations, local and indigenous communities, and the private sector to address global environmental issues while supporting national sustainable development initiatives. Over the past 20 years, as the financial mechanism of key environmental Conventions, the GEF has supported over 170 projects that involved Indigenous Peoples in the areas of biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, and persistent organic pollutants.

Recognizing the important role Indigenous Peoples play as key partners and stakeholders, the GEF has put in place a number of modalities to ensure that Indigenous Peoples are incorporated into all relevant aspects of GEF-supported work.  In the mid-1990s, the GEF became one of the first international financial institutions to develop an independent Public Involvement Policy (GEF 1996) supporting the effective involvement of civil society, including provisions for local communities and Indigenous Peoples. More recently, the GEF adopted the Policy on Agency Minimum Standards on Environmental and Social Safeguards (GEF 2011). This Policy lays out minimum standards on environmental and social safeguards that all GEF Partner Agencies are expected to meet in order to receive GEF funds to implement projects. Further, the GEF’s Principles and Guidelines for Engagement with Indigenous Peoples (GEF 2012) provides detailed information and guidance to GEF Partner Agencies and project partners implementing relevant projects. For example, for any GEF-financed project that is anticipated to adversely affect Indigenous Peoples, the GEF requires that its project partners prepare an appropriate plan, including information on the legal context and indigenous peoples screening, a baseline assessment, free and prior informed consent procedures, evaluation of land tenure, local participation mechanisms, capacity building, traditional knowledge, and monitoring and evaluation reporting.

A number of GEF projects in climate change and biodiversity involve collaboration with Indigenous Peoples for successful outcomes. The following examples provide a sampling of some of these projects and their positive impacts:

  • The GEF “Biodiversity Conservation in Pastaza,” managed by the World Bank, was implemented in the territories of the Quichua communities of Yana Yacu, Nina Amarun and Lorocachi, home to about 300 indigenous Quichua inhabitants in the border area of the province of Pastaza, Ecuador. The objective of the project was to conserve and attain the forest ecosystems and biodiversity in the territories of the indigenous communities of Pastaza through the implementation of the three components: 1) design and application of management plans in three community territories; 2) establishment of a socio-environmental information center for the indigenous territories of Pastaza; and 3) design and implementation of a capacity-building program on environmental and natural resource management. Achievements of the project include the establishment of an Inter-Community Biological Conservation Zone which brings together areas located at the deltas of several important tributaries, including the Yana Yacu, Sindi Yacu, Aymu Yacu and Arabela Yacu Rivers. The zone also serves as an inter-community biological corridor for the conservation of globally significant biodiversity, defined in a participatory manner by the three indigenous communities, under the agreed common standards of management.
  • The GEF “Large-scale Renewable Energy Development Project,” managed by the World Bank, is assisting Mexico in developing commercially-based grid-connected renewable energy applications by supporting construction of an approximately 101 MW wind farm, which started commercial operations in October, 2012. The project was developed in an area with indigenous communities in southern Mexico, which called for the application of the World Bank’s Indigenous Peoples safeguard policy. The project developed an Indigenous Peoples Plan in consultation with the community. Under the plan, the project compensates the community for any negative impact, and makes annual payments for the leasing of the land. Also, Mexico’s state-owned utility and the Independent Power Producer (IPP) in charge of the operation of the project have invested in social programs before and during its construction. The IPP will continue funding these activities during the life of the project (20 years). So far, some of the actions supported include improving schools and the community center, paving streets and providing training and Zapotec language classes.
  • The GEF “Productive Uses of Renewable Energy in Guatemala (PURE),” managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), supports providing electricity to villages inhabited by indigenous Mayans. The prioritization and selection criteria of the targeted villages were based on multi-cultural community needs, technical aspects and the potential for development of productive uses. The project followed a participatory approach, aiming at engaging the indigenous communities. The Indigenous Peoples are empowered to be involved in the decision-making process of project-related activities. Leaders from local authorities, development councils, traditional groups and other organizations – including indigenous, religious, farmers’ and women’s groups, and NGOs – receive professional training, so that the indigenous community and beneficiaries can manage the hydropower facility themselves.
  • The GEF “Integrated Ecosystem Management in Indigenous Communities Project,” in Central America managed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, represents one of the first large-scale GEF projects devoted to strengthening the role of Indigenous Peoples in biodiversity conservation and management. The total area inhabited by indigenous peoples in Central America is estimated to be as high as 170,000 square kilometers, or almost 33 percent of the area of the seven countries that make up the region. About 80 percent of these indigenous lands are forested, 7.3 percent are included in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, and about 23 percent overlap with recognized protected areas. The objective of the project was to achieve more effective conservation of biodiversity and natural resources in seven Central American countries (Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) by strengthening the capacity of indigenous communities to protect and manage their natural and cultural resources, rescuing and reinforcing traditional land use practices. The achievements of the project include protection of 135,000 hectares of forests, and the development of ecologically-sound agriculture farming, including promoting farming without chemical inputs. More than 193 indigenous and rural communities have been participating in the systems. The project supported and expanded on the initiatives of indigenous communities in six priority eco-regions within the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor whose livelihoods depend on preservation of their cultural values and promotion of their traditional land-use practices.

The benefits of the above-mentioned GEF projects to Indigenous Peoples can be briefly summarized as follows: (1) renewable and affordable energy supply; (2) institutional capacity development to implement national and local development strategies and policies; (3) creation of jobs; (4) integration of social and economic development with natural resource and biodiversity conservation.  

Over the next few years, the GEF will be working to incorporate the new standards set forth in the related GEF Policies on Indigenous Peoples. Several actions, including establishment of an Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group are underway, which should facilitate a more effective and systematic approach to incorporating Indigenous Peoples in GEF projects and activities. 


By Ming Yang and Yoko Watanabe




Acknowledgement is due to Dr. Robert K. Dixon, Dr. Gustavo Alberto Fonseca, and Dr. Chizuru Aoki for their encouragement and guidance on this article. The authors wish to thank Mr. John Diamond, Mr. Richard H. Hosier, Mr. Robert Ragland Davis, and Ms. Astrid Helgeland for reviewing, editing and supporting this article.



GEF (1996) Public Involvement in GEF-financed Projects

GEF (2011) Policy and Agency Minimum Standards on Environmental and Social Safeguards

GEF (2012) Principles and Guidelines for Engagement with Indigenous Peoples