Review articles

Indigenous and Local Knowledge’s Role in Social Movement’s Struggles Against Threats to CommunityBased Natural Resource Management Systems: Insights from a Qualitative Metaanalysis

Authors: {'first_name': 'Petra', 'last_name': 'Benyei'},{'first_name': 'Laura', 'last_name': 'Calvet-Mir'},{'first_name': 'Victoria', 'last_name': 'Reyes-Garc\xc3\xada'},{'first_name': 'Sergio', 'last_name': 'Villamayor-Tomas'}


Despite the international consensus about the benefits of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) for sustainable resource governance, Indigenous peoples and local communities continue to face threats to their self-governance stemming from shortsighted government regulations, marginalization, and other global political economy forces. To contribute to scholarship on the impact of social movements on CBNRM organization and robustness, in this article we focus on the role that Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) plays in the social movement’s struggles against threats to their CBNRM system. Specifically, we present the results from a qualitative meta-analysis of 20 cases extracted from a previous literature review (Villamayor-Tomas & García-López 2018). Through our analyses we explore the extent to which different ILK dimensions are a) part of the baseline CBNRM system; b) impacted by the threats to the CBNRM system; c) mobilized by social movements in their struggle to defend the CBNRM system; and d) affected by the outcomes of the social movement’s struggle. Our results show that ILK is affected by threats to CBNRM both directly (e.g., via the erosion of ILK-based institutions that govern the CBNRM system) and indirectly (e.g., via the erosion of the natural environments in which ILK develops). We also highlight that social movements mobilize different ILK dimensions depending on the socio-political context, the locally perceived nature of threats, and the perceived importance of certain ILK dimensions for community cohesion and collective action strengthening. Finally, we reflect on how, although conceptualizing ILK dimensions and CBNRM system separately and formalizing their linkages might offer new research opportunities, ILK systems are holistic knowledge commons that are hard to disentangle from the physical commons in the context of CBNRM systems.

Keywords: Collective actionenvironmental justicegrounded theoryidentityinstitutionsknowledge commons 
 Accepted on 28 Aug 2022            Submitted on 24 Oct 2021


Research on how community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) systems1 contribute to sustainability has raised concerns about the vulnerability of such systems to globalization, shortsighted government regulations, marginalization, intensified land use, resource competition from commercial interests, and other socioeconomic threats (Baynes et al. 2015; Blaikie 2006). In such context, interest is growing in understanding local communities’ capacity both to manage resources and mobilize in their defense. Communities’ resource management systems and mobilization capacity are two interlinked aspects of collective action (Villamayor-Tomas, García-López, and Scholtens 2020), although they have so far been studied rather separately.

In the mid-1990s, political ecology scholars made a pioneering effort to analyze the links between social movements and CBNRM (Goldman 1998; Peet and Watts 1996). Contributions, mainly from the global South, aimed at understanding how -within the broader political-economic dynamics of globalization- local, often marginalized, communities shaped and contested restrictions to their access to nature. Classic examples include the study of the Chipko movement in the Indian Himalayas in defense of access to forest resources or the study of the Landless Workers movement in Brazil in defense of access to land (Rangan 1996; Diniz and Gilbert 2013).

More recently, some works have reported on the intricate connections between social movements and the formalization of customary community-based management systems (e.g., Smith et al., 2021), or the recognition of collective territorial rights (e.g., Deere 2017) both at local and global scales (Dupuits et al. 2020). In a recent systematic review of these studies, Villamayor-Tomas and Garcia-Lopez (2018) concluded that social movements contribute significantly to strengthening CBNRM systems and do so through different pathways, which include defending communal property and management rights from external threats, democratizing communities’ collective choice processes, articulating community-based monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms, promoting local economic and political autonomy, and reinvigorating local identity and Indigenous and local knowledge. However, the specificities of how social movements strengthen CBNRM through these pathways remain underexplored and undertheorized. To further advance this line of research, in this work we use cases from the same literature review to examine how social movements mobilize Indigenous and local knowledge to strengthen CBNRM.

Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) is a cumulative body of knowledge, practices, institutions and worldviews that have evolved through locally adaptive processes and have been passed down from generation to generation through cultural transmission. This body of knowledge contains information about relationships between living beings (including humans) with each other and with the environment (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000). Distinct but interlaced dimensions (e.g., knowledge, practices, identity/beliefs, institutional) compose ILK (Reyes-García 2015). For instance, farmers in the Pyrenees hold knowledge on what landraces are better adapted to the local environment, have specific practices to store and sow seeds, believe in the importance of timing their agricultural practices with specific dates of the Catholic calendar, and enforce institutions (e.g., seed sharing rules and food taboo regulations) grounded on their biocultural memory of the local environment (Calvet-Mir, Calvet-Mir, and Reyes-García 2010).

The maintenance of ILK requires communities’ continuous interaction with their ecosystems (Gómez-Baggethun and Reyes-García 2013) and strong and well-connected social networks and institutional frameworks (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2003). Indeed, ILK has been mostly considered an attribute of societies with historical continuity in nature’s management, mostly non-industrial and many Indigenous or local societies (Folke 2004). Moreover, although some specific ILK systems rely on a few selected knowledge holders (e.g., a “shaman”, “women”, “elders”), communities at large keep substantial control over the production and reproduction of ILK. This control allows communities to experiment and modify their ILK, adapting it to changing conditions and new threats (Tang and Gavin 2016). In that sense, it has been argued that ILK has traditionally been developed and maintained as a common resource, constituting a knowledge commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007), its use being governed by a set of rules to manage conflicts between immediate self-interest and long-term collective interest (Reyes-García, Benyei, and Calvet-Mir 2018). Several authors have noticed, however, that this knowledge system can hardly be separated from the physical commons to which they relate to (e.g., the seed, the land, the water, Sievers-Glotzbach et al., 2020). This is especially relevant for CBNRM systems.

In CBNRM systems, the physical commons are managed based on norms and institutions that stem from ILK, and thus, while physical commons maintenance depends on ILK, ILK is also maintained and strengthened through the everyday practice of CBNRM (Armitage 2005). For example, in community-based managed mountain agroecosystems, natural resources such as land, water, plants and animals are sustainably used for food production and health enhancement through knowledge, practices and institutions stemming from farmers’ ILK, and thus, the everyday practice of mountain agroecosystem community-based management re-enforces ILK maintenance (Babai and Molnár 2013).

Given their interconnectedness, threats to CBNRM may impact ILK and vice versa. If so, one would expect that social movements fighting to protect CBNRM systems might mobilize or build upon existing ILK to respond to these threats, and thus ILK would constitute a mobilization pathway at the same time that it benefits from mobilization. In that sense, Villamayor-Tomas & García-López (2018) illustrate the connections between social movements and the reinvigoration of ILK on the one hand, and between the social-ecological fit and the enforcement of CBNRM rules on the other. Their work highlights strategies that social movements use to reinvigorate ILK, such as reproducing ILK-based practices via their formalization into educational and research campaigns, and using frames and narratives that legitimize ILK. They also point out potential positive effects that the social movement struggle might have in terms of reinvigorating identity ties and ILK. Despite this initial analysis, we still lack detailed descriptions of the relationships between social movements, CBNRM and the different ILK dimensions.

In this study, we aim to understand the role that ILK plays in social movement’s struggles against threats to CBNRM systems. Specifically, we explore the extent to which different ILK dimensions are Q1) part of the baseline CBNRM system; Q2) impacted by threats to CBNRM systems; Q3) mobilized by social movements in their struggle to defend CBNRM systems; and Q4) affected by the outcomes of the social movement’s struggle (see Figure 1). We do so by examining seminal publications extracted from Villamayor-Tomas & García-López (2018). Although this work is not exhaustive, it lays out the foundations for future research exploring the complex relationship between social movements, CBNRM and ILK.

Schematic diagram with coloured arrows and boxes representing the conceptual framework of the paper
Figure 1 

Conceptual model framing the study. Arrows and colors represent our different lines of enquiry.2

We acknowledge that we are not Indigenous scholars nor pretend to speak on behalf of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) nor represent their knowledge systems. In fact, IPLC’s voices are mostly absent from this manuscript and from the reviewed literature. We speak from a position of Western scientists with a scientific epistemology aiming to develop a preliminary understanding of the relationship between ILK and social movements. This is a first step. We acknowledge that our positionality can bring epistemological impositions stemming from colonial power relations (e.g., the forced analytical separation of elements that might be seen as a whole from other epistemological standpoints). This position might also shape our use of language and terms (such as “natural resources”) that might not reflect IPLC views. We chose to use this language to resonate with the reviewed scholarship.


This study draws on a qualitative meta-analysis of 21 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in English that included information about ILK in contexts where communities had mobilized to protect their CBNRM systems.


The publications included in this review were selected from Villamayor-Tomas and García-López’s (2018) database, which includes 78 publications in which local communities were involved in both CBNRM and collective mobilization actions to defend their resources (see Villamayor-Tomás and García-López 2018 for details on the sampling process). The database includes a classification of publications according to mobilization pathways, one of which was ILK. Thus, to select publications for this study, we queried the database by the ILK pathway. We also conducted a screening of all the remaining publications in search of cases that included information about ILK but had not been included in the mentioned pathway. This effort resulted in the selection of 21 publications whose content was coded and analyzed following a systematic procedure. These publications are written by academics reporting on their study of certain movements defending CBNMR systems. Thus, they often do not include the local people’s perspective, which brings several issues we discuss in our caveats section.

Data collection

Data collection took place in several iterative stages. In a first stage, all authors met to define how to operationalize the questions of interest to the study in a coding book. Then, all co-authors coded the same publication to check for inter-coder consistency and further refine the research questions and coding book. Finally, all co-authors participated in a collaborative grounded theory coding exercise to identify and extract relevant information from the publications, with the first author reviewing all the coding at the end for homogenization (Corbin and Strauss 1990).

The coding book consisted in a dataset with two sections (see Table 1 in Supplementary materials). The first section was composed of descriptive variables including a) authors and year of the publication, b) geographical location, c) ethnic group/community name, d) social movement involved in the CBNRM system and e) main natural resource at stake.

The second section was composed of two types of variables per research question: one variable with all the relevant information directly extracted from the publication (i.e., quotes) and one variable with keywords highlighting the main information contained in the quote. Following grounded theory coding methods, keywords were inductively assigned by coders as they emerged in the text. Since it was central to our research, in the final round of code homogenization we assigned closed codes to the type of ILK dimension that was more prevalent in the publication. To do this we followed the literature on ILK dimensions, which distinguishes between a) knowledge, b) practices, c) identity/beliefs, and d) institutions (Reyes-García et al. 2013). The knowledge dimension refers to the actual cognition of some element of the social-ecological system, for instance knowledge on what landraces are better adapted to the local environment. The practices dimension refers to the actionable component of knowledge, for instance specific practices to store and sow seeds. The identity/beliefs dimension refers to ontological or worldviews aspects, such as certain rituals timing agricultural practices with specific dates of the religious calendar. Finally, the institutional dimension refers to the commonly agreed rights, rules and regulations, such as seed sharing rules and food taboo regulations, but also the governance bodies involved, such as the elders’ councils. We also added an extra category to capture cases in which all dimensions were at stake (i.e., “holistic”). We acknowledge that this separation in different dimensions is an epistemological imposition stemming from a Western science approach to the study of ILK (Cajete 2016; Henderson and Bear 2021). We justify this analytical separation as something useful to communicate with previous scholarship on the topic, although we are aware of its limitations as we discuss in our caveats section.

Data analysis

The analysis of the dataset took place in two phases. First, based on the dataset’s first section (i.e., location, community and social movement), we grouped or split publications into cases and performed descriptive analyses of the cases’ geographical context. Then, we used data from the dataset’s second section to identify similarities and differences between the cases regarding Q1) the natural resource and the ILK dimensions at stake (i.e., the baseline CBNRM system), Q2) the type of threats and their impacts to the natural resource and/or the ILK dimensions, Q3) the types of reasons (i.e., why) and strategies (i.e., how) used by social movements to mobilize different ILK dimensions against those threats, and Q4) the positive/negative expected/unexpected outcomes in terms of the reinvigoration of ILK dimensions that resulted from the social movement’s struggle. For details on each variable, please refer to Table 1 in Supplementary materials.

For the comparative analysis, we first created binary variables for each of the elements described above (e.g., for each ILK dimension and resource at stake, for each threatening factor, for each ILK dimension impacted). We then examined the quotes and keywords to identify whether the element was present on the quote (coded as yes/no; see database in Supplementary materials for more details). This process allowed to disentangle the interlinked components of the CBNRM system and the interconnected threats and mobilization strategies, since we could code “yes” in several ILK dimensions and threats if that was the case. Then, we run descriptive statistical analyses to provide counts of how many cases reported certain element and see if there were other similarities among the cases reporting that certain element. Finally, we used the quotes again to report the main findings in a qualitative way.


The 21 publications analyzed contained information about 20 cases, as one publication contained two cases, and some publications referred to the same case (see Table 2 in Supplementary materials for a summary of the cases).

Geographical context

The cases analyzed were located in all continents except Europe and Antarctica, with 11 cases in America, seven in Asia, and one case from Oceania and Africa respectively (see Figure 2 below and Table 2 in Supplementary materials).

Global map with coloured pins pointing out the location and main natural resource of the case studies analyzed
Figure 2 

Map of case locations colored by main physical natural resource of the CBNRM system: forests, fisheries, water, land or seeds. Source: Own elaboration using Google MyMaps software.

The baseline CBNRM systems

All the analyzed cases reported a CBNRM system in which the communities used and managed a natural resource in tight connection with their ILK. In most cases, the CBNRM system focused on access and management of land (nine cases, referring to soils and territories in general) and fisheries (five). The rest of the cases referred predominantly to access and management of water (two), forests (three, referring to forested lands) and seeds (one). However, most cases referred to more than one natural resource as part of the CBNRM system. For instance, in the case of the Kamalise movement (Indonesia), the most threatened resource was forests, but the CBNRM system included both land and forest resources (Armitage 2003). Moreover, in the case of the Zapatista movement (Mexico), mobilization aimed to protect access to their ancestral territory, including all the natural resources and peoples living in the claimed area (Stephen 1997). Thus, many of the mobilizations analyzed entail a defense of nature, in general, even if the mobilization is sparkled by threats to a particular resource.

Similarly, in the CBNRM systems analyzed, the different ILK dimensions were many times intertwined. Still some dimensions were present in more cases than others. ILK’s institutional dimension, understood as the ancestral and place-based rights, rules and bodies that govern natural resource use, was the dimension most commonly described (18 cases). Five cases even described specific ILK-based institutions, such as the Usos y Costumbres, Esggidam, Sasi, Olo or Adat ancestral resource access rules and regulations (Perreault 2008; Palmer 2017; Alcorn et al. 2003; Armitage 2003; Topatimasang 2005). The identity/beliefs dimension, encompassing the worldviews and ontology that root the community’s management of the natural resources, was also frequently mentioned (15 cases). For example, in the case of the Goa fisherfolk (India), the CBNRM system is rooted in ancient feasts and rituals centered on the sea. In fact, independently of their religion (Catholic or Hindu mainly), Goa fisherfolk “still offer coconuts to the sea on the full moon day of shravan (holy month of the Hindus) and perform animal sacrifices to appease the evil spirit with the help of the ghadi or local shaman” (p.204, Somayaji & Coelho, 2017). Fifteen cases also report specific practices that stem from ILK and that are essential to the CBNRM system. Examples are the swidden agricultural techniques used by the Dayak (Indonesia) to sustainably rotate their agricultural and forestry activities (Alcorn et al. 2003), or the traditional fishing techniques used by the Northwest Indian tribes (USA) and the Kerala fisherfolk (India) to “permit sufficient fish to escape the traps and weirs to spawn enough fish to perpetuate the cycle” (p.38, Cohen, 1989) and to “create artificial fish sanctuaries or artificial reefs on the sea floor of the coastal waters” (p.26, Kurien, 1991). Finally, only one case was exclusively focused on the knowledge dimension of ILK, reporting threats and subsequent farmer organizations’ mobilizations against the enclosure of medicinal and landrace knowledge in India (Randeria 2003).

Threats impacting CBNRM systems

In all cases, CBNRM systems were threatened by one or several intertwined factors that impacted both the natural resource and the associated ILK.

Most commonly (14 cases), the threats reported stemmed from development projects and/or extractive activities. This fits the overall pattern found when examining the original complete database (Villamayor-Tomás and García-López 2021). Specifically, eight cases reported threats related to the implementation of large-scale agricultural development projects (e.g., development of water infrastructures to supply agricultural intensification demands that contribute to land/water privatization; Hoogesteger & Verzijl, 2015), two cases reported threats related to large-scale fishing development and mechanization (e.g., displacement of traditional fisherfolk by trawlers and fishing companies; Kurien, 1991), and four cases reported direct threats to the CBNRM system stemming from logging (two cases) or mining (two cases) activities. For instance, the CBNRM systems of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation (USA, Palmer, 2017) and the Diaguita farmers (Chile, Urkidi, 2010) were threatened by mining activities that limited their customary access and use of land and resources. Development/extractive activities were normally led by corporations, investors and colonists but, in most cases, were also supported by governmental de-regulation and the privatization of public/common resources. For instance, in the case of the Napo Indigenous organizations (Ecuador), the government’s land reform propitiated the land encroachment of Indigenous ancestral territories by colonists and agribusinesses (Perreault 2001).

In four cases, threats to CBNRM systems stemmed from the eviction or displacement of communities as a result of nature conservation restrictions (3) or of violent struggles (1), which abolished or restricted access to the natural resource intrinsic to the CBNRM system. For instance, in the case of the Maldhari (India, Randeria, 2003) and the Ye’Kuana (Venezuela, Poole, 2005), the CBNRM system was threatened by the establishment of protected areas in communities’ customary lands resulting in community evictions, while in the case of the Black peasant movement (Colombia, Escobar, 1998; Wouters, 2001), forced displacement responded to peasants’ fear of continued armed conflicts in their territories.

Finally, in two cases threats to CBNRM systems stemmed from the ruling of international bodies and organizations, which imposed external regulations that limited community’s access to resources and thus the maintenance of the CBNRM system. For instance, in the case of the Eskimo whalers (USA), the fisheries CBNRM system was threatened by the ruling of the International Whaling Commission that banned whaling, thus limiting not only the access to the resource but also threatening the associated ILK (Freeman 1989).

All the reported threats to CBNRM systems impacted the natural resource that is central to the CBRNM system via its depletion and/or degradation by external agents or via the restrictions to local communities’ resource use and management. However, not all of the cases reported impacts on all ILK dimensions. When looking at the impacts that these threats had on the different ILK dimensions, we found that although most cases reported impacts on ILK-based institutions (19 cases; e.g., loss of customary access rights) and practices (17 cases; e.g., abandonment of customary land/water management practices), not all of them reported impacts on the identity/belief systems (13 cases; e.g., erosion of cultural aspects linked to the CBNRM system) and only one case reported impacts on the knowledge dimension (e.g., loss or enclosure of knowledge about medicinal plant uses). Thus, even in cases that informed about the relevance of the identity dimension of ILK in the CNBRM system, the latter was ignored in the assessment of impacts. For instance, in the case of the Colorado Acequias irrigators (USA), although the peasant identity and beliefs were reported as part of the CBNRM system, authors’ accounts of the land encroachment impacts focused on the impact on ILK’s institutional dimension (i.e., restriction of customary water rights) and not on the impacts on peasant identity (Peña 2003).

ILK mobilization

A commonality in our cases is that ILK was a pathway through which the social movement or community strengthened their CBNRM system, in response to the above-mentioned threats. However, the specific ILK dimension mobilized and the strategies and reasons to mobilize it varied from case to case.

In 16 cases, the main ILK dimension mobilized was institutional (e.g., mobilizing ancestral land rights). The main strategy for mobilization was through the filing of court cases and legal contestation, particularly in cases located in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, where, based on customary laws and tribal treaties, communities engaged in lawsuits to restore their access and control of the CBNRM system (see for instance Cohen, 1989; Freeman, 1989; Palmer, 2017; Sherman, 2006).

The identity/beliefs dimension was mobilized in 13 cases (e.g., mobilizing peasant identities). The main strategy for this domain’s mobilization was through community cohesion programs, culturally appropriate education, or language revitalization initiatives. This was significantly the case when the institutional ILK domain was weaker (i.e., customary rights had not been recognized or were dividing the community), and thus the mobilization of ILK aspects related to the identity or cosmology was a necessary step towards acting collectively against the threat. For instance, in the case of the Black peasant movement, the mobilization of their collective identity, anchored in traditional practices and forms of knowledge, was key to unite the community in its struggle for land recognition and against the land appropriation and eviction by coca-related agribusiness and militia (Wouters 2001; Escobar 1998).

Finally, even if not reported as impacted by the threats, the knowledge ILK dimension was reported to be mobilized in six cases (e.g., mobilizing the communities’ knowledge of their territory and resources). The main strategy for mobilization was land mapping and biodiversity/resource monitoring. Such was the case for the Ye’Kuana and Moluccan communities (Venezuela and Indonesia), who engaged in mapping exercises to re-gain access to resources by mobilizing their knowledge of their ancestral territories and the resources they had traditionally used and managed (Poole 2005; Topatimasang 2005).

The diverse ILK mobilization strategies often coexisted with each other, and with strategies that do not necessarily mobilize the community’s ILK, such as the use of boycotts and rebellion, or the use of media (radio, newspapers etc.). For instance, in the case of the Colorado Acequias irrigators, there were multiple strategies for recuperating customary access and use of land and water resources. While the irrigators used local media and demonstrations where ILK was not mobilized to generate collective action and awareness, they also mobilized customary land rights in court, engaged in the reinforcement of traditional water use practices such as the acequias-based water allocation system, and revitalized peasant and local identities (through, for instance, reviving local aphorisms in the protests such as “‘Sin agua, no hay vida’ – ‘Without water, there is no life’ or ‘La tierra es familia’ – ‘The land is family’, pp. 153) associated to the ancient use and access to their territory (Peña 2003).

Similarly, several intertwined motivations to mobilize were reported in the cases, which referred to the different ILK dimensions. In most cases, the reported motivation to mobilize ILK was to reinstate or strengthen ILK-based institutions (19 cases). This is congruent with the abovementioned predominance of threats on customary rights and institutions, such as threats to customary water, forest, land, or fisheries use and management rights. However, some cases also included additional motivations related to the strengthening and continuity of threatened traditional practices (17 cases), or the reinvigoration of threatened cosmologies, languages and other elements related to the identity or beliefs system (13 cases). Indeed, the motivations to mobilize ILK were often multiple and interconnected. For instance, the struggle of the Dayak people was simultaneously motivated by 1) the defense of self-governance through customary adat institutions, 2) the relevance of maintaining traditional swidden agricultural practices, and 3) the importance of revitalizing Dayak culture and lifestyles (Alcorn et al. 2003). Also, in the case of the Eskimo whalers, although the primary reason for mobilization was an international ban on bowhead whaling that restricted their customary fishing rights and regulations, the opposition to this ban was rooted in a struggle to “preserve Innuit cultural continuity, being that the bowhead is a critical social, cultural, economic keystone to the Inuit culture” (pp.140; Freeman, 1989).

Mobilization outcomes

Most cases analyzed reported positive mobilization outcomes, including institutional strengthening, rights recognition and legitimization, livelihood preservation, and extension of networks/alliances.

Most outcomes resulting in ILK strengthening referred to the reinvigoration of ILK-related institutions (19 cases, although in six the outcome was limited). Examples include cases reporting the reinstatement or strengthening of customary land, water or fisheries rights, as well as the strengthening of customary norms such as the Usos y Costumbres (Deere 2017; Perreault 2008). Fewer cases reported the strengthening of ILK-based practices (e.g., swidden agriculture, seven cases) or outcomes related to the revitalization of ILK identity/beliefs (e.g., feasts and rituals, nine cases). Exceptions include the cases of the Dayak people, the Ye’Kuana communities, and the Kamalise movement, in which outcomes are reported in terms of strengthening all four dimensions of ILK, i.e., institutions, practices, identity/beliefs and knowledge (Alcorn et al. 2003; Poole 2005; Armitage 2003).

Importantly, in many cases the direct threats to the CBNRM system remain and, even if the struggle resulted in restoring the CBNRM system, the system still faced important pressures. For instance, in the case of the Black peasant movement, the mobilization of their ILK granted them access to land rights, but the ongoing violent conflicts between paramilitaries and guerrillas made the communities flee the land to protect their lives, rending the law ineffective (Escobar 1998; Wouters 2001).

Finally, 11 cases also reported negative or mixed outcomes from ILK mobilization, including internal community conflicts, the reinforcement of inequalities within communities, or the reproduction of stereotypical preconceptions of what CBNRM should be about. For instance, in the case of the Madhari farmers, Randeria (2003) commented that “apart from the tendency to romanticize Indigenous people within a global anti-statist environmental discourse that valorizes local knowledge, a primarily ecological view makes the local community’s access to commons contingent on their conservation skills and intention, rather than framing the question in terms of their rights to land, forests, and water for their livelihood. It may thus freeze the cultures and life-styles of these communities in time, so that an obligation to continue with their traditional way of life is a price they may have to pay for their non-displacement from their ancestral lands and forests” (pp.45). Also, in the case of the Cochabamba irrigators (Bolivia), Deere (2017) comments that “the INRA Law had established that the internal allocation of land within originary communal land and other communal holdings was to be governed by internal governance structures, following traditional custom and practices (usos y costumbres). At the Cochabamba seminar, it was evident that many women leaders were quite aware that these often discriminated against women (such as in their participation in leadership positions) and specifically, in terms of their access to land. The main challenge, then, was how to advocate for women’s land rights and improve the position of women within communities and the rural organizations, without diluting the demand for collective access to land and territory” (pp. 263). Thus, even though ILK mobilization can be a pathway to confront threats to CBNRM systems, such mobilization was reported as potentially having a feedback effect that negatively impacted the communities.


We draw upon our results to outline some discussion points that might shed further light on the interconnections between ILK and social movements’ mobilization to strengthen threatened CBNRM systems. Before that, we highlight some caveats to our work that must be taken into account when interpreting our results.


This work is based on a previous systematic literature review looking at threated CBNRM systems (Villamayor-Tomas and García-López 2018). While the use of this review is justified, as it is the most recent work in this topic, this choice comes with some caveats. First, our case selection is not representative of all social movements’ struggles involving ILK to defend commons, but just those defending CBNRM systems. Thus, our work might have a bias towards cases dealing with strengthening CBNRM systems (understood as the interlinked physical and knowledge commons present in social-ecological systems), and not cases in which knowledge commons are studied on their own. This might explain why we found only one case related to defending knowledge commons (Randeria, 2003) and most cases relate to defending natural resources and emphasize the institutional domain of ILK. Thus, future work should investigate how social movements defending knowledge commons might mobilize ILK, since the strategies might differ from the ones described here.

Second, since the literature search was conducted in 2017 and our focus was on seminal publications, more recent publications/cases might be missing from our database. While acknowledging the bias, we argue that our aim is not to bring an updated picture of research on the topic, but to take a first step towards the theorization of the relationship between movements, ILK and CBNRM, establishing the ground for future research. Subsequent efforts shall inspect both the relationship between ILK and CBNRM as well as ILK and movements more systematically and via primary data collection.

Finally, we analyzed publications reporting cases studied by researchers that are not necessarily Indigenous or representing IPLC views, and have not contacted the communities that directly participated in those struggles. Therefore, we can only rely on the author’s reports as described in their publications, which entails risks of bias due to the theoretical, disciplinary or even normative standpoints of the authors (Rudel 2008).

While acknowledging these caveats, we derive four important findings from our research. First, in the context on CBNRM systems, natural resources and ILK dimensions are entangled and thus studying them separately might ignore their holistic nature. Second, given the complexity of CBRNM threats, responses in terms of mobilizing ILK seem to target specific perceived local threats rather than the more abstract global drivers. Third, although reportedly less threatened, the beliefs/identity and knowledge dimensions of ILK are very relevant in social movements’ struggles and have positive impacts on institutional and practice ILK dimensions when mobilized. Finally, beyond generalizations, the context of the cases and the particularities of the threats to CBNRM systems influence ILK mobilization.

Disentangling holistic and complex relations

Our work highlights the difficulties of disentangling the different dimensions of ILK and exploring how they are independently threatened and mobilized, especially considering that ILK is a holistic and imbricated system (Cajete 2016; Henderson and Bear 2021; Robin Wall Kimmerer 2012).

Several ILK scholars have tried to disentangle different domains and dimensions of ILK as an important previous exercise to improve the understanding of ILK’s role in complex social-ecological systems. Indeed, the previous literature has described distinct cultural domains and dimensions of associated meaning and practices that compose ILK (Reyes-Garcia et al. 2005). Domains (e.g. agriculture, fishing, forestry) correspond to emic semantic constructs that have psychological reality for local actors and contain different cognitive dimensions (e.g., knowledge, practices, beliefs; Reyes-García et al. 2013). However, results from our analysis suggest that, in most cases studies, CBNRM systems are a mesh of different interrelated natural resources and ILK dimensions. Thus, although threats might be impacting more directly one dimension, in almost all cases other dimensions might also be affected. Indeed, in 12 cases all ILK dimensions were mentioned. Moreover, we argue that even in the cases that did not describe a certain dimension, this dimension might still be important. For instance, in the case of the Eskimo whalers, although reportedly the main impacted and mobilized dimension was the institutional one (in response to the new international regulation impacting traditional fishing rules and regulations), all the other dimensions (identity/beliefs, practices and knowledge) might similarly be affected by the global anti-whaling ruling, since the continuity of those dimensions rely on being able to access the resource. Indeed, as demonstrated by Gómez-Baggethun et al. (2010), strict externally imposed protection rules in social-ecological systems can not only override local customary rules (threatening their continuity) but also lead to a loss of local knowledge, practices and beliefs if local resource users are excluded from ecosystem management.

Although we acknowledge that our effort to code separately the dimensions might be forcefully differentiating between things that are intrinsically related (Ludwig and Poliseli 2018), we also point out that understanding each interlinked dimension of ILK is meaningful to understand how to strengthen CBNRM system. This is so because different dimensions of IKL may confront different threats and/or may require different strategies to be defended and strengthened, even if they are all integrated into more holistic approaches. For instance, Phuthego and Chanda (2004) highlight the need for a thorough and careful analysis of ILK systems to achieve sustainable CBNRM. Specifically, the authors argue that different dimensions of ILK in wildlife management (i.e., cultural practices, institutions and knowledge) play a significant role in building resources management strategies.

Notwithstanding, we are aware that several scholars before us have criticized the compartmentalization of ILK and its study/utilization as independent components as an approach that stems from a western and colonial scientific perspective (Nadasdy 1999), and even have gone further in defending their indivisibility as precisely what makes the ILK systems superior in terms of sustainability (R. W. Kimmerer 2013). Indeed, although cultural and linguistic differences exist among ILK systems around the world and there is no single IPLC voice or view on what ILK encompasses, several Indigenous scholars have pointed out ILK systems’ cultural complexity and the interconnectedness between human and non-human elements of ILK (Cajete 2016; Henderson and Bear 2021). Moreover, authors argue that an ILK compartmentalizing approach can lead to only studying dimensions of ILK that are “scientifically useful” and marginalize others such as the beliefs/identity one (Castleden et al. 2017), or to a loss of epistemic value of ILK in terms of communities’ own validation criteria (El-Hani and de Ferreira Bandeira 2008). Thus, future research on the topic might rather examine ILK as a whole, considering all their interconnected dimensions, and rather focus on the relationship between physical and knowledge commons in the context of CBNRM systems that are threatened.

Local responses to global threats

Our analyses also highlight that the nature and impacts of threats are very complex, whereas the responses in terms of mobilizing ILK are targeted to specific perceived threats. In fact, although most threats to CBNRM systems documented stemmed from colonization, extractivism, and/or development processes (e.g., threats to land and water rights and management practices by agribusinesses expansion), in some cases reports on local perceptions of threats did not consider external pressures (i.e., agribusiness, trawlers etc.), which influenced the strategies mobilized and the struggle outcomes and feedbacks. For instance, in the Kerala fisherfolk case, Kurien (1991) reported a big conflict between traditional fisherfolk using only ILK based fishing techniques and those who had also adopted motorboats or nets. The underlying factor driving these technologies’ adoption was the trawler activity, but instead of collectively confronting it, internal division was generated, and this tension impacted the overall outcome of the struggle. Thus, in some cases, as this example shows, the complexity of the conflict, and potentially the pressures from infiltrated neocolonial agents, makes communities mobilize ILK against local, but not against global threats. In these cases, mobilizing ILK might generate internal division among community members, which, in turn, can both undermine capacity for mobilization and cooperative behavior for CBNRM (Scholtens 2016; van Zomeren, Postmes, and Spears 2008).

Indeed, the focus on local vs. global threats might lead to arguments that highlight the role of miss-fitting local practices stemming from ILK as factors contributing to CBNRM systems degradation, as opposed to the role of external global incentives. As Brownhill (2007) stated when commenting on the case of the Green Belt movement (Kenya): “Subsistence farmers in East Africa began to cut down the fig trees not because they no longer respected their age-old customs. Nor did they encroach on the forests because they were having too many children. They cut the trees because there was not enough food being produced after coffee and tea began to be widely grown on and exported from Kenyan farms both large and small. When world market prices for African export crops fell, many male ‘heads of household’ put more land under coffee and tea to make up the shortfalls in income. And when prices rose, these farmers had further incentives to expand cash crop production. In the process, women’s food gardens were plowed under.” (pp.1). Thus, although the authors of the analyzed publications do highlight the role of external pressures, it is still to be discussed if local responses (e.g., planting trees) are really fitted to respond to the global nature of current environmental change challenges and if, as some authors have suggested, there is indeed room for a global environmental justice movement (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016).

The role of identity and knowledge

An important finding that stems from the cases analyzed here is that, even though ILK’s identity and knowledge dimensions are reportedly less impacted by threats, these are dimensions that are highly mobilized (e.g., through language revitalization or resource mapping programs). Moreover, most cases focus on the mobilization’s outcomes for customary institutions (e.g., regaining land or water access rights) but do not report on the outcomes for the community’s identity and knowledge (e.g., strengthening certain belief systems or knowledge about resource availability). For instance, in the case of the Ayacucho water users (Peru), the mobilization of campesino identity was used to create cohesion among communities with different ethnic backgrounds which, rather than having an impact in terms of reinforcing ILK identity and knowledge, had a very tangible outcome in terms of strengthening the water access customary rights and regulations (i.e., ILK institutional dimension), increasing users association’s decision making power (Hoogesteger and Verzijl 2015). Although this could be the result of authors’ biased view focusing on the institutional aspects of CBNRM (e.g., access rights), or a result of our forced “disentangled” analytical approach, it does resonates with the emphasis made by commons and adaptation scholars on the importance of identity for social capital (Ostrom and Ahn 2008; Gutiérrez, Hilborn, and Defeo 2011) and collective sense of belonging (Mosimane, Breen, and Nkhata 2012; Scholtens 2016) as buffers against resource overexploitation, changes in institutional arrangements, and economic crises. In the same line, our findings suggest that identity may be a keystone (although not necessarily an evident) lever for communities to mobilize in the absence of other, more formal means or institutions. Collective identity can be particularly effective in promoting collective action against threats to minority groups due to the emotional trigger of feeling collectively disadvantaged (Zomeren, Spears, and Leach 2008).

The importance of context

Finally, an overarching result of our work is that the strategies to mobilize ILK are adapted to the local socio-economic and political context and the different colonial histories. The cases examined in US, Canada, and New Zealand, where there are established treaties protecting Indigenous peoples’ rights, show a prevalence of legal battles as strategy to achieve the recognition of ILK institutions. On the contrary, in cases taking place in countries where Indigenous peoples and local communities’ rights are not officialized, the reinvigoration of collective identities and knowledge through cultural activities or mapping are more common than legal battles. This finding is congruent with the social movement theory that emphasizes the fit between political opportunity structures (e.g., the degree of openness of political institutions to potential challengers, tolerance or repression of protest, or the presence of movement allies within elites) and the mobilization strategies developed by movements (McAdam and Tarrow 2018). More importantly, our finding helps qualify previous studies reliying on social movement theory to understand community-based environmental justice mobilizations (Kirchherr 2018; Di Gregorio 2014) by suggesting a critical role of activities that invigorate identity and culture when political/legal opportunities are limited.

It is important to also note that in the reviewed documents there are no cases from Europe, and only one for Africa and Oceania, and thus we are still missing part of the story. The original search carried out in Villamayor-Tomas and Garcia-Lopez (2018) also included proportionally fewer cases from those continents (one, seven and two, respectively). We argue that this distribution of cases reflect the state of the art. Environmental justice studies investigating social movements’ defense of CBNRM systems enjoy a long-standing tradition in the US (Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009). Latin-American scholars and cases have gained quite some recognition in the last decades also for developing their own take on environmental justice conflicts and alternatives to mainstream development projects (Álvarez and Coolsaet 2020). These have put the spot on collective identity and practices (communalism/communality) as a basis for transformative self-management projects and broader mobilizations (Zibechi 2003; García López, Velicu, and D’Alisa 2017). However, other areas in the world still require further attention and thus, whether the state of the art reflects the actual distribution of cases of environmental justice conflicts and CBNRM/ILK interactions is a question for further research. Indeed, a preliminary look at the numerous cases of environmental justice in Europe, Africa, and Oceania registered in the Environmental Justice Atlas (, suggests that such research may be indeed due.


In this work we aimed to lay out the foundations for future research oriented to explore the complex relationship between social movements, CBNRM and ILK. Our results on the different dimensions of ILK being threatened and mobilized in the context of social movement’s struggles to defend CBNRM systems bring us to three main conclusions.

First, although conceptualizing ILK dimensions and CBNRM system separately and formalizing their linkages might offer new research opportunities, ILK systems are holistic knowledge commons that are hard to disentangle from the physical commons in the context of CBNRM systems.

Second, ILK systems are affected by threats to CBNRM both directly (e.g., via the erosion of ILK-based institutions that govern the CBNRM system) and indirectly (e.g., via the erosion of the natural environments in which ILK develops).

Finally, social movements mobilize different ILK dimensions depending on the socio-political context of the case, the locally perceived nature of threats, and the perceived importance of certain ILK dimensions for community cohesion and collective action strengthening.

Additional Files

The additional files for this article can be found as follows:

Supplementary Files

Table 1 and 2. DOI:

Supplementary Files

Data base. DOI:


1In this article we use the term “CBNRM” and “natural resources” to resonate with previous literature on the topic but we acknowledge these terms might not align with IPLC’s views or language, as has been previously discussed by other scholars (Esteva and Prakash 1998; Linebaugh 2019). 

2Threats to CBNRM systems can manifest through impacts on either physical commons and/or ILK, which are two intrinsically related components of the baseline CBNRM system. Social movements coevolve with CBNRM systems mobilizing its ILK components to respond to the threats. This mobilization has continuous outcomes and feedbacks that sometimes reconfigure the baseline CBNRM system in the process. 


We would like to acknowledge the efforts that communities all around the world make to protect and strengthen their CBNRM systems and associated ILK confronting its erosion and enclosure. This research has been supported by the Laboratory for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems in a Globalized world (LASEG), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Generalitat de Catalunya (2017-SGR-775). This work contributes to the ‘María de Maeztu Unit of Excellence’ (CEX2019-000940-M).

SVT, would also like to acknowledge also the European Commission funding under the Marie Curie Actions (Individual Fellowships contract Nr. 660089–COMOVE) and the Ramon y Cajal Fellowship of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (RyC-2017-22782).

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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