West and Central Asia & the Caucasus

Diversity, present status, and threats

Author(s): Aibek Samakov and Marc Foggin, with contributions from Taghi Farvar, Irakli Goradze, Holly Jonas, Ruben Khachatryan, Bassima Khatib, Nejat Malikyar, Ali Razmkhah, Jessica Stewart, and Engin Yilmaz; and editorial support by Matthew Emslie-Smith, Holly Jonas, and Jessica Stewart.

Download PDF West and Central Asia & the Caucasus

Indigenous peoples and local communities govern and conserve vast territories of life across the breadth of West and Central Asia and the Caucasus. These territories are found in all geoclimatic and sociopolitical regions and are highly diverse in their ecological and cultural characteristics. However, in nearly all instances, people and land are intricately connected through people’s livelihoods and their territories of life are intertwined with culture and sense of identity. Local communities and Indigenous Peoples who effectively govern, manage and conserve their land and biodiversity contribute not only to local affairs, but also to national and global goals as expressed, for example, in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as goals set out in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and future targets under the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Their lands, livelihoods and cultures also overlap substantially with globally recognized biodiversity hotspots and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). In this document, the current status and condition of territories of life across the region are reviewed – drawing attention to the inherent richness and diversity of the region’s territories of life as well as the many ways in which each of their current states and the unique threats they face and emerging opportunities vary significantly. Conversely, global trends such as climate change and economic globalisation are likely to affect all of them, adversely, in similar ways. While this report offers a long-overdue synthesis of the
diversity of ICCAs or territories of life in West and Central Asia and the Caucasus, additional country-level participatory and community-led studies are also encouraged in order to more comprehensively identify locally pertinent status and trends as well as to highlight the most important threats and opportunities for each country’s specific indigenous and local communities and their respective territories of life, for the benefit of all.

Ecovillage in Armenia. Photo: Ruben Khachatryan

Introduction

This report has three primary aims:

  • to illustrate the diversity and current status of territories and areas governed, managed, and conserved by custodian indigenous peoples and local communities[1] (hereafter abbreviated as ICCAs or territories of life) in the West and Central Asian region,[2]
  • to outline some of the main threats to and opportunities for territories of life in the region, and
  • to offer a starting point for deeper and broader documentation, exploration, analysis, advocacy, and strengthening of territories of life across West and Central Asia

Indigenous peoples and local communities

The terms ‘indigenous peoples’ and ‘local communities’ require some clarification. This report relies on a
set of characteristics outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
(UNDRIP), which guides in the identification of indigenous peoples, including: self-identification as
indigenous nations and peoples; a shared history of suffering injustices, colonisation and land dispossession; a complex web of place-based relationships; language, traditional practices, knowledge, and legal and cultural institutions distinct from those dominant in the national state where they reside; and knowledge, culture and practices that contribute toward more sustainable governance and management of human relationships with the natural world.[3],[4] When referring to ‘local communities’ this report means a self-identified human group that acts collectively in ways that contribute to defining territory and culture through time.[5] Since West and Central Asia represent an enormous region, some groups self-identify as indigenous (e.g., tribes and tribal confederacies in Iran), while others refer to themselves as local communities (e.g., in Central Asian countries). From the perspective of international law, none of the West and Central Asian countries joined the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 (1989), while quite a few of them are signatories to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). During the vote for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, the majority of the states from the region supported the declaration. In contrast, some states such as Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Russia abstained. With the exception of Iran,[6] there are no overviews of country-level legislation on indigenous peoples and local communities and their rights in West and Central Asia, which represents a huge knowledge gap.

Introducing ICCAs – Territories of Life

ICCA is an abbreviation for territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, with a shorter version being territories of life. ICCAs represent a phenomenon with many diverse manifestations and names, present in nearly all cultures and locales around the world. In West and Central Asia[7] and elsewhere, they may also be known as wilayah adat, al-hima, agdal, tagal, qoroq, yerli qorukh, yiyk jer, and as sacred sites or ancestral domains known by their local names.

Over the course of its use, the term ICCA has often been perceived and used in connection to nature conservation.

Although the concepts of ‘territories of life’ and ‘ICCAs’ are synonymous, with exactly the same definitions, the former seems to convey better the views and perceptions of indigenous peoples and local communities themselves in regard to their lands and territories. For example, the term ‘territory of life’ better highlights many of the cultural dimensions of local communities’ interactions with their
lands, thus being a positive step toward overcoming culture-nature, human-nature, conservation-livelihoods, and a range of other artificial dualisms. However, recognizing that both terms are still being used, this report uses them interchangeably.

ICCAs – territories of life often share three common characteristics:[8]

There is a close and deep connection between a particular territory, area or wildlife species’ habitat, on the one hand, and an indigenous people or local community, on the other hand. This relationship may be rooted in history, social and cultural identity, spirituality and/or people’s reliance on the area for their material or non-material well-being. Furthermore, it must be recalled that the status of indigenous people and local communities stems from their self-identification and does not require recognition or depend upon ‘approval’ from the outside for their de facto existence.

The custodian people or community makes and enforces decisions about the territory, area or species’ habitat through a functioning governance institution.

Governance decisions and management efforts of the concerned people or community contribute to the conservation of nature (ecosystems, habitats, species, etc.) as well as to their own well-being, regardless of original motivating factors or primary intent of the governance (decision-making) or practical management actions

These three characteristics are found in many but not necessarily all ICCAs – territories of life. One or
two of these characteristics may be disrupted for one reason or another. Further, in some instances, a local community may desire to create an ICCA even where it has not previously existed. Such diversity of forms or states of ICCAs may be conceptualised as defined, disrupted, or desired ICCAs (Box 1). While such a typology of ICCAs may be helpful for understanding them, one must also always recognise the dynamic nature of ICCAs and avoid attempts to fit any particular ICCA into a single predefined, unchanging category.

Shahsevan nomads in their summering ground in Iran. Photo: CENESTA

Box 1.

Status and types of ICCAs – territories of life

Territories of life generally share three main characteristics, yet they also change over time in light of unique circumstances and in response to internal and external challenges. For example, these territories may be conceptualised as defined when they demonstrate their three defining qualities: (1) there is both a close and deep connection between the territory, area or wildlife species’ habitat, and an indigenous people or local community, with their important relationships often rooted in history, social and cultural identity, spirituality, and with the indigenous people or local community relying on the area for their material and non-material well-being; (2) the custodian people or community make and enforce key decisions about the territory, area or habitat, through a functioning governance institution; and (3) the local governance decisions and management efforts of the concerned people or community contribute to the conservation of nature (ecosystems, habitats, species, etc.) as well as to their own well-being.

In other situations, the territories may have been under the long-term control of local communities or indigenous peoples, but they are now in a poor state of conservation, often due to a variety of reasons beyond their control. There are also instances of well-conserved areas where communities who traditionally lived in such territories have had to leave (sometimes forcefully removed) and thus are deprived of management control (e.g. due to development or conservation initiatives). Such ICCAs may be regarded as disrupted, since one or two of the defining qualities of ICCAs have been severed due to circumstances arising outside the local community. Disrupted ICCAs and their custodian communities should be supported as they reorganise, strengthen and recreate themselves and their territories of life.

For their part, desired ICCAs may relate to the life plan of new or recently reconstituted communities that decide to organise themselves and pull together in the same direction in relation to a shared environment, agreed socio-ecological principles, and a common vision. In so doing, they develop a common identity for themselves as a community and for their territory as an ICCA. Moreover, desired ICCAs may be envisioned either with reference to a pre-existing historical situation, or they may represent a fresh start on the basis of shared values and a strong commitment to the restoration of a specific territory. A helpful example of a desired ICCA would be the new territory of an indigenous community that has been relocated to new lands. In such a case, if for any reason the community were to decide that it accepts to live in the new territory, it may also consciously choose and work toward developing its bond with the land, together with forming or recreating relevant governing institutions and positive practices (cf. three defining characteristics of ICCAs).

Regardless of their status, all ICCAs should enjoy full recognition, support and protection from ongoing and emerging threats.

Where ICCAs-territories of life are present, there is also almost always a greater diversity of cultural expression and ecologically relevant livelihoods, richer biodiversity and functional ecological services, and enhanced socio-ecological resilience to local, regional, and global changes and pressures. The most recent spatial analysis[9] has indicated that ‘Potential ICCAs’ cover around 21% of the world’s land
area (UNEP-WCMC and ICCA Consortium 2021).

Other studies estimate that about 370 million people worldwide self-identify as indigenous and manage
around 38 million km2 – over 25% of the world’s land area (excluding Antarctica) (Garnett et al. 2018).

In addition, there are significant areas managed by local and indigenous communities around the globe (IPBES 2019). When such communities are taken into account, it is estimated that up to 50% of the world’s land area is either owned or used/managed by indigenous people and local communities (LBO-2 2020) (Box 2).

Box 2.

The contribution of ICCAs to conservation globally and in West and Central Asia

By definition, one of the key characteristics of ICCAs is that they de facto contribute to the conservation of nature (Stevens et al. 2016). The contributions of ICCAs and IPLCs to achieving global biodiversity targets have been documented and showcased already in a range of global science-policy platforms (LBO-2 2020). On a global scale, although many direct and indirect pressures have led to reduced biodiversity at an alarming rate (Newbold et al. 2016, IPBES 2019), biodiversity is declining less rapidly in indigenous peoples’ land compared to other lands (IPBES 2019).

Figure 1. Intersections among indigenous lands, protected areas, and natural landscapes – both globally and for each IPBES region. Circles and intersections are shown proportional to area, with the largest circle scaled to the land area of the Earth (135.2 million km2 excluding Antarctica). Source: Garnett et al. 2018.

At least 26% of the world’s state- and privately- governed protected and conserved areas are overlapping on land that includes potential ICCAs (UNEP-WCMC and ICCA Consortium, 2021). Garnett et al. (2018) suggested an even larger percentage, claiming that over 40% of formally protected areas globally are located on indigenous peoples’ lands. Additionally, ICCAs are estimated to cover about 22% of the world’s terrestrial Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) (UNEP-WCMC and ICCA Consortium 2021).

Five of the world’s 34 Biodiversity Hotspots (Brooks et al. 2006) are located within the focal region of this report, i.e. West and Central Asia. These five hotspots are the Mountains of Central Asia, Caucasus Mountains, Irano-Anatolian region, the eastern and northern portions of the Mediterranean Basin and the Horn of Africa (Figure 2).

Figure 2. There are 34 Biodiversity Hotspots in the world, five of which are either fully or partially embedded within West and Central Asia.

Geographical and biocultural diversity

The next section highlights the geographic and biocultural diversity of the region, serving as a backdrop for the great diversity of ICCAs in West and Central Asia.

Countries and regions

Geographically, West Asia and Central Asia are often treated separately. Western Asia (also referred to as West Asia or Southwest Asia) is the subregion of the Asian continent stretching from the Black and Mediterranean Seas in the west to the Caspian Sea to the east. This vast area contains subregions such as Anatolia, Sinai Peninsula, Arabian Peninsula, Iranian Plateau, and South Caucasus. Around 20 countries are located fully or partially within Western Asia[10] including Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar, UAE, Oman, and Yemen; with 13 of these countries including large Arab-speaking populations. As for Central Asia, this vast region stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China and Mongolia in the east, and from Russia in the north to Afghanistan in the South. It contains such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. At the same time, Afghanistan, Mongolia and Xinjiang (the westernmost provincial-level region in China) are sometimes also included in the Central Asian region. Grouping these two regions into one in this report arises pragmatically from the regionalization process of the ICCA Consortium.[11] The ICCA Consortium membership in the region decided in 2019 to regard West and Central Asia and the Caucasus together, in order to strengthen the networking and self-strengthening processes among the region’s many widespread and diverse indigenous peoples and local communities.[12]

Thus, the West and Central Asia region extends around 7,000 km from west to east (i.e., from the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas in the west to the borders of China and Mongolia in the east), and about 5,000 km from north to south (i.e., from the northern borders of Kazakhstan to the Gulf of Aden). This enormous region of the world includes 8 main geographic, ecological and/or sociocultural sub-regions: the Arabian Peninsula, Sinai Peninsula, Mediterranean Sea, Fertile Crescent, Anatolia, South Caucasus, Iranian Plateau, and Central Asia. Covering no less than 13,276,000 km2 in total and with a human population of around 600 million people (Table 1), West and Central Asia is extremely diverse not only in its geography and ecology but also socially, culturally and linguistically.

Historically, many populations and geographic areas also have been influencing each other in many different ways – not least through the long-distance trade routes of the ‘Silk Road’ that have enabled a regular exchange of material goods as well as ideas, beliefs and knowledge over many centuries.

Table 1.

Countries in the West and Central Asia region

Geographic region
Country
Area (km²)Population (2010)Density (per km²)Capital
Anatolia:
Turkey783,56273,722,98894.1Ankara
Arabian Peninsula:
Bahrain6651,234,5961,646.1Manama
Kuwait17,8203,566,437167.5Kuwait City
Oman212,4602,694,0949.2Muscat
Qatar11,4371,696,563123.2Doha
Saudi Arabia1,960,58227,136,97712Riyadh
United Arab Emirates82,8808,264,07097Abu Dhabi
Yemen527,97023,580,00044.7Sana’a
South Caucasus:
Armenia29,8003,264,500108.4Yerevan
Azerbaijan86,6009,165,000105.8Baku
Georgia69,7004,636,40068.1Tbilisi
Fertile Crescent:
Iraq438,31731,672,00073.5Baghdad
Israel20,7707,653,600365.3Jerusalem
Jordan92,3006,318,67768.4Amman
Lebanon10,4524,228,000404Beirut
Palestine6,2204,260,636667Jerusalem
Syria185,18023,695,000118.3Damascus
Iranian Plateau:
Iran1,648,19574,700,00045Tehran
Mediterranean Sea:
Cyprus9,2501,088,503117Nicosia
Sinai Peninsula:
Egypt61,000850,00082Cairo
Central Asia:
Kazakhstan2,724,90016,004,8006Astana
Kyrgyzstan199,9005,482,00027Bishkek
Tajikistan143,1007,349,14551Dushanbe
Turkmenistan488,1005,110,00010Ashgabat
Uzbekistan447,40027,606,00062Tashkent
Afghanistan647,50031,889,92349Kabul
Mongolia1,566,0003,057,7782.1Ulaanbaatar

Sociocultural and linguistic diversity

Many languages are spoken in the region, belonging to three major linguistic families: Semitic languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, etc.; Indo-European languages, which comprise a variety of Iranian and Slavic languages; and Turkic languages including Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and more.

The main religions present in the region are Islam (Sunni and Shia) (Zubaida 2009, Peyrouse 2007) and Christianity (predominantly Orthodox) (MacCulloch 2010). Many major religions’ interpretations are also infused with local beliefs and practices that pre-date the arrival of the larger religious streams (Laruelle 2007).

Historically, Central Asia and the Caucasus have had closer ties with the Russian Empire and, later, the
Soviet Union (Marshall 2010, Haugen 2003). In contrast, West Asia has been more affiliated with the Ottoman and Persian Empires (Agoston and Masters 2009, Lewis 1995). Following the collapse of these empires, nation-states have emerged as predominant political entities. Nonetheless, many cultural and linguistic affinities still stretch across borders and tie larger bodies of people together based on shared histories, values and aspirations, sometimes over and against more recent and shorter-term national or subnational goals and programmes.

Geography and ecology

The regions of West and Central Asia feature many major mountain ranges (e.g., Tianshan, Pamir, Caucasus, Hindukush), deserts (Kyzyl-Kum, Taklamakan, Dashte-Lut), steppes and grasslands (Eurasian steppe), riparian ecosystems (Tigris and Euphrates, Amu Darya and Syr Darya), as well as coastal ecosystems (Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, Caspian and Aral Seas). The region comprises many important habitats for emblematic wildlife species such as snow leopard, saiga, camels, sturgeon, and flora such as walnut and fig trees. At the same time, the Aral Sea, located in Central Asia, is a notorious example of a man-made environmental catastrophe (Edelstein et al., 2012). As a result of the
diversion of water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers for irrigation of cotton and rice fields, the Aral Sea shrunk in just a few decades to 10% of its original size (Edelstein et al. 2012). Notably, many sub-regions within West and Central Asia have arid and semi-arid climates and are therefore prone to drought.

Major livelihoods

The diverse geographic conditions in the region have led people and communities to adopt a wide range of livelihood activities, adapted to local ecological and climatic conditions and the natural resources available to them, also considering their variable spatiotemporal availability and predictability. Notable livelihood systems in the region include nomadic pastoralism, transhumant pastoralism,13 settled farming, and fishing. People also commonly embrace either permanent or temporal combinations of such activities as a flexible riskminimising strategy, enhancing their overall resilience (see, e.g., Sabyrbekov 2019).

Pastoralism
Pastoralism is one of the most common livelihoods across the region (Khazanov and Shapiro 2005, Farvar
2003). In many areas, local livelihoods have at least some pastoral components. Historically, this developed initially as an adaptive process through livelihood strategies that required seasonal migration, leading to emergence of indigenous nomadic pastoralism (Box 3). Seasonal migrations continue to have an enormous effect on cultural identity and ecology in the region (Undeland 2005). There are two main patterns of migration: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal migration over long distances is common in the steppes, and vertical or altitudinal migration is more common in mountainous areas (Dong 2016). Both aim to follow seasonal weather patterns and consequent changes in natural vegetation, to ensure continued access to and sustainable use of natural pastures and water resources.

Farming
Farming is another common livelihood found widely across the region. Although many areas are prone to
droughts, agriculture has flourished along all major rivers and in important oases since ancient times. Mesopotamia, Levant, and Anatolia were the earliest centres of agriculture in the world (Marston 2017) and traces of irrigated farming in Central Asia date back to the Bronze Age (Brite 2016). Farming and pastoralism are not mutually exclusive, as many communities engage in combinations of both (Kerven et al., 2011). However, soil degradation, erosion, and desertification are threats, especially for farming areas in the region (IPBES 2018, Squires et al. 2019). Further, projected population growth is likely to exacerbate pressures on the availability and quality of agricultural land (Osepashvili 2006).

Fishing
West and Central Asia also includes major water bodies such as the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Black and Red Seas, as well as large inland water bodies such as the Caspian and Aral Seas, Ysyk-Köl and Balkhash Lakes, and major rivers such as the Amu Darya (Oxus), Syr Darya, Tigris, Euphrates, and others. Communities living in coastal and riparian zones engage to varying degrees in small-scale fisheries (e.g., Thorpe and Van Anrooy 2009).

Numerous ICCAs – territories of life are found all across the region

Many examples illustrate well how indigenous peoples and local communities across this vast West and Central Asian region have organised themselves and captured the benefits of their natural environments. Their practices protect the environment and ensure that their territories of life are used sustainably. Such conservation is often undertaken out of a respect for the intrinsic value of nature, though not always explicitly so. Nature friendly approaches also ensure people’s continued well-being.

The following descriptions of territories of life across West and Central Asia were collected from the ICCA Consortium membership in the region. Cases have been grouped based on the ecosystems where these ICCAs exist.

GRASSLANDS & MOUNTAINS
  1. Mobile pastoralists of Iran
  2. Sarıkeçili Yörüks from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey
  3. Pastoralism in the Tianshan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan
  4. Mountain farming in Yagnob Valley of Tajikistan
  5. Ecovillages in Armenia
  6. Baiboosun community reserve in Kyrgyzstan
DESERTS & OTHER ARID LANDS
  1. Kariz irrigation system, ranging from Iran to Xinjiang
  2. Territories of life in the Wakhi region of the Pamir Mountains
  3. Al-Hima system in Lebanon
FORESTS & SHRUBLANDS
  1. Tahtacı Türkmens in the Kaz Mountains of Turkey
  2. Walnut forests in the Tianshan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan
  3. Saphari forests in Machakheli valley of the Western Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
WETLANDS & RIVERS
  1. Riparian communities along the Syr Darya in Kazakhstan
  2. Marsh Arabs on the Tigris-Euphrates in Iraq and Iran
COASTAL AREAS
  1. Traditional fishermen of the coastal lagoons in Turkey
  2. Sacred sites in the Ysyk-Köl Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan

Mobile pastoralists of Iran

Tribal territories and migration routes of the Mobile Pastoralists of Iran: limited availability of forage resources requires seasonal migration of livestock

Source: Taghi Farvar (cf. Farvar 2003), Ali Razmkhah, CENESTA
Location: Southern, Central, Northern and North-Western Iran
Practice(s): Nomadic pastoralism

There are almost 700 tribal formations in Iran, consisting of some 100 tribal confederacies and 600 independent tribes – including, among others, Qashqai, Shahsevan, Sangsari, Bakhtiari, Abolhassani, Abarsej, Chadorneshin, Zafaranlu, Gorji and Lorestan tribal confederacies, as well as Chodari, Baluchi and Rabi’i independent tribes, each of which has their own territories of life, i.e., migration realms
(UNINOMAD n.d.). Generally, each tribal confederacy consists of social groups nested within one another, i.e., tribal confederacy (el or i:l), which is a union of several tribes and is the highest social structure of nomadic pastoralists; each tribe (tayfa or tayefeh) consisting of several subtribes (tira or tireh), which in turn consist of several clans (Kheel, bonku, göbak, owlaad, hu:z, or tash), and each clan consisting of several oba or maal, the smallest unit of nomad’s social structure, i.e. the nomadic camp with 5-10 households (tents). This smallest unit migrates and manages natural resources together.

Each tribal confederacy has its own terms denoting the elements of its social structure (Naghizadeh et al. 2012).

For example, the Sangsari Tribal Confederacy consists of 46 tribes, 95 families (tireh), 120 kheyl and 739 households. The tribes and tribal confederacies govern themselves according to customary law and have Elder Councils and/or so-called White Beard Councils. Some of the tribal confederacies have formal state registration and Sustainable Livelihood Councils.

Social solidarity and coherence: Creating strong social organisations of nomads and camel herders of Iran

Since 2003, strong efforts have been made to promote ICCAs through solidarity among the mobile pastoralists and local communities of Iran. CENESTA has assisted 6 Tribal Confederacies (Qashqai, Bakhtiari, Shahsevan, Sangsari, Abolhasani and Abarsaj) and a number of independent tribes in different territories of indigenous peoples to establish their own social organisation (registered CBOs) at tribal confederacy, tribe and subtribe levels in the form of Council of Elders and of Sustainable Livelihood Funds of Nomadic Pastoralists.

The tribal confederacies recognize the importance of establishing a united legal identity at the national level to represent their common interests. That is why they established the Union of Indigenous Nomadic Tribes of Iran (UNINOMAD) and the Union of Indigenous Camel Herders of Iran (UNICAMEL). These formal entities representing the interests of mobile pastoralists interact with policymakers and government authorities for promoting better understanding, recognition and support of ICCAs – territories of life in the country.

The nomadic tribes possess camels, horses, sheep, goats, donkeys and cattle. The memories and documentation available testify that these tribal formations have been highly careful to conserve nature. Their livelihood practices are congruent with the three main conservation features: preservation, sustainable use, and restoration. For example, wildlife is considered a natural heritage of the tribes and they are allowed a fair share of water and natural resources. For example, Abolhassani Tribal Confederacy dedicates its water resources to its livestock at midday and wildlife at dawn and dusk. The Lazor people and many others lay bundles of feed on snow from which gazelles, wild goats and wild sheep may eat
and survive the harsh winters. Most nomads consider that some portions of their livestock are meant to feed predators such as leopards and cheetahs. They consider this to be zakat, a religious tithe.

Most livelihood strategies are consistent with environmental processes and have been passed down from generation to generation. For example, tribal elders still recall how flocks of gazelles and deer would co-migrate with their flocks of domestic livestock during the day and mix in with their herds freely, separating from them only at night to sleep in their own safety and calm. Most tribal peoples would
learn from their elders not to hunt female and young wildlife, especially during the mating seasons. In the
1950s, the elders of the Bahmaei Tribal Confederacy would send out scouts before spring migration to the
intended summering grounds to bring back news of ecological, climatological and social indicators, upon
analysis of which they would estimate quite accurately the carrying capacity of each micro-territory to which they intended to migrate. They would then estimate the number of women allowed to migrate to these territories, as women in this region were responsible for processing dairy products. It took one woman to process around 35 heads of lactating goats and sheep.

The children would herd the lambs and kids, women would herd the nursing animals nearby, and men
would take care of herding the dry animals (males and dry females) much further afield. Any leftover people would be on a ‘waiting list’ of nomads who would stay behind and do other chores for the tribe, such as cultivating wheat and barley for human and livestock use. If the weather and carrying capacity improved the next season, the nomads on the waiting list would gather up a herd of livestock and migrate. Otherwise, they would eventually migrate out of the system and settle in towns and villages near and far.

  • The nomadic tribes use several approaches and techniques for the conservation of natural resources,
    such as:
  • Seasonal migration to prevent overgrazing;
  • Exclusion of all except approved tribal peoples who are permitted to migrate;
  • Declaration of certain rangelands, forests and wetlands as conservation areas or qoroqs;
  • Re-seeding degraded rangelands with ingenious techniques such as women collecting desirable wild seeds in animal skins that are then pierced and hung under the belly of the lead goats of their flocks. The stored seeds disperse across the rangelands, get immediately ploughed into the soil, and are fertilised by animal droppings. With the first rains, the seeds sprout, driving the ecological restoration of rangelands.

More recently the tribal confederacies have taken up participatory GIS methods to map their pastures and
migration routes, which has been helping to protect and sustain their territories of life.

Tribal confederacies in Iran have a strong social organisation, deep historic ties to their territories of life,
and their management and governance institutions and practices contribute to the conservation of nature. These migratory routes and pastures can be considered to be emblematic, as they show a way in which ICCAs can be successfully governed and sustained.

Sarıkeçili Yörüks from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey

Nomadic pastoralism under pressure: institutional and legal barriers undermine traditional ecological knowledge, identity, and livelihoods

Source: Engin Yılmaz, Yolda Initiative
Location: Mediterranean shores & Taurus Mountains & Steppes of Central Anatolia
Community: Sarıkeçili Yörüks
Practice(s): Nomadic pastoralism

In Turkey mobile pastoralism (nomadic pastoralism and transhumance) is a major traditional practice that has been shaping the country’s landscapes for thousands of years. Despite the fact that mobile pastoralism in Turkey has suffered, there are still thousands of nomadic pastoralist families, particularly among the Yörük and Koçer communities, who still maintain wisdom, a keen knowledge of the landscapes in which they move, emerging from thousands of years of accumulated experiences. The practice exists in many different forms in Turkey. It has much to offer not only for conserving nature but also for the cultural diversity and heritage of the country.

Sarıkeçili Yörüks, a nomadic pastoralist community, currently with more than 150 families who have been
maintaining this livelihood for centuries in Turkey, is a significant case. Migrating hundreds of kilometres on foot with their goats between their wintering site at the shores of the Mediterranean and their summering sites in Central Anatolia beyond the Taurus Mountains, they conserve and enrich nature, contribute to local economies, produce high quality and healthy food, and contribute to the fight against climate change. The area they cover includes very diverse ecosystems such as rangelands, maquis, and shrublands, Mediterranean forests, alpine ecosystems, riverine systems, coastal and inner wetlands, steppe ecosystems, etc.

Sarıkeçili Yörüks have played a critical role as a major agent in the evolution and maintenance of these varied ecosystems, including with their migration routes functioning as ecological corridors ensuring connectivity between them and thus avoiding fragmentation. They play an indispensable role for nature also as they generate spatial heterogeneity, increase plant species diversity, promote diversity of species of different taxonomic groups, disperse plant seeds, contribute to soil nutrient cycling, prevent water pollution, prevent wildfires, and increase overall ecosystem resilience.

Like other nomadic pastoralist communities in Turkey, their culture and practices are based on the
understanding that their survival and that of future generations depends on nature. Thus, they have a
deep sense of responsibility and connectedness to the landscapes they manage. Their practices, strategies, social institutions, and evolving knowledge, are all based on constant interaction with the environment and ecological processes.

Yet since the end of the 17th century, but particularly in the last two centuries, nomadic pastoralist communities have suffered from historic injustices in Turkey. These include dispossession (either by expropriation or privatisation) of the rangelands and migration routes they use, thus denial of their rights (including usufruct rights) to their traditional lands and resources, and prevention from using them. Additionally, due to the conversion of rangelands to other land use types, particularly agriculture, the total area of rangelands reduced by over 70% from 44.2 million hectares in 1940 to 12.4 million hectares in 2000.

Lacking access to institutionalised power they became politically and economically marginalised, and even found themselves criminalised for maintaining their will to move. Similar injustices to these communities have been and continue to be caused also in the name of nature conservation. Without the recourse to maintain the state of their traditional livelihoods, most of the mobile pastoralist communities have abandoned the practice completely, and the majority of those remaining have experienced loss of their traditional systems as integrated and distinct communities.

Sarıkeçili Yörüks are among those very few communities which still conserve their identity as a community
despite all these hardships. Thus, in addition to their rich traditional ecological knowledge, like all mobile
pastoralists, they also still hold many traditional institutions as a community. This is also reflected in their
will and capability to advocate and fight for their own rights. Sarıkeçili Yörüks Association which is led by Ms. Pervin Çoban Savran is performing this role for the rights of Sarıkeçili Yörüks in Turkey.

Regarding land tenure, Sarıkeçili Yörüks, in general, utilise public lands (rangelands and forests) in Turkey. While certain internal governance mechanisms exist amongst these communities in terms of respecting each other’s traditional rights to access and use these lands and resources and in terms of managing these commons, none of these are recognized or secured by the state. Thus, to this day they still do not have recognized and secured rights in terms of governance of these lands.


[1] See Sajeva et al. (2019). To further explore a range of key related definitions and meanings, please visit ICCA Consortium’s website: toolbox.iccaconsortium.org/meanings-and-more/iccas-territories-of-life

[2] The ICCA examples in this report come from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Information about ICCAs described herein has been provided by ICCA Consortium members in the region. Although the examples in this report are from a limited number of countries, this does not mean that other countries in the region lack ICCAs. In fact, many if not all of the countries in the region are very likely to have many and diverse ICCAs. It is for this reason that we envision this report simply as a starting point for a more extensive documentation and study of the ICCAs in the region.

[3] To further explore other possible definitions of ‘indigenous peoples,’ please visit the ICCA Consortium’s website: toolbox.iccaconsortium.org/meaningsand-more/indigenous-peoples

[4] The potential of relational approaches for transformative nature conservation (as found among many indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ value systems and consequently within their livelihood practices) is further explored in Thinking Like A Mountain… (Foggin et al. 2021), available at www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/22/12884

[5] To further explore different definitions of local communities, please visit the ICCA Consortium’s website: toolbox.iccaconsortium.org/meanings-andmore/local-communities/

[6] For a country-level review of the territories of life in Iran, see Azhdari et al. (2021)

[7] Reference to West and Central Asia in this document is shorthand for the larger geographic region of West and Central Asia and the Caucasus. This broader geography including the Caucasus is an area of the world where the ICCA Consortium has a substantial and active membership, including coordinated action
under the Consortium’s ongoing process of regionalization (see, e.g., ICCA Consortium, 2019).

[8] See toolbox.iccaconsortium.org/meanings-andmore/local-communities/

[9] This refers to the spatial data layer of potential and known ICCAs, created specifically for the analysis shared by UNEP-WCMC and ICCA Consortium in the 2021 report on territories of life. Many ICCAs are referred to as ‘potential ICCAs’ because they have not yet been self-reported by their custodian communities as such; the majority of the data layer was comprised of ICCAs that have not yet been self-reported by custodian indigenous peoples and local communities.

[10] The number of states within West Asia may be debated, as there are some unrecognised countries and territories in the region.

[11] For more details, please see the report from the West and Central Asia Regional Assembly: www.iccaconsortium.org/index.php/2019/06/30/reflectingon-the-west-and-central-asia-and-the-caucasus-latest-regional-assembly

[12] Full report is available here: www.iccaconsortium.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Report-of-West-Central-Asia-and-the-Caucasus-RegionalMeeting-Armenia-June-2019-final.pdf

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