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Customary Tenure

Customary Tenure Systems and Territorial Rights

This research theme analyzes customary institutions of land and sea tenure that are crucial to the socio-territorial futures of each partner, and their linkages with state-level and transnational law and governance. Because common property institutions and local knowledge often affect “resource management” (more correctly, in indigenous cultural terms, “relational sustainability”), projects associated with this theme explore essential questions concerning institutional rules and processes of customary tenure arrangements.

This theme explores the interaction between locally-devised forms of ownership and land tenure, and market- and state-driven forms of territoriality. Indeed, projects related to this theme document customary institutions of land and sea ownership and governance, and examine how these articulate or conflict with state-level and transnational institutions of law and governance impinging on partner territories. Our indigenous partners characterize their responsibilities to their territories in terms translatable as “stewardship”. Yet states’ translation (or denial) of group rights in property and territory, combined with bureaucratic resource management, have undermined the systems of indigenous hunters, herders, fishers and cultivators (Anderson & Berglund 2003; Schlee & Shongolo 2012). In order to not essentialize indigenous people and communities as inherent environmentalists, it is crucial to pay attention to the institutional rules and processes of customary tenure arrangements (Agrawal and Gibson 1999).

Research questions

Through individual and group interviews and workshops, participant observation, tenure histories, archival recovery, and community mapping, our projects seek to ask questions pressing to customary land and sea tenure issues:

  • How are rights-holding groups and territories constituted and bounded? How are rights inherited and transmitted?
  • What rules define stewardship responsibilities, authority and decision-making? What rules govern resource access and distribution?
  • What mechanisms of social control operate? And how are these arrangements defended in the face of external challenges to their authority?

Our projects are also concerned with other questions concerning researchers specifically. For instance:

  • In what way can researchers assist indigenous communities in addressing issues of overlapping territorial claims, claims that may undermine indigenous communities’ rights with state institutions?
  • How can researchers document clearly observable changes in indigenous communities’ territorial utilization in a manner that does not undermine their claims on these territories within the context of state institutions?



Theme Leaders: John G. Galaty, Charles Menzies, Ismael Vaccaro

Theme Contributors

Jon Altman
Kirsten Anker
Caroline Archambault
Philip Dearden
Caroline Desbiens
Benoit Éthier
Kevin Gould
Ingrid Hall
Murray Humphries
Eduardo Kohn
Monica Mulrennan
Sylvie Poirier
Colin H. Scott
Evodia Silva
Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert
Daler Turner
Jon Unruh
George Wenzel


Associated Projects

Canadian First Nations’ Ontologies, Environmental Knowledge, and Co-Governance in the Face of Large-Scale Extractive Industries

Community Atlas of the Urracá District, Panama

Documenting Oral History of Development in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama

Impacts of Violence in the Latin American Democratic Context: the Case of Chile and Mexico

Indigenous Development: Social Justice, Resource Rights, Institutional Hybridity

Living Well in the Torres Strait: Indigenous Engagement with Economic Change and Development

Post-Colonial Indigenous Territorialities, Cultural Transmission, and Autonomy: the Atikamekw Nation and the Forest World

Protected Areas Development and Environmental Stewardship, Eeyou Istchee (Crees of northern Quebec)

Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives