Regularization of land tenure for the management of the biodiversity of two communities within a protected area

Manolo Morales, Executive Director, ECOLEX Quito - Ecuador
Saturday, September 15, 2018

From the Namati Blog series 4/6

Of the different types of land tenure conflicts that occur in Ecuador, one of the most worrying is relevant to property rights in protected areas. The government’s designation of protected areas have not recognised the pre-existing land rights of...

After taking part in ILC’s Community Land Protection Co-Learning Initiative[RK1] , where Ecolex learned new skills, we wanted to tackle the issue of protected areas. To address these challenges, Ecolex began working with two communities located within the protected area of the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve (RECC). The indigenous communities of Piñán and Guananí are located in the upper area of the RECC at 3060 meters above sea level. The two communities represent approximately 1,500 hectares and have the same history of land tenure, linked to the large Piñán hacienda.

The traditional workers (huasipungueros) of the Piñán hacienda, who are community members of Gunani and Piñán, filed a labour lawsuit against the owners and in 1964 they reached agreements that the workers would be compensated for their years of service with a portion of the hacienda’s land on an individual basis. The lands were duly transferred and registered on the behalf of the families. They also transferred a large piece of collective land to the community of Guananí as a communal grazing land for their livestock.

Then, in 1968, the Ecuadorian government declared the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which included a large part of these two communities’ lands as part of the new protected area. Today, the Piñán and Guananí communities are still part of the protected area, which has prevented them from fully accessing the land.  

On a positive note, in 2017, Ecuador passed a new Organic Environmental Code (COA) , which, among other provisions, allows the recognition of property rights to families and communities settled in protected areas, provided that said rights originated before the declaration of the area. The COA recognises the right of holders and owners before the designation of the area as protected area. The law also includes requirements that communities commit to comply with the provisions of a management plan, which should be verified through shared monitoring between the communities and the Ministry of the Environment.

With this legal basis, in coordination with the two communities and the Ministry of the Environment, Ecolex initiated a regularisation process. This entailed find the map of the occupied lands and cadastre where the property rights of each family was registered. With this, a typology of land tenure was obtained. To resolve this situation, Ecolex made agreements with the communities to provide legal advice to help resolve each case of tenure and to support the development of a management plan for the communal property and all natural resources on the land. In the case of the community of Piñán, the Municipality of Cotacachi also helped to expropriating the lands of the original hacienda, which have been in the possession of the community members, and indemnify its owners for the lands to be delivered to Piñán.

These solutions, created together with the communities, are expected to be a reality at the end of the project, by which time there will be land and natural resource management plans, land allocation for Piñán, and legal knowledge and empowerment  for all of the private owners, so that they can clearly know the steps they must take to regularise their rights to their lands.


This initiative is becoming a pilot experience for all of Ecuador, with important lessons being learned about how to address the rights of communities within protected areas, which puts into discussion the theory of "parks without people." What is being learned in this experience can serve as a basis for testing a different model, where communities and biodiversity coexist under conservation agreements that stipulate the protection of ecosystems and access to land for local communities.

These advances would not have been possible without the exchange of experiences among the NGOs that are part of the Community Land Protection Co-Learning  Initiative, since in the work of ECOLEX, talking maps were developed, based on the experiences of COMAID on community mapping persons, from JPKK on community-led mapping; and from IBC regarding the creation of “Life Plans” which will be helpful in supporting the communities’ management plans.

The regularisation of lands in the communities of Piñán and Guananí is an experience that puts the finger on the wound, which will establish a way of how to act in this matter and with high possibilities of being replicated. Ecolex hopes that all members of the ILC can learn from this experience, because it may provide solutions to the challenge of land for communities and families that inhabit protected areas, a situation that is present all over the world and could generate a process of exchange of experiences between its members.