Customary resource management

Customary resource management is a term used to describe the ways of ensuring the sustainability of resources used by Indigenous people world-wide, and is sometimes incorporated into local or national laws. It incorporates local knowledge, practices, and governance to manage resources sustainably. Cultural and spiritual belief systems enable the adherence to and the implementation of customary practices which include bans on harvest, temporary closures, behavioural prohibitions, and totemic and food avoidance practices (Vierros et al., 2010). The variety of customary management systems promotes a balanced approach that ensures food security and livelihood for communities while conserving ecosystems and protecting biodiversity.

Name of NbS

Customary Resource Management

Type of NbS

  • Ecosystem protection
  • Ecosystem restoration
  • Management / social / political


  • Peri-urban
  • Rural
  • Marine

Living systems were understood, adapted to, and cultivated to produce complex and sophisticated social-environmental systems that supported growing populations, and place-specific cultural values, customs, and worldviews in Te Moanaui Oceania (Beamer et al., 2022). These systems can be understood as ‘customary resource management’. The evolution of nature-based living systems in Moananui offers a compelling narrative of resilience and adaptability and reflects a deep understanding of sustainable resource management, social organization, and environmental stewardship, showcasing the diversity and complexity of Indigenous approaches to living in harmony with nature (Latai-Niusulu et al., (2024). Customary resource management occurs throughout Te Moananui Oceania. Customary marine tenure is by far the most prevalent and understood form, but customary management occurs at many scales and can encompass all the diverse ecosystems present in the region. A notable example of this is the Hawaiian ahupua’a. This method of customary resource management from ancient Hawai’i encompasses sections of land extending from summits, through valleys, to the outer reef and into the deep sea (Vierros et al., 2010). Hawai’i also has the kapu system. Other notable examples of traditional living systems and customary management practices include va’a mataeina’a in Tahiti; tapere and ra’ui in Kuki ‘Airani Cook Islands; tabu in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Kiribati; tambu in Papua New Guinea; bul in Palau; mo in the Marshal Islands; tapu in Tonga; and pā kāinga and rāhui in Aotearoa New Zealand (Māori). These living systems exist and are increasingly being researched, remembered, and revitalised in other Te Moananui nations (Kirch, 2007; Koka’ua, 2023; Wheeler &Duong-Pedica, 2023; Lincoln et al., 2022; Kake, 2019).  For further details about ahupua’a, tapere, va’a mataeina’a, and kāinga see Latai-Niusulu et al. (2024). 
‘These systems, evolving through centuries of migration, settlement, and technological advancement, epitomize the ingenuity and ability to live in harmony with nature of Moananui Oceania’s inhabitants. By harnessing the principles of these ancient systems, alongside newer ideas for working with nature that come from places outside of the region, modern Moananui Oceania communities are exploring ways to regenerate and strengthen their ability to adapt to climate change where possible, proposing and exemplifying nature-based living as a dynamic model for climate adaptation and global change’ (Latai-Niusulu et al., 2024).  

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Case Study:

Tabu, Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network (FLMMA)

Fishing Village, Honiara, Solomon Islands, nearshore fishing vessels. Photo by Luke Kiddle

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

People throughout Te Moananui Oceania have harnessed customary resource management based on Indigenous knowledge to protect their environments, especially their seas, for generations, often having their basis in Indigenous cultural and spiritual beliefs. For many, this form of Indigenous knowledge has been eroded by colonisation, urbanisation, and unsustainable development in the region (Kiddle et al., 2021; Vierros et al., 2010). Today, customary resource management is increasingly being recognised, restored, remembered and used to determine maritime boundaries, revitalise traditional farming and forestry practices, and manage living land and marine areas (Vierros et al., 2010; Latai-Niusulu et al., 2024).

Climate change benefits
  • Loss of food production
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts

Climate change is impacting food security in Te Moananui Oceania, affecting ecosystems widely, with implications for agriculture and marine resources, the two main sources of food for much of Te Moananui Oceania (Kiddle et al., 2021). Climate change also disrupts ecosystem services (the ways people benefit from ecosystems) (Kiddle et al., 2021). Customary management can be a way to address ecosystem services loss.

Biomass loss reduces the carbon sequestration capabilities of landscapes in Te Moananui Oceania. Customary resource management can help to reduce unsustainable logging, maintain or increase forest cover planting and encourage the implementation of sustainable systems that sequester carbon (Vierros et al., 2010). Additionally, there are other less-considered biomass sources like seagrass and marine animal biomass that can be sustained (Johnson et al., 2020; McKenzie et al., 2021). The benefit of customary resource management is its holistic, Indigenous knowledge basis, promoting sustainable marine and land tenure. 

Disturbance to subsistence practices associated with historic customary management can have cultural, spiritual, and economic impacts and can cause tensions between communities and authorities around customary practices (Vierros et al., 2010). On the other hand, in some places recognition and implementation of community-led customary resource management have seen a resurgence of social cohesion. Collaboration at a state level is important in this regard (Vierros et al., 2010).  

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Economic and social development
  • Food security and quality
  • Rights / empowerment / equality / tino rangatiratanga

The biodiversity health and conservation outcomes that customary resource management promotes are key to delivering conservation in parts of Te Moananui Oceania (Vierros et al., 2010). Although modern conservation practices are often based on a Western system of thought, customary resource management may offer a more holistic conservation and resource provisioning system that sees people as part of the natural environment rather than as something to exclude completely from conservation areas.

Collaboration at a national level with government and other organisations, as well as international partners has allowed Te Moananui Oceania nations to access financial support for customary resource management in some places (World Heritage Centre, 2014). The resurgence of community-based tenure also reinvigorates support for traditional leadership, promoting community cohesion where traditional governance and customary practices have been historically undermined (McMillen et al., 2014).  This is particularly important in improving justice outcomes around infringements on managed areas, as Indigenous justice systems are often restorative (Jacobs, 2021). 

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Education and knowledge
  • Food production
  • Genetic resources (diversity)
  • Habitat provision
  • Mana (pride), whakamana (empowerment), tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty)
  • Medicinal resource
  • Recreation and tourism
  • Species maintenance

Education and knowledge opportunities are provided by better pan-Oceania collaboration, as well as connections with international organisations (Friedlander, 2018). Skill building for Indigenous groups often occurs during the implementation of customary resource management frameworks (Johannes, 2002) empowering local sovereignty of landscapes, seascapes, and resources.

Customary resource management can enhance the transfer of Indigenous knowledge, often contained only in oral and ritual traditions, especially to younger generations. This protects against loss of intangible cultural knowledge and ensures enduring traditional ecological knowledge (McMillen et al., 2014)

Habitat provision, and species maintenance are afforded by customary resource management as an effective conservation measure (Friedlander, 2018). Increasingly, customary resource management systems are being used to manage larger internationally recognised marine protected areas (MPAs), such as in Hawai’i and Kiribati (Vierros et al., 2010). 

Customary resource management can ensure medicinal resources for Indigenous use. The collection of genetic resources for use in Western medicine is a developing challenge, but appropriate legislation can be developed incorporating customary resource management and monitoring to protect against exploitation (Vierros et al., 2010). Genetic resources can be harvested by Indigenous groups and may provide significant financial benefits.

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Technical requirements

The implementation and support of customary resource management requires effective governmental administration, with enough resources to facilitate collaboration with local groups (Vierros et al., 2010). There is a fundamental need for recognition of the rights of Indigenous people and recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge. Equally, customary resource management requires functional Indigenous leadership, which in some cases has suffered from the impacts of colonisations across generations. Local community leadership must work with government and NGO’s (with sometimes differing incentives) to implement recognised customary practices (Vierros et al., 2010). Because of the small budgets of many Te Moananui Oceania governments, appropriate international support and funding may be required. There is also a need to be able to resource adequate monitoring, maintenance, and justice.

Issues and Barriers

Erosion of traditional knowledge over generations has caused losses of customary practices and knowledge, alongside migration of people from their home landscapes, and weakening of Indigenous leadership (Levine & Sauafea-Le’au, 2013; Vierros et al., 2010). The colonial process, alongside prior mismanagement of historic systems, has led to a mistrust of governmental support for some people in some areas. Poaching is a complex and ongoing issue for customary resource management, which almost always involves areas in which people rely on resources for sustenance and where traditional gathering areas (such as fisheries) might overlap. In some areas, customary resource management (particularly marine tenure) has been codified into law, but mostly this is not the case, so customary practices and the law may be at odds usually to the detriment of both (Preston, 2005). Lack of funding is a barrier to the implementation of customary resource management, especially from local governments in Te Moananui Oceania where many are subject to limited finances and capacity (Vierros et al., 2010).


There is an urgent need to support and incorporate customary resource management into conservation practices. Precedents show that customary practices increase conservation outcomes while also not suppressing local resource subsistence (Friedlander, 2018). There is an opportunity to enhance subsistence lifestyles and to embrace Indigenous knowledge at a legislative level. Through customary resource management, Indigenous people are empowered to maintain cultural and environmental heritage, uplifting community, and providing social, economic, and educational opportunities. This is an important way to empower community stewardship of ancestral landscapes.

Financial case

The significant proportion of fish production in the area referred to as Pacific region is subsistence based (Preston, 2005) and in nearly every island, “substance fisheries are worth more than nearshore commercial fisheries” (Johannes, 2002). There is an obvious financial case to sustainably manage traditional marine resources throughout all of Te Moananui Oceania. It is difficult to produce clear numbers about the cost-benefit of customary resource management, due to the intangible value of environmental resources, such as living marine resources (Vierros et al., 2010; World Heritage Centre, 2014). It is also characteristic of Moananui Oceanic nations for many people to derive their needs from non-monetary subsistence production.

There is a cost-benefit to training local people in management and enforcement of customary resource management areas, meaning that management does not have to be provided by government organisations, which in many cases can already have limited resources (Johannes, 2002; McMillen et al., 2014).

Compensation of the losses derived from the introduction of restrictions is required, and affected people cannot be expected to accept these losses personally, as this often involves training and establishment of other sources of food or resources (Johannes, 2002).  

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Ahupua’a System of Resource Management. Image by Limahuli Gardens
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