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The forests and indigenous peoples of Asia: Threatened people, overexploited forests

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The forests and indigenous peoples of Asia: Threatened people, overexploited forests

For indigenous peoples in Asia, forests have traditionally represented their lands and their livelihoods. Yet in recent years the region has lost more than half of its forests, threatening the survival of forest-dwellers due to economic and cultural impoverishment, human rights abuses, land loss and integration into the global marketplace. The report focuses on five states – Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand – describing how logging, hydropower schemes, commercial plantations and settlers are displacing more and more indigenous peoples, as well as how these peoples are mobilizing against this environmental destruction and the loss of their lands and livelihoods. The report also analyses changes in governments’ policy towards forest-dwellers and gives an accessible overview of international agreements on these issues.

In May 1997, Raymond Abin, one of the indigenous Dayak people of Sarawak, Malaysia, wrote to the Third International Conference of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, held in Nagpur, India:

‘I would like to inform you of the appalling situation facing the indigenous peoples of the Bahasa region [Indonesia and Malaysia]. The destructive development policies and programmes of the governments, which place great emphasis on natural resource exploitation and acquisition of lands, have caused acute problems for the indigenous communities. Our human rights as indigenous peoples are continuously being suppressed, harassed, intimidated and violated in our efforts to protect and defend our cultural heritage, resources, land and environment. Our peoples are being deprived, evicted, culturally assimilated, economically marginalised, and live in poverty and malnutrition as a result of development activities within our lands and territories.

The governments are still issuing timber licences over our forest in spite of our strong protest against logging operations within our territories. Deforestation is carried out intensively and extensively in Sarawak, Sabah, and Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, and in Sulawesi, Yamdena Island, Irian Jaya and various parts of the archipelago. In Sarawak, the Dayaks are strongly resisting the targeting of their native customary lands for large-scale oil-palm plantations.

The Orang Asli [indigenous] communities in peninsular Malaysia are continuously being displaced by various mega-development projects including highway construction, highland resorts, parks and plantation schemes. Their rights to land are totally denied by the government. The aggressive promotion of tourism is another threat to indigenous peoples throughout the Bahasa region, leading to widespread cultural disruption, child labour and the exploitation of women in the vice trade.

The Malaysian authorities prevented Abin from travelling to the conference.

(Quotation taken from the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, Report of the Third International Conference, Nagpur, India, 3-8 March 1997, London, 1998, pp. 18-19.)

Common crisis and struggles

With their marginal status, the denial of their rights and a lack of respect for their traditions, indigenous peoples of Asia are easily parted by more powerful interests from the resources they depend on. But they are far from passive in the face of adversity.

From Pakistan to the Pacific islands, the ethnically distinct peoples who inhabit the forests of the Asia-Pacific are developing new responses to the encroachment of the global market in the region and the experience of land loss, human rights abuse and economic and cultural impoverishment. The region has lost more than half its forest cover, resulting in a dramatic decline in biological diversity, unpredictable and more severe floods and droughts, loss of topsoil and farmland, and increasing vulnerability to forest fires.

The forest fires of 1997 and 1998 destroyed several million hectares of forest, mainly in Indonesia, and repeated earlier conflagrations. Whereas in previous years Asian governments had blamed the fires on shifting cultivators, this time satellite imagery proved that many large fires in Indonesia began with land clearing operations promoted for the government’s transmigration programme and the establishment of large-scale plantations. Government ministers noted that forest-dwellers had previously been unfairly blamed for such fires and published a list of 176 companies implicated in the blazes. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir threatened to publicly name Malaysian plantation companies that were involved. There was little discussion of the impact of the fires on the indigenous forest peoples, however, although these are likely to be severe and lasting.

Rights asserted and denied

It is estimated that almost two-thirds of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia. Many Asian governments protest that because the majority of their populations have long resided on their territory (unlike majority populations in the Americas and Australasia, who originated elsewhere) all are ‘indigenous’ and thus the term is invalid in their case. In international debates, on the other hand, ‘indigenous’ status is increasingly claimed by, and recognized with regard to, politically marginalized, territorially based ethnic groups – in Asia as elsewhere – who are culturally distinct from the majority populations of the states where they live. Interpreted thus, the indigenous peoples of Asia include all or most of the officially designated ‘aboriginal tribes’ (Taiwan), ‘aborigines’ (Malaysia), ‘hill tribes’ (Thailand), ‘indigenous cultural communities’ (the Philippines), ‘isolated and alien peoples’ (Indonesia), ‘minority nationalities’ (China) and ‘scheduled tribes’ (India).

The right of peoples to self-determination is enshrined in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most indigenous peoples strive for self-determination – not as secession from the state but rather as a renegotiation of their relationship with it, and for control of the resources that underpin their lives. Many Asian governments have sought to frustrate this aspiration, yet others have already implicitly recognized the validity of the international legal concept of ‘indigenous’.

In the intergovernmental arena, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) refers explicitly to ‘indigenous and tribal peoples’ and stresses their right to self-identification. The World Bank considers that the term ‘indigenous’ covers ‘indigenous, tribal, low caste and ethnic minorities’.

The reluctance of many Asian governments to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to self-definition and self-determination sits oddly with their assertion of ‘Asian values’, which they claim emphasize collective rather than individual rights. However, an objective of their policies has been to assimilate indigenous peoples into the majority society. Deeply held prejudices often underlie these policies, and indigenous systems of land use have been particularly despised and condemned as environmentally destructive. With a few exceptions, notably in Melanesia, indigenous peoples’ rights to collective ownership of land are denied.

Industrial-scale development

‘Scientific forestry’, developed under British and Dutch colonists, led to the establishment of forestry reserves managed by forestry departments and the restriction of tribal peoples’ rights. Forest departments today control 22 per cent of India’s territory (exactly those areas most densely inhabited by indigenous peoples) and 74 per cent of Indonesian lands. In the Philippines forest reserves cover 55 per cent of the country and include almost all indigenous ancestral domains. In Thailand the 40 per cent of the country managed by the forest department includes almost all the ‘hill tribe’ homelands.

‘Scientific forestry’ has led to the catastrophic degradation and loss of forests. Large logging companies have overwhelmed the capacity or intention of states to restrain exploitation. Mining, hydropower and other developments have displaced forest peoples, flooding and destroying large areas; access roads have encouraged settlers to occupy indigenous domains; and plantations have meant the widespread annexation of indigenous lands. Conservation zones established to protect forests have alienated yet more areas from indigenous control.

Industrial-scale projects are often supported by resettlement schemes seeking to concentrate dispersed indigenous communities under government supervision and encourage in-migration from elsewhere. Such schemes have targeted indigenous lands in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indigenous peoples have also experienced the rapid encroachment of market economies, and the assertion of cash values has eroded traditions of sharing, exchange and mutual support. The creation of land markets has posed severe problems to peoples lacking political connections and experience in handling money. Women have suffered particular hardship as their societies become increasingly enclosed and subject to the legal and cultural impositions of outsiders.

Indigenous forest management

The conventional view of indigenous forest management as ‘backward’ and ‘wasteful’ derives from a mistrust of peoples who are neither subject to government control nor contribute substantially to the market economy. As pressure on resources has intensified, a failure to distinguish between the complex systems of traditional forest farmers and the crude slash-and-burn practised by recent settlers has led to assertions that shifting cultivation is the principal cause of forest loss.

However, studies of Asian forest-dwellers’ economies reveal the complexity and sophistication of indigenous farming systems, involving practices to conserve resources, mimic biodiversity, protect watersheds and restore soil fertility. Forest-based societies possess a wealth of practical lore and duties, mutual obligations and rights – in many cases inherited equally by women and men. Indigenous peoples’ ancestral territories are also intimately bound up with their cosmologies and collective identities.

Much of this is obscure to outsiders. Common property systems have been seen as open-access areas in which competition between individuals inevitably leads to over-intensive use and environmental degradation. However, indigenous common property regimes – while arguably never flawless, especially in the face of rapid change – are structured ownership arrangements whose aim is to ensure sustainability.

International agencies increasingly recognize the importance of sustainable community-based forest management, and some have promoted it as an alternative to destruction by logging and plantation companies. The inadequacies of the old top-down policies, relying on state control while alienating forest inhabitants, are increasingly understood. New policies restore some control to indigenous peoples, such as experiments in participatory forest management in India, Nepal and the Philippines. Yet participation has too often been token, excluding women and poorer people.

Indigenous peoples’ resistance to some outside interventions has been used to argue that they are static societies, opposed to change. But many seek change on their own terms, at their own pace and under their own control. This implies a reorientation of official policies to respect indigenous rights and to oblige other actors to seek full consent before pursuing development initiatives. Among indigenous peoples, novel representative institutions are proliferating, with the aim of securing community management of natural resources – including forests.

Changes in international policy

In response to rising rates of tropical forest loss, in the 1980s the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations (UN) Development Programme and the World Bank launched the Tropical Forestry Action Plan. The plan took little account of indigenous peoples’ concerns and promoted intensification of logging, plantations and commercialization. Following widespread criticism, reforms were implemented, but the plan did lasting damage to the reputation of the FAO.

The UN agency responsible for improving the quality of tropical forest logging is the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO). The ITTO’s voting structure prioritizes trade over conservation, but its guidelines provide for indigenous peoples’ involvement in planning and forest management, and specify the need to respect customary indigenous rights in line with ILO and World Bank standards.

New international standards were developed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, with mixed results. The Rio agreements asserted states’ rights over natural resources but were ambiguous towards rights of local communities and indigenous peoples. Yet the Rio Declaration recognized that ‘Indigenous peoples … have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices’.

At Rio governments also adopted Agenda 21, the programme of action for sustainable development, which makes provisions for involving indigenous peoples in implementation and sets out a plan for combating deforestation. Agenda 21 includes objectives for governments and intergovernmental agencies, such as empowering indigenous peoples and strengthening their participation in formulating policies, laws and programmes for resource management. It recognizes indigenous rights to lands and to intellectual and cultural property.

Another Earth Summit agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, requires states to ‘respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities’ and ‘protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices’. The interim financial mechanism for implementing the Convention, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), provides grants to developing countries to pay for environmental measures. Some early GEF conservation projects had severe impacts on indigenous peoples, and indigenous peoples have called for a revision of its policies.

In 1992, indigenous peoples established the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, including a large number of Asian indigenous organizations. Since 1992 representatives of the International Alliance have brought their concerns to the attention of intergovernmental agencies, focusing particularly on the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, set up under the UN Commission for Sustainable Development.

Advances have also occurred among international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). New principles set out by the Forestry Stewardship Council promote the incorporation of respect for indigenous rights in the operation of forest industries. In 1996 the Worldwide Fund for Nature International formally recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to the use, ownership and control of their traditional territories, approved the current wording of the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and emphasized the principle of consent between indigenous peoples and conservation organizations. Likewise, the World Conservation Union has committed itself to respecting indigenous rights and contributing to indigenous initiatives in intergovernmental meetings.

The need for further reform

On the one hand, globalization, trade liberalization and heavy-handed government policies and laws are denying indigenous peoples rights, while obliging their assimilation and putting their societies and environments under increasing pressure which jeopardizes their cultural survival. On the other hand, their mobilization and the growing international acceptance of the justice and prudence of recognizing their rights are creating the context for constructive change.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

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