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Struggle for control of resources in South East Asia feeds ethnic conflict, displacement and threatens livelihoods of minorities and indigenous peoples, new global report

28 June 2012

An unprecedented demand for natural resources across South East Asia is feeding ethnic conflict and displacement, and is a severe threat to the lands, livelihoods and way of life of minorities and indigenous peoples, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) says in its 2012 annual report, launched on 28 June.

In its flagship annual publication, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012, focussing this year on land rights and natural resources, the international human rights organization says that control over natural resources in South East Asia is central to a number of long-running armed conflicts, whilst minority populations have been subject to forced resettlement as a result of development projects.

‘The economic downturn, with its pressures on governments and companies to find new revenue sources, combined with the emerging bio-fuel market, on top of already ongoing resource exploitation, has created a perfect storm. Minorities and indigenous peoples in South East Asia, often without access to legal protection, are bearing the brunt,’ says Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.

In Thailand, the report says, indigenous peoples have been criminalized, forcibly evicted and relocated from their lands on grounds of national security, development and resource conservation. In the north, smaller mountain-dwelling ethnic groups, including Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mein, struggle to survive economically and culturally in the face of development projects, land-ownership issues and the influx of ethnic Thais.

In Burma resource extraction in minority and indigenous peoples’ areas has fuelled army land confiscation, militarization and destruction of livelihoods. Although the Myitsone dam has been halted until 2016, it is one of 48 dams currently in various stages of development, 25 of which are ‘mega-dams’, located in ethnic minority areas and often in conflict zones. The fighting that broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in June 2011 was exacerbated by tensions over Chinese companies surveying future dam sites, the report says.

The dams are expected to bring revenues of US$ 4 billion for the Burmese government. But the report says they will not improve the lives of Burma’s ethnic minorities, and are proceeding without any proper consultation and without the free, prior and informed consent of minorities and indigenous peoples.

The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in South East Asia is being driven by rising global demand for edible oils and bio-fuels. Malaysia and Indonesia are the top producers of palm oil in the world, and, according to the report, in Sarawak, Malaysia, and in Sumatra, Indonesia, oil plantations have polluted rivers, destroyed wildlife that once supported indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, and led to communities being evicted from their lands. An estimated 4.6 million hectares in Malaysia, and 9.4 million in Indonesia, have been swallowed by the plantations.

In the Philippines both human rights defenders from indigenous communities and those supporting their rights have been targeted for extra-judicial killings, threatened and harassed. The report says that during President Benigno Aquino’s first 18 months in office, 13 indigenous rights activists have been killed, at least four of whom were resisting mining in their communities, whilst 60 per cent of the Cordilleras region of the country has been approved for mining applications and operations.

In Cambodia, the Prey Lang forest, inhabited by the Kuy indigenous peoples, has been designated as a conservation area. However, the government has granted tens of thousands of hectares of the forest for extraction of minerals, timber and for rubber plantations, leaving the community unable to practise their traditional livelihoods and pushing them further into poverty.

The report, however, points out that indigenous and minority communities in South East Asia do not reject all natural resource development.

‘Minorities and indigenous peoples, in many cases, hope to benefit from development projects to improve their social and economic life. They also have skills and knowledge to contribute to the sustainable management of natural resources. The way forward is through development that will respect, protect and fulfil their human rights,’ says Prabindra Shakya, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact’s Communications Coordinator.

Notes to the Editor

  • Download the full report here.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.
  • The South East Asia chapter of the State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012, will be launched at an event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand at 10am, 28 June 2012
  • The press conference will also encompass the regional launch of Development Aggression as Economic Growth, a report from the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) on the occasion of Rio+20
  • Interview opportunities in Bangkok are available with:
    • Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications
    • Nicole Girard, MRG’s Asia Global Advocacy Programme Coordinator and author of the chapter
    • Prabindra Shakya, Communications Coordinator, AIPP
    • Wut Boonlert, Coordinator (western region), Karen Network for Culture and Environment
    • Naw San, General Secretary, Students and Youth Congress of Burma

To arrange interviews: MRG Press Office – [email protected]