Indigenous Communities and Global Stewardship of the Planet

Keynote address at the Regional Webinar on “Inclusion, cultural integrity and land rights of Indigenous Peoples in Asia” Organized by Kapaeeng Foundation and Association for Land Reform and Development in partnership with the Daily Star, 15th December 2020

Gam A. Shimray, Secretary General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

It is an honor to be addressing to you all on this occasion and at a time when the government of Bangladesh has initiated its forestry law reform. During such times, it is important to draw lessons from the fundamental issues collapsing around us, particularly those that relate to forestry and conservation. It is pertinent to take note that massive loss of biodiversity and deepening of climate crisisalready threatens life on the planet as never before; risk from increase in zoonotic diseases and rate of epidemics and pandemics resulting from destruction of wild habitats and the environment continues to loom large; and shrinking of civic space has put our freedom rights at peril, especially in Asia.

What this tells us is that the fundamental structures of our civilization are gradually collapsing, and we must make way for new structures to emerge by preserving what is good and beautiful and by drawing on the lessons that we have learned. This may sound radical and disturbing for some, but it is already happening.For example,according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), 800 million people worldwide are practicing urban agriculture, urban community gardening and urban homestead farming as innovative solutions in tandem with a return to localism (this includes countries that have transitioned from agriculture to industrialized economies). This may still appear to be small and no doubt achieving transformative change at the global scale depends on achieving a multitude of transformations at the local and national levels, but it is possible if we arebe prepared to make way for such transformative changes to occur.

The global environmental crisis calls for urgent action to prevent the collapse of biodiversity across the planet. The signs are that world governments are finally beginning to respond, committing to new goals to conserve huge swathes of the world’s land and oceans. Governments, organizations, and conservationists have put forward proposals for bringing 30 % and up to 50 % of the planet’s terrestrial areas under formal protection and conservationregimesby 2030 and 2050 respectively to address the dual biodiversity and climate change crises. However, the danger is that such ambitious global targets are often used against Indigenous Peoples and local communities as a justification for taking away their lands, territories, and resources (LTR).This happens because important biodiversity conservation areas often overlap with the LTR of Indigenous Peoples and expanding biodiversity conservation leads to dispossession of lands and a growing list of human rights abuses.

In Asia, there are three countries with fairly well-establishedrights of Indigenous Peoples over their LTR i.e. Cambodia, India and the Philippines. However, progress has been painfully slow in all these countries. For instance, it has been reported that even though the law came into existence in 2001, only about 25 Community Land Titles have been issued till date in Cambodia. The region is raging with land-related conflicts in most Indigenous territories with the highest number of human rights defenders killed being Indigenous Peoples.

Globally speaking, it has been estimated that up to 136 million people were displaced in protecting half of the currently protected areas (8.5 million km2). It took almost a century for governments to set aside about 17% of the world’s land for conservation.And the current draft Post-2020 Global Biodiversity framework sets a target of safeguarding at least 30 % of the planet through protected areas and other effective conservation measures. The 30% target means nearly doubling protected areas in just 10 years. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples and those who are dependent on biodiversity for their livelihoods are not guaranteed yet. This leads us to question its achievability and the potential impacts it can have on Indigenous Peoples.

The recent study released by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) shows that a transformative human rights-based conservation offers a way forward, including for cash-strappedgovernmentsbecause of their coffers drained by stimulus spending in response to the pandemic. The study shows that up to 1.87billion people live in the world’s most critical conservation areas. If these people gained ownership rights totheir lands that they have nurtured as custodians, and if governments becameprotectors of their rights to govern those territories, there would be no need to take theselands into state ownership and not repeat the harms caused to the communitiesworld over.

There are emerging cases around the world favoring a human rights-based conservation as a transformative approach to conservation. Nearer home, several lessons can be drawn from India itself. For example, in Odisha state, commercial logging in Nayagarh district leftits hills completely deforested and barren. Streams dried up and droughts became morecommon. In 2006, India passed its landmark Forest Rights Act, which recognizes rights ofIndigenous Peoples and forest dwellers to govern, protect and own their forests and forestproducts. The law enabled Nayagarh’s people to regain legal control over their forests, oftenled by women who had traditionally managed them. Today, trees cover almost all of Nayagarh’s hills, donning sacred threads tied by the forest people as a vow of protection. Streams flow throughout the year, and rare elephants and leopards havereturned home. 

The RRI report also persuasively argues that about half of all tropical forests could be passed into the control of Indigenous and local communities for a one-off cost of less than $3 billion (against the current estimate of $1.4 trillionusing the conventional approaches of the state) to reach the 30% target of protected areas in 10 years.This is less than 1% of the cost of what has proven to result in less effective conservation as well as in massive violationof human rights. In Asia, the estimates (excluding contributions by communities) show the cost to be around US$4.00/ha in India and US$9.21/ha in Indonesia, thus, making it the highly cost-effective and hugely efficient and quickly actionable.

Indigenous practices are increasingly supported by a growing body of academic and peer reviewed research which demonstrate how their practices support and even preserve the environment and biodiversity at large. These practices did not appear from nowhere but are embedded in the Indigenous identities and the intrinsic cultural values with the non-human natural world. It is this system of value which is represented within the governance structures and institutions of Indigenous Peoples that, when a community’s self-determination and agency are recognized and enacted, a healthy environment and the continued wellbeing for all sharing socioecological systems is maintained. Their practices, values and ethics that govern their life and the manner they interact with the non-human nature is predicated on their worldviews shaped by their time immemorial social and land relations.

Solutions to ecological collapse exist, intertwined in the relational practices of Indigenous Peoples but civic spaces and legislative structures have excluded Indigenous ways of knowing and being. In essence, the civic space has always been closed to Indigeneity, but this must change if the collective body of humanity must achieve transformative change to prevent ecological collapse and a climatic catastrophe which will impact all life on the planet.

In this context, protecting and recognizing IPs stewardship to their LTR is urgent, and it is imperative that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is enacted by governments for initiating transformational change that incorporates IPs worldview at the heart of it. However, due to the strength of Indigenous Peoples and the perceived threat they represent to existing structures, Indigenous Peoples, and the social and environmental solutions they represent are increasingly targeted.

It is important for the people and the government of Bangladesh to realize the futility of perpetuating such perceived threats against Indigenous Peoples and move beyond the zero-sum-game, which otherwise will ultimately devour all of us. Afterall, Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change, so it has every reason to take it seriously.

As the world has begun to recognise the significance of Indigenous leadership and stewardship to the planet, we appeal to the people of Bangladesh to join the more than 411 Indigenous Peoples in Asia in initiating the turning point for transformational change for the common good of all.

Thank you all!

Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

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