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Asean indigenous peoples as ‘Earth stewards’ in peril?

October 12, 2019

AMADO S. TOLENTINO JR.

‘The Indians feel…..but they cannot help. They are too small in the essence of the world. Their help is their being and culture. Combined they are a minority. In combination they are faith — a faith of earth.

Let them push their being, their earth and their love of themselves to help those who took their earth and their living.’

— Anonymous

THE global indigenous population of approximately 300 million people is composed of about 5,000 distinct indigenous cultures worldwide. Although they make up only 4 percent of the world’s population, they represent 95 percent of the world’s cultural diversity. The traditional indigenous territories, on the other hand, encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface.

According to World Bank policy, the term “indigenous peoples” (IPs) refer to distinct, vulnerable, social and cultural group possessing the following characteristics in varying degrees: 1) self-identification as members of a distinct indigenous cultural group and recognition of this identity by others; 2) collective attachment to geographically distinct habitats or ancestral territories and to the natural resources found therein; 3) customary cultural, economic, social or political institutions that are separate from those of the dominant society and culture; and 4) an indigenous language, often different from the official language of the country of region.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which aims at economic growth and social progress among its 10 member countries is host to IPs commonly and collectively referred to as “hilltribes” in Thailand, “ethnic minorities” in Vietnam, “national races or ethnic nationalities” in Myanmar, “masyarakat adat” in Indonesia, “original ethnic minorities” in Cambodia, “orang asal” in Malaysia, and “indigenous cultural communities/indigenous people” in the Philippines.

Among the many roles in environmental protection and sustainable development, IPs’ role in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation is the one most talked and written about in recent years. For one, they are keepers/carriers of ancestral knowledge and wisdom about biodiversity. Their effective participation in biodiversity conservation programs as experts at protecting and managing biodiversity and natural resources is even sought by the Convention on Biodiversity Conservation, or CBD (1992). And while IPs are some of the most vulnerable groups to the negative effects of climate change, they are also a source of knowledge to the many solutions that are needed to avoid or ameliorate the effects of climate change. In this connection, researchers have found that indigenous peoples’ territories serve as deforestation barriers. A lower rate of deforestation means that carbon emissions are kept lower too.

In pursuance of traditional knowledge of IPs relevant to protection against climate change, a new platform was set up four years ago to represent their concerns in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Called the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, it serves as a bridge that links the Climate Change Convention to local communities and their traditional knowledge. The platform will promote the exchange of experience and sharing of best practices.

Be that as it may, indigenous peoples are calling attention to their seemingly continuing victimization by development aggression. All over the world, IPs live in areas rich in natural resources which are targets of resource extraction and development programs by governments and multinational companies. In fact, indigenous peoples have expressed concern about Asean’s vaunted economic integration. They are aware that Asean economic growth involves massive infrastructure development in energy, transport and communication that will not only claim the indigenous peoples’ traditional territory but exploit their natural resources such as minerals and river systems to boost power demand as well. They look with much apprehension at planned infrastructures such as the Asean Power Grid, Trans-Asean Gas Pipeline, Asean Highway Network, Singapore-Kunming Rail Link and regional communications networks.

The Asean Power Grid (APG) project being pursued by Malaysia aims to 1) ensure regional energy security at the same time promoting the efficient utilization and sharing of resources for mutual benefit; and 2) enhance electricity trade across borders through the integration of national power grids to meet rising electricity demand and improve access and energy services. Malaysia, through various interconnection projects with Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam is planning to sell 6,830 megawatts of electricity.

Powering up the APG project are mega dams to be built on indigenous territories in Sarawak and several proposed dams in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. These dams will devastate ancestral lands and displace indigenous communities. Be it noted that the lands of IPs in Indonesia and Malaysia are also being taken away for the expansion of oil palm plantations.

In the Philippines, large-scale corporate mining remains to be the main issue of IPs as lands covered by mining permits are sometimes found in IP territories. In Cambodia, a land concession took over the indigenous communities’ farm and pasture lands resulting in loss of territory, livelihoods and cultural practices.

In Laos’ drive for development, international investors are showing increased interest in mining projects, hydroelectric dams and tree plantation sectors. This is affecting IPs who are facing challenges to their traditional livelihoods as well as being forced to resettle somewhere.

Thought-provoking and, hopefully, action-inducing is the statement from the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (Thailand) that “….Unless indigenous peoples are fully recognized as an integral part of a culturally diverse Asean, and unless their collective rights and identity are respected, Asean’s goal of development with equity, democracy and respect for human rights cannot be achieved.”

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