In need of a moral force

Indigenous men from the Pataxo tribe take part in a protest against an opinion of the General Advocacy of the Union about the demarcation of indigenous lands, at the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia, Brazil on Nov 23. – Reuters photo

LAST Sunday, I wrote about the exploitation by big plantation and mining companies in many parts of the world of natural resources (land and forests), which the indigenous peoples claim as their property acquired by virtue of their customs. I also touched on the legal device by which the indigenous communities have lost their lands and how the quantum of compensation for such loss might not be adequate, leaving them landless on their own country.

Today’s topic is related to last week’s. Please bear with me.

A new NGO to the rescue?

A new outfit was launched last month in Stockholm, Denmark. It has two functions – one is manifest, and the other, latent.

This latest organisation is called International Land and Forest Tenure Facility (TF) funded by Sweden, Norway and Ford Foundation. Its aim is to empower indigenous communities to secure their lands. Three pilot projects are in Peru, Mali and Indonesia.

Hopefully, our government will happily allow TF to operate over here should TF wish to extend its services to this country.

I have yet to find out if this new NGO will be able in a position to help the indigenous communities in Sarawak – those who have lost rights over traditional lands to the developers of edible oil plantations or hydroelectricity dams.

It claims to be the first of its kind in the world to help indigenous peoples on twin fronts – not only to secure their land rights but also to convert their assets into income generation projects without destroying the environment.

Its aims are noble, its vision lofty. It could be a game changer. However, in a world full of conflicting interests, its main challenge will be to meet the needs of small native people who have lost traditional lands to bigger interests- native plus foreign.

As I see it, the main problem will be how to help native communities without legal rights to land and to recognize those rights as having the force of law.

Coming to countries in those parts of the world where disputes between the local traditional landowners and the plantation companies, pastoralists and ranchers often escalate into deadly conflict, and with the poor natives ending up as losers, TF may be find itself unable to reach the lofty goal. According to watchdog NGO, Global Witness, more than 200 environmental campaigners, nearly half from indigenous tribes, were murdered in 2016 alone.

In Sarawak, Bill Kayong, an active native land rights activist was killed in broad daylight allegedly by agents of the nameless lease-holders. Several other natives while defending their farms have been grievously hurt; one TR Surik of Serian almost lost his life. Cases reported to the police are pending, some seven years now. Cases of farmers being questioned by the security guards employed by plantation companies are considered routine. Several landowners were detained or prosecuted for trespassing, believe it or not, on their own land. In Bekalit, the landowners had their houses burnt in suspicious circumstances. Much earlier in Niah, a couple of lives were lost during a fight for possession of NCR land under dispute with a plantation company. Only few lives, what’s the big deal!

From information I have just received, the Tenure Facility’s programme includes training the local environmentalists to leverage rarely enforced local laws that are supposed to protect the landowners’ interests. In certain countries in Latin America, it is almost impossible for the poor farmers to fight the powerful ranchers backed by powerful interests, often politicians in power allocating vast tracts of territory for their own family members.

For the TF to do its job successfully anywhere, it will have to deal with pro-poor people governments. That’s its manifest function.

The latent function of TF is to save the planet from being overheated as a result of the Climate Change. They rely on us in the tropics to provide forest cover that absorbs carbon dioxide and prevent gas emissions in order that they may continue to enjoy fresh air. They have cut down their trees and they want us to retain ours for their safety.

Anyway, both parties realise that two wrongs do not make a right. Let’s save the planet together the best we can.

Moral force

However, TF can be a powerful moral force with which to twist the arms of governments which are reluctant to adopt or accede to international conventions or resolutions made by the United Nations General Assembly. Of direct relevance to us in Borneo is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) 2007.

A number of the provisions were formulated with inputs from several NGOs in Sarawak. I remember attending a seminar held at Rancang Resort in 2000, where we hammered out the draft UNDRIP until the wee hours of the morning.

The draft Resolution was later fine-tuned by the UN Human Rights Council; the Resolution was sponsored by Belgium, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Latvia, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. All articles, one by one, were adopted by the General Assembly of the United in September 2007.

As a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect, the following provisions are relevant to our conditions in this part of the world:

Article 25: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories and resources, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.

Article 26:

1.            Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

2.            Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.

3.            States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions, and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

Article 27: States shall establish and implement in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognise and adjudicate the rights of indigenous pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied. Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.

It is my ardent hope that the government will begin to accede to these provisions of UNDRIP and then legislate them.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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