Native People Demand Autonomy Over Territory


Julio Godoy, IPS

Date of publication: 
6 August 2010

BONN – In the view of governments, international bodies and some sectors of civil society participating in negotiations towards new global rules on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the REDD programme is the last chance to save tropical rainforests.

But to the representatives of indigenous peoples who live in the forests in question, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) is just one of many superfluous mechanisms devised by governments and their allies to undermine native groups’ legitimate ownership of their territories and natural resources.

This conflict was again evident this week in Bonn, at the third round of talks in preparation for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held November and December in CancĂșn, Mexico.

“We don’t know what REDD is,” said Mina Setra, head of Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, at the meetings that ended Friday. “But we do know how to manage our territories. For millennia indigenous peoples have drawn on their traditional knowledge to strengthen their resilience and demonstrate their capacity to cope with climate change.”

Setra said she feared that under the REDD programme, the management of jungles and forests would be delegated to institutions that might not respect the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there. “For us, our territories are not just resources. For us, the land is mother, blood, soul and life,” she stressed.

Many speakers at the conference of indigenous peoples in Bonn testified to these fears. Joan Carling, secretary general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact, described a pilot project for territorial administration in Vietnam that, in her view, ignored native peoples’ rights.

“Although the project specifically stated that the people living in those territories had the right to be consulted and to give their free, prior and informed consent, in actual fact the indigenous peoples were never given this opportunity,” Carling told IPS.

Free, prior and informed consent is a collective right established by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and means that native peoples must be informed about any plans affecting them or their lands, so they can freely debate the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed plans and approve or reject them accordingly.

The pilot project in Vietnam carried out just one referendum, asking local people a single question. “The question was: Do you want your territory to be protected under REDD, or not?” Carling said. Most people answered “Yes.”

“But no one ever explained to the native peoples what it meant to have the right of free, prior and informed consent, nor were they given the tools to discuss the advantages and risks of the project,” Carling added.

Carling said the REDD programme should enable indigenous peoples to analyse the plans to administer their territories, and to contribute their own solutions to the environmental problems associated with natural resource use.

Apart from the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent, other issues about REDD that arose at the conference were the ownership of the territories they live in, and the physical and religious use of these lands.

Stanley Kimaren Ole Riamit, a researcher on native peoples in Kenya, presented the case of a district in Rift Valley province, in the south of the country. The district is mainly populated by Maasai pastoralists, among whom the illiteracy rate is high.

The area has a “rich diversity of flora and fauna, including largely undisturbed indigenous forests and plentiful water resources, and is home to several endangered bird species,” he said. The district also possesses “numerous sacred sites with a high social and cultural value” for its people, he added.

This social and cultural value is reflected in the role that the wilderness plays in Maasai life. “Nature is the source and storehouse of indigenous knowledge, as well as a spiritual cathedral, and the source of peace, especially during the dry season,” said Ole Riamit.

All these aspects of life would be imperilled if the Maasai were to lose their autonomy and their legitimate control over the district, he said.

Addressing the issue of land ownership, Dennis Mairena, a Miskito Indian from Nicaragua, said that the autonomy of indigenous peoples, recognised in his country’s constitution, guarantees their legitimate administration and use of the territories they occupy. This model of autonomy could be an example for other countries to follow, he said.

“In the framework of this autonomy, the Miskito have secured property title to 15 of the 21 territories they live in, amounting to 35 percent of the area of the country,” Mairena told IPS.

But REDD is also being criticised over merely administrative procedures, especially in regard to the Partnership, currently made up of Brazil, Japan and Papua New Guinea, which co-chairs REDD meetings and negotiations.

“It seems that the Partnership has so far achieved nothing but disappointment,” said David Turnbull of the Climate Action Network, a global federation of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), at the Bonn talks.

“The Partnership is secretive, and keeps its doors shut to civil society and stakeholders, even though the stakeholder community has knowledge and experience that can support and advance the Partnership’s goals,” Turnbull complained.

“It is critical that stakeholders (including indigenous peoples and NGOs) have the opportunity to comment on all the documents that will guide the REDD programme’s actions,” he asserted. (END)