Self-determined development: indigenous peoples fight resource extraction


Camille Rogine –

Date of publication: 
8 May 2012

“They’ve turned us into squatters on our own lands,” said Windel Bolinget, Chairperson of the Cordillera People’s Alliance, at yesterday’s presentation on “Indigenous Peoples and Extractive Industries” at the UN. Bolinget was referring to the laws and legal framework, which he also called “colonial doctrine,” currently infringing upon the rights of indigenous peoples across Southeast Asia.

Joan Carling, Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), began the presentation by framing the threats facing indigenous peoples within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Founded in 1967, ASEAN is primarily devoted to fostering economic cooperation between the countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Some 85 million indigenous peoples live throughout these nations, but they are seldom recognized legally.

Currently, the bulk of ASEAN’s economic partn­ership and development is devoted to rampant resource extraction. Carling pointed out that ASEAN’s vision for 2020 “is full of rhetoric of sustainable development, high quality of life, and environmental action.” She added, however, “If we look at the investment plan you can see how the approach is really for setting up extractive industries.” The land conceded to the transnational companies pursuing these extractive industries is most often land belonging to indigenous groups.

Most ASEAN countries, except the Philippines, fail to recognize indigenous peoples as such. Instead, in Laos, for example, indigenous peoples are called “ethnic minorities,” in Thailand they are called “hill tribes,” and in Myanmar, where indigenous peoples make up 40 percent of the population, they are called “national minorities.” By failing to recognize indigenous peoples, these countries can ignore the rights afforded to them under the 2006 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to Carling, “Since indigenous peoples are not recognized with their collective rights they do not have any entitlement to their lands, territories, and resources.” As a result, they are often evicted, without any voice or compensation.

Rukka Sombolinggi, of the Indonesian Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara group, added that while Indonesia has made progress in honoring indigenous rights, it still faces a significant roadblock. “When it comes to mining,” said Sombolinggi, “I haven’t seen any light.” For her, widespread mining projects have carved up the country “like cake.”

All three panelists identified foreign investments as one of their main threats, as funding bodies typically fail to take indigenous rights into account. Carling named the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as key culprits. Carling also targeted the growing influence of Chinese investments, which are not screened for human rights violations. “There are no policies that guide their investments,” she said.

Yet for Sombolinggi, foreign companies would not have nearly as much access to lands or power if not for government bodies that continue to usher them in. “The biggest sinner in Indonesia is the Forestry Department,” said Sombolinggi. “They are the ones that sell the licenses for mining, for plantations, for everything.”

Bolinget added that, “As we resist these mining companies to defend our existent territories and resources, the usual response of the state is to militarize,” leading to extensive human rights violations. Bolinget pointed out that this reaction was far from democratic.

The panelists made a united call for all parties involved in plundering resources in the region, including local government officials, national government bodies, and international funding schemes, to be held accountable. Perhaps most crucially, they demanded the right to self-determination and development defined by the people.