Conference Background and Friends of the Earth International Position

In today’s world, modernisation and unsustainable development have both led to the severe exploitation and abuse of the environment. The Asia Pacific region itself has about 37 per cent of the world’s forest cover. Logging and mining operations, large corporate monoculture plantations, aquaculture and a host of wasteful, expensive infrastructure development such as large dams, luxury housing and recreational projects, redundant highways and huge airports have all severely degraded our forests as well as our river, marine, coastal and other sensitive ecosystems that contain precious biodiversity. Customary farmlands and other traditional and sustainable natural resource management by local communities, including community forestry governance systems, are also often at risk from the advent of such destructive projects.

The clear mark of such environmentally harmful development activities can be seen not only in the ecological damage that they cause, but also in the manner in which they are designed to largely benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and the public at large, causing socio-economic and cultural devastation to directly affected communities. It is a fact that a significant number of such directly affected communities are made up by indigenous peoples. This has been so because indigenous communities everywhere around the world, since time immemorial, have forged close living relationships with their immediate ecosystems and established customary rights to the natural resources so coveted by corporations, states and international financial institutions. Further, within the modern capitalist nation-state, they have also suffered untold economic and political marginalisation and in terms of demography, often remain as a minority group. As a result, indigenous communities today live a very harsh reality that often involve the progressive loss of their rights to traditional land, forests, natural resources and eventually livelihoods, as well as many other forms of gross human rights violations and violence – forced relocations, arrests, intimidation, militarisation – to list only a few.

This is the reason that Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) member groups have always taken the position that for our efforts at forest, biodiversity and natural resource conservation to be successful and meaningful, rights of local communities to these resources must first be respected. Without recognition of rights, justice cannot be accomplished. Environmental conservation works must therefore be undertaken in respectful and equal partnership with communities, to pave the way towards ecological equity, in which social justice and human rights, become an integral component of environmental justice.

Local communities, in particular indigenous peoples, have long established traditional rights to the resources that surround them and developed customary systems to manage them – be they land, forests, water bodies or other natural resources. The continued existence of their rich biodiversity heritage and other ecological resources today certainly demonstrates to us the sustainability and practicality of such community-based management and conservation systems. The world certainly has a lot to learn from these knowledge systems and their loss and degradation will only be at our collective detriment.
Equally important, the encroachment of external parties, be they by private or public entities, into such areas and the exploitation of the resources contained therein must be also be categorically classed as a violation of the human right to livelihoods and property, which will then promote the violations of other economic and cultural rights as well, leading in the end to the disintegration of both the communities and ecosystems concerned. More often than not, such encroachments and exploitations, even if claimed to be legal in terms procedural matters by authorities, indicate the existence of systemic flaws and injustice within the governance system itself or/and are tainted with covert unlawful activities such as rent-seeking and other fraudulent behaviours, amongst the parties conducting and approving the destructive activities.

In the international context, although the trends to these threats and challenges have been widely documented and examined within formal frameworks and processes, with much academic detail and impressive theoretical analysis, affected communities themselves often have very limited opportunities to share and learn from each other’s responses and strategies, which have been developed, improvised and employed in the common struggle of attaining ecological equity.

Such responses may well involve the mobilisation of a variety of highly creative direct actions, very clever engagements with the old and new media, including the production of self-produced education, publicity and protest materials as well as the creative use of artistic and cultural expressions to disseminate information and garner public support, the utilisation of legal and political lobbying tools, the employment of community-based and traditional socio-economic solution models and numerous other methods that have not been sufficiently publicised.

Recognising all the related issues above, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific (FoE APAC), together with the conference host, Friends of the Earth Malaysia – Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), are hence calling for an international conference to provide the space and opportunity for indigenous communities to share their stories and lives with each other, in particular their success stories and the lessons learnt in their struggle for ecological equity. In addition, this exchange of experiences will also be able to impart invaluable grassroots lessons to other civil society activists, friends and the interested public participating in the various programmes of the conference. At the same time, the conference organisers would also like to provide opportunity for the communities to further learn the variety of technical tools and knowledge that can be employed in order to advance their cause on their rights to forests and biodiversity.

In organising all the proposed exchanges above, we hope that the centrality of indigenous communities’ rights in the struggle for ecological equity will be further advanced.

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