Closing Statement

Statement from conference on Forest, Biodiversity, Community Rights and Indigenous Peoples
Organised by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific and Hosted by Sahabat Alam Malaysia – Friends of the Earth Malaysia
October 14 – 17, 2010, Penang, Malaysia

More than 100 representatives of environmental NGOs and local communities meeting in Penang, Malaysia denounced the role of governments and corporations in biodiversity loss, deforestation and the failure of governments to meet the targets set to halt biodiversity loss under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). These representatives called for an immediate halt to the destructive projects being promoted by governments and corporations that enter communities under the guise of development but instead bring environmental destruction and serious human rights violations.

“Despite being the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity no meaningful progress has been made at the international level to ensure a halt or even a slow-down to biodiversity loss and environmental degradation,” said Isaac Rojas, international forests and biodiversity coordinator for Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), speaking at the Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific conference on Forest, Biodiversity, Community Rights and Indigenous Peoples.

The testimonies of community representatives during the sessions in Malaysia repeatedly highlighted the violations of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities that have involved corporations and governments that have taken possession of land in order to facilitate logging operations, monoculture plantations, mining and dam projects.

Community representatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America cited numerous examples of rights violations and unethical practices affecting them, ranging from:

•    seizure of community land and denial of land rights
•    denial of right to self-determination,
•    criminalization of affected people who assert their rights,
•    violence against indigenous peoples, including sexual assaults at gunpoint,
•    intimidation and harassment, including death threats,
•    false promises made by corporations and governments in order to pressure communities to give up their land and rights from pledges on education, healthcare, access to water and job opportunities

Multinational corporations based in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific were all cited as playing a role in cases where the rights of indigenous women and men and local communities were violated.

Winfred Nyirahabinneza of Uganda spoke about the adverse effects of an oil palm plantation coming to her community:

“In the Kalangala district in Buggla island, in Uganda. The oil palm cultivation involves 10,000 hectares of natural forests and grasslands that have been traditionally used by communities. The project is undertaken by the Government of Uganda, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Malaysian investors. This project has led to the taking over of community lands, the loss of communal resources like medicinal herbs, water, firewood, cultural sites and undermined food security.”

“The community was told that they would get money, that they would get rich,” noted Nyirahabinneza, but six years after the project was started local people have experienced few benefits.

Existing international processes established by various intergovernmental structures to address global biodiversity loss and environmental degradation have proven to be solutions that are meaningless for communities. Many of these international “solutions” have in fact ironically served to further harm the rights of communities, compound biodiversity loss and increase forest destruction and economic gaps between the North and the South and within the South itself, instead of protecting community rights and livelihoods and the world’s natural resources. Many of these processes protect the interests of large economies while at the same time burdening smaller economies in the South. In the end, the harm done will trickle down to the most marginalised communities, many of whom are indigenous. Further, such international processes also tend to legitimise existing national and international political and economic frameworks that sanction and promote violations of community rights and the unsustainable exploitation of the world’s natural resources.

“I am here to convey the struggles of indigenous peoples in Sarawak who have been demanding that their customary rights are respected and that the government recognises our close connection to forests and biodiversity,” said Jok Jau Evong of Sarawak at the Friends of the Earth gathering.

“Our forests and our rights are being constantly violated in favour of timber companies, plantations, and dam projects. So we are rapidly losing our forests and biodiversity resources as well as land, livelihoods, food, medicines, cultural sites and heritage.”

Nations and corporations must learn from communities instead of the other way around.
“We demand to be consulted by those big companies that would like to undertake projects on our territories be they mining or building a dam across rivers in order to draw water from them,” said Alfonso Morales, a Mayan from Guatemala.

“Our response must be sought first before anything starts at all. When communities decide against a project, we will also raise our voices to the government and the United Nations. This is the way we shall exercise our collective rights.”

A major way forward is for all governments to respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (UNDRIP) and give meaningful effect to the concept of free and prior informed consent. We demand all the governments to implement these declaration and respect self determination.

In relation to the 10th Conference of Party (COP 10) meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to be held in Nagoya, we would like to raise concerns on how components of the CBD may create severe impacts on community rights such as those on innovative financial mechanisms. One case in point is the Green development mechanism (GDM), that was modelled after the clean development mechanism (CDM) developed within the climate change negotiations.

The CDM itself was created under the Kyoto Protocol at the insistence of developed countries, especially the United States, which had since then refused to ratify the Protocol. This mechanism was simply a process to help industrialised countries to not undertake emission reductions of greenhouse gases in their countries but to get developing countries to do so as an offset mechanism, thus not leading to real emission cuts. Equally important, some CDM projects had also been documented to have undermined the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples.

The Green Development Mechanism is on the agenda for discussion at the CBD COP 10 and is being proposed mainly by developed countries as a way to help secure private finance for biodiversity protection.

The exact nature, structure and mechanism have not been decided, but the direction is towards a market-based mechanism that would trade in biodiversity credits and provide payments for environmental services as a way of offsetting biodiversity and ecosystem loss.

Discussions for a market-based GDM include bringing together parts of various other schemes and ideas including the biodiversity offsetting, CDM and REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation).

It is expected that initially a GDM in this model would be a voluntary scheme, as an addition to other funding sources, but this is expected to go in the same direction as CDM. A market-based GDM that creates tradable biodiversity credits based on biodiversity offsetting would do nothing to address the root problems of the global market, unsustainable trade in natural resources and over consumption. In fact it is a mere distraction from tackling the real problems confronting us now.

We cannot and should not rely on market mechanisms to do the job that governments should be doing. The experience of offsetting and trading of carbon demonstrates that this is not an effective way to provide biodiversity protection.

Rather than promoting such false solutions, governments and the CBD should instead focus on the real causes of biodiversity loss that include unsustainable production systems and consumption patterns. This model prioritises the rights of corporations and elites both in the North and in the South instead of poor communities and indigenous peoples.
The COP 10 will be a chance for the CBD to make strong and clear decisions. We hope this will be the case.

FoEI believes in promoting ecological solutions that are able to adequately protect the rights and interests of local communities, especially those that are drawn from their own knowledge traditions in natural resource management. We categorically reject the commodification of nature and the privatisation of biodiversity resources in the name of biodiversity protection for these will have grave consequences for communities. True, meaningful and effective biodiversity protection can only be achieved through public financing.

Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth International, spoke out against governments that hand over land to profit-seeking corporations instead of ensuring respect for environmental and human rights:

“When policymakers look at the forest they don’t see the people they see only trees, and when they see trees they don’t see biodiversity they see carbon. They see dollars; they see euros,” said Bassey.

“Without the recognition of rights, justice cannot be accomplished.”

Because traditional knowledge of local communities is key for the protection of our natural resources, environmental conservation efforts must therefore be undertaken in respectful and equal partnership with communities. Such an approach will pave the way towards ecological equity, in which social justice and human rights, become an integral component of environmental justice.

Violations of community rights however continue unabated today, indicating the existence of larger systemic flaws and injustices within our political and economic systems. Communities nevertheless continue to resist in defence of their rights and livelihoods and in the process, direct us to real and meaningful solutions to biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. We support these communities in their struggles and call for an immediate halt to the senseless violation of environmental and human rights.