LONDON—Indigenous and tribal peoples of Asia are facing complex threats to their survival as distinct peoples. Not only are they confronted with dispossession of their lands, resources and physical persecution, they are also faced with the appropriation of their collective knowledge on plants, trees, animals, insects and even land and water developed through the ages.
A book by this author, titled The Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia, written for Minority Rights Group International (MRG) based in London, discusses these issues.
MRG, with headquarters in London, is an international human rights organization founded with the objective of working to secure the rights of ethnic, national, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples (IPs) around the world.
The book said traditional knowledge on food, crops and medicinal plants is being taken by multinational companies, while traditional songs and designs are being commercialized for tourism.
The issue of indigenous cultural property rights is becoming more urgent for IPs. Even with the United Nations’s adoption of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there is minimum standard for their protection, the book asserted. This is because unfortunate international instruments have been adversely impacting on IPs’ cultural rights.
For instance, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement put both IPs and developing nations at a disadvantage by imposing an intellectual property rights (IPR) regime that does not take into account the diversity of cultures.
Also, Article 8(j) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, gives minimal recognition of IPs’ rights. It does not protect them from the drive by multinational companies to patent plant and animal materials—resources that are generally found in their biodiverse territories—for their potential medicinal and agricultural value, without the knowledge or consent of the peoples who have protected and nurtured them, the book covering 22 Asian countries said.
Asian IPs’ suffering
“When the trees are gone, the deer are forever lost and the forests are just memories, we will weep. Not for the land that is bare and dead. But for us, our children and their children. When there are no more tears to fall, we will weep with our own blood,” said Salak Dima, an Agta IP leader, to this author deep in the Palanan wilderness in Sierra Madre Mountain Range in the Philippines, the biggest tropical rainforest in the Philippines at 200,000 hectares. Dima symbolizes what is called “the last forest guardians.”
The Agtas are among Asia’s IPs marginalized by incoming settlers. Indigenous and tribal peoples see themselves as distinct from the mainstream. They speak their own languages, are largely self-sufficient and their economies are tightly bound to their intimate relationship with the land.
Their culture is different from that of the mainstream, having inherited them from their forebears and adapted to their current situation.
They take only what they need from the Earth, nurturing and caring for resources as a way of life. They have often lived on their lands for thousands of years.
It is difficult to generalize about Asia’s indigenous and tribal peoples. They encompass a huge variety of peoples living very different ways of life in a great variety of environments.
One thing they have in common is the oppression and marginalization they experience. Often, they suffer direct violence, like in Papua New Guinea, in Myanmar and in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh.
They also suffer from development efforts by their own governments and by multinationals through the takeover of their lands and resources.
In most parts of Asia, where IPs land rights are recognized, the government retains the power to overrule these rights in the economic interest of the state.
The intellectual and cultural property rights (ICPR) of IPs are under threat. These include their beliefs, knowledge (in agricultural, technical, medicinal, ecological movable and immovable cultural properties), the book revealed.
Struggle to protect ICPR in biodiversity
The struggle of Asian IPs to protect ICPR ranges from resisting subjugation, territorial takeover, resources exploitation, destruction of traditions and infringement on customs and lifestyles, to fighting inhumane treatment, abuse and deprivation of human rights.
In Southeast Asia, much of the struggle is over land and resources, as mining, timber and oil and agricultural corporations encroach upon IPs’ lands in search for profit.
IPs are becoming victims of forced resettlement, pollution, diseases, militarization, starvation, social and cultural destruction and the ruin of traditional ways of life.
Their close connection to the land makes them particularly vulnerable to ecological damage. Extractive activities threaten their patterns of subsistence, living conditions and cultural practices.
In some cases, governments deny them civil and political rights in order to prevent them from resisting incursions. Some states face challenges in reconciling international human-rights commitments to IPs with the requirements of foreign direct investment.
Against the odds, IPs have had some successes. Divide-and-rule tactics intended to break down their opposition have failed. Often, there are clear connections between resource extraction, human-rights abuses and militarization.
In some countries, governments have attempted to stifle the growing resistance of their indigenous populations.
From the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to Papua New Guinea, there is a burgeoning indigenous movement against both governments and resource-depleting companies. This movement has brought together concerns about human rights and the environment.
It is rural-based, grassroots-initiated and multiracial. The IPs opposition remains vibrant and effective.
In Bangladesh, the struggle of the Jummas, the original inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, is primarily with rights to land and resources. Many Jummas are losing their lands; they have been forcibly evicted by government military forces.
They are also displaced because of the discovery and development of a gas field. The gas-reserve development has affected traditional food sources like home gardens and age-old community forests, threatening the extinction of many traditional food crops.
In Nepal, the IPs are campaigning against the widespread plunder of germplasm (i.e., plant cells) and indigenous knowledge. Already, many plant resources have been lost, without recognition or recompense.
In Sri Lanka, the Wanniyala-Aetto (forest beings), are being uprooted from their forest dwellings, shot at, detained, placed in reservation areas and sold as slaves or prostitutes. Their trees are cut, logged and traditional foodlots are razed.
The Wanniyala-Aetto women, in particular, bear the brunt of this inhuman treatment.
In the Philippines, many nongovernment organizations (NGOs) are working for IPs ICPR and, seemingly their efforts have paid off, with the passing of Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in 1997.
But the body set up to implement IPRA, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, could not stop creeping mining, logging and commercial agriculture, destroying wide tracts of forests.
In Indonesia, the most significant result of IPs’ struggle for recognition of their rights is the government’s granting of decentralized power. It gave Adat-based (traditional-based) villages powers beyond the standard notions of indigenous rights in international legal discourse. This allowed the natives to take care of their forests and home gardens. But millions of hectares of IPs’ lands are being destroyed and planted with oil palm, destroying thousands of plant and animal species.
In Malaysia, encroachment into ancestral lands and intimidation are two of the many problems facing its IPs. There is no pause in the exploitation of their resources and appropriation of indigenous territories.
In Thailand, the Chao-Chaos, a mixed grouping of indigenous tribes in northern part, numbering almost a million, were granted a peoples’ Constitution, which allowed them to participate in democratic processes. They are led by the Assembly of Indigenous and Tribal peoples of Thailand (AITT).
Together with the Northern Farmers Network, AITT is pressing for the adoption of a community forest bill to give IPs recognition of their right to their traditional resources and management practices.
In Cambodia, positive developments with regard to IPs’ struggle for land rights and the protection of their forests and natural resources is happening. Activists and NGOs headed the campaign for a new law that gave provision for land tenure for IPs. Those who now have ownership and control of their lands are enjoying their rights to their resources, such as in the tapping of resin and development of inland fisheries.
In Vietnam, however, the government is oppressive toward its indigenous population and does not allow advocacy activities. The government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Sedentary Farming announced a campaign to wipe out traditional nomadic life and swidden farming of its indigenous population.
The government is attempting to eradicate traditional shifting agriculture, the lifeline of most highland IPs, including the Banar, Ehde, Jarai, Koho and Mnong tribes, thousands of whom were imprisoned after calling for independence in February 2001.
This is causing genetic erosion of hundreds of traditional food crops, including upland rice, root crops, legumes, tubers and leafy crops.
Lao PDR has a similar policy as that of Vietnam, which aims to eradicate all traditional forms of agriculture by its IPs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Hmong are being removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to areas not suitable for their lifestyle and cultural practices.
It is perhaps only in Myanmar, out of all the states in Asia, that the IPs form a majority. But under its military rule, political detentions, harassment, militarization, military offensives, forced labor in labor camps and educational crisis are widespread. Women face rape, marriage to military men and are trafficked by the military as slaves, laborers and prostitutes.
Efforts to fight threats on IPs’ ICPR
IPs view the world they live in as an integrated whole. Their beliefs, knowledge, arts and other forms of cultural expression have been handed down through generations. Their stories, songs, dances, paintings and other forms of expression are, therefore, important aspects of indigenous cultural knowledge, power and identity that form their heritage.
Heritage includes all expressions of the relationship between the people, their land and the other living beings and spirits which share the land, and is the basis for maintaining social, economic and diplomatic relationships—through sharing—with other peoples.
All of the aspects of heritage are interrelated and could not be separated from the traditional territory of the people concerned. The tangible and intangible items that constitute the heritage of a particular IP must be decided by the people themselves. The guardians of an IPs’ cultural and intellectual property are determined by the customs, laws and practices of the community. They can be individuals, a clan or the people as a whole.
Due to the active lobbying by IPs’ representatives in various international meetings, there is a growing appreciation by international agencies of the complexity of indigenous peoples discourse. The World Intellectual Property Organization has begun discussions on the issue of IPs’ ICPR, although many IPs are not entirely happy with the process.
The UN has also undertaken a study on the heritage of indigenous peoples and put forward several recommendations but these remain recommendations only. Most of the discussions at the international level on the issue remain elitist—only a very few indigenous individuals are able to participate and information regarding the discussions or outcomes are not extensively disseminated.
There is a gap between the international debate and the local realities. Most indigenous communities are faced with life-threatening issues that keep them from actively engaging in international policy advocacy work, and yet many of the issues that indigenous peoples face on the ground are brought about by the implementation of policies crafted at the international level.
Asian IPs are now often able to wage their local struggles on a global front by working closely with international allies. A transnational movement of environmentalists, human-rights workers, lawyers and indigenous organizations is emerging to defend indigenous rights.