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Forests are the lifeline and cultural heritage of more than 100 million indigenous peoples in Asia. According to the World Bank Study ‘The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation: the Natural but Often Forgotten Partners’, traditional indigenous territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.

This is the result of indigenous peoples’ historical stewardship and practice of low carbon and sustainable management of forests as their territory. However, the legal recognition of indigenous peoples as distnct from the majority of the population, and the entitlement to collective rights to their lands, territories and resources under international human rights standards continue to be denied by many states.

Massive logging, expansion of palm oil plantatons and wide-scale mono cropping, conversion of forestlands to commercial and destructive projects such as the development of mega-dams still prevail. These are taking place in spite of the serious problem of global carbon emission (around 20 percent of the total) arising from the deforestation and forest degradation, which are major causes of climate change.

On the other hand, the traditonal livelihoods of indigenous peoples such as shifting cultivation/rotational agriculture, gathering of non-timber forest products and hunting are being blamed as serious causes of deforestaton and forest degradation.

Despite the fact that evidence-based studies demonstrate the contrary, 10 countries in Asia have policies prohibiting or phasing out shifing cultivation/rotational agriculture resulting in food insecurity, malnutrition, loss of biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and violations of civil and political rights. Indigenous peoples who are practising their traditonal livelihoods relating to forest are arrested, detained and unjustly penalised.

Thomas Jalong, the president of Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS), a national network for indigenous peoples in Malaysia, explained that, “Forests are integral to the survival and source of livelihoods and culture of indigenous peoples. They are our identities. On the International Day of Forests, we call upon the recognition of the land rights of indigenous peoples as key to the forest-based solutions to climate change.”

Whereas there are already milestone advances in the legal recogniton of the land and forest rights of indigenous peoples such as in the Philippines, India, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia, the implementation of these progressive laws remains weak, problematic, disputed and challenged, and even enables more land grabbing and/or individualisation of collective lands in many cases.

The lack of political will of states to fully respect and recognise the customary land rights of indigenous peoples remains a major obstacle in the sustainable management of forests and in ensuring the success of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestaton and Degradation of developing countries) as climate change mitigation measures.

Although the REDD+ Cancun agreement includes social and environmental safeguards, the formulaton of REDD+ national strategies and action plans by states in many countries does not harmonize with their laws and policies in line with the Cancun REDD+ safeguards including respect for the rights of indigenous peoples as affirmed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Address real causes of deforestation

On the occasion of International Day of Forest, the international community needs to recognise the collective rights and the vital role and contributions of indigenous peoples in sustainable forest management. Further, the international community should decisively address the real causes of deforestation and forest degradation instead of putting the blame on indigenous peoples and local communites.

Joan Carling, the secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), says, “It is urgent to upscale the recognition of the forest rights of indigenous peoples through the demarcation and proper implementation of laws recognising the collective land rights of indigenous peoples. Securing indigenous peoples’ customary land rights and sustainable livelihoods is necessary for the success of forest-based solutons to climate change and for sustainable development.”

As part of the celebration of the Internatonal Day of Forests, JOAS and AIPP together with Suaram urge the Malaysia government to:

  • Immediately undertake necessary policy reforms to recognise and protect the land and forest rights of indigenous peoples including the sustainable livelihoods of indigenous peoples such as shifting cultivation/ rotational agriculture, and gathering of non-timber forest products. Use protections contained in Artcle 161 (a)(5) of the federal constitution as the basis to recognise customary land rights.
  • Immediately implement in partnership with indigenous peoples and other stakeholders the Commitee on World Food Security (CFS) and FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security.
  • Adhere to terms of procedures laid down in treaties, laws, regulations and guidelines such as in certification schemes like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA-FLEGT), and the Business Council for Sustainability and Responsibility Malaysia (BCSRM).
  • Guarantee the implementaton of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) on any climate change mitigation action involving forests such as the REDD+, biofuel plantations and large dams.
  • Ensure full and effective participation of indigenous peoples including indigenous women and youth in the formulation, implementation, monitoring and reporting of any forest-related mitigation programmes and projects at all levels.
  • Recognise and promote indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, traditional occupations and food systems including the roles and contributions of indigenous women.
  • Adopt all the recommendations in the Suhakam Natonal Inquiry into the Land Rights of the Orang Asal.

The Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) is a national organisation of 87 local community organisations in Malaysia and has been engaging with the UN system and other bodies for the promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples.

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