The Journey Toward Reaching Indigenous Rights in Asia

Indigenous people protested at the convergence place at UP Oblation. Photo: Khim Lay/Oxfam

The Journey Toward Reaching Indigenous Rights in Asia

On my recent trip to Baguio City, Philippines to participate in a four-day regional training and networking workshop on free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) in extractive industries, I felt very excited to be part of the second “Lakbayan” (people’s caravan) with 30 representatives of indigenous organizations from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Lakbayn is the convergence space of national minorities in the Philippines which took place annually since 2016. It was a show of unity and a form of expression to assert the rights of the national minority for self-determination in the Philippines.

The first day of Lakbayan on August 31st attracted more than 2,000 indigenous people from different regions in the Philippines. Day by day until the last day of the event on September21st, the number of participants kept increasing over the three week protest. I was lucky to be part of Lakbayan to learn and observe the issues faced by ethnic minorities in the Philippines, especially the story of Kerlan.

The perception that “ancestral land is life” is disregarded

At the meeting, which was organized by the Asia Indigenous People Pact[1](AIPP) and the Asia Indigenouse Peoples Network on Extractive Industries and Energy[2] (AIPNEE) who are Oxfam partners, I met Kerlan Fanagel, a man who belongs to the B’laan tribe in Mindanao.

Kerlan Fanagel is a human rights defender. He joined Lakbayan, which signifies a long journey for him and some national minorities of the Philippines, especially those from his region, who often have to travel for weeks to locations where they organized and conducted campaigns to demand justice and respect for their rights.

Kerlan Fanagel believed that the life of his tribal people has a strong connection and relationship with their ancestral lands. Development projects such as extractive industries, energy and agro-industrial have been approved on their lands without proper consultation and consent from local communities. His tribal people were not informed in the first place and were forced to live with development projects that bring little benefits to their livelihoods but in return they don’t have a full access to their ancestral lands.

In solidarity, indigenous people representatives from Asian countries joined Lakbayan at the University of Philippines. Photo: Khim Lay/ Oxfam

Rights to know and to being respected is not properly practiced

Kerlan Fanagel’s view is likely very similar to many others who joined the Lakbayan. They say that development without the respect of people’s rights makes them suffer. I strongly sympathized with him after hearing stories about human rights abuses.

The evening of 31st August, indigenous people walked and chanted their slogans along the way to the convergence place at UP Oblation, located at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s main library building[3]. This attracted attention and emotional interests from university students and lecturers. One of professors mentioned that Lakbayan camp provides a venue for students and lecturers to understand their social and anthropological issues. Even some government officials see it as a space for interaction, as shared by one of Congressman I met. Similarly, it offered an opportunity to the indigenous people representatives from the eight countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN[4], who were able to better grasp the issues and the grievances of indigenous peoples in the Philippines.

A refection on how to make FPIC works in Asia

After FPIC training in Baguio and observing the Lakbayan, this made me and other participants reflect on how to make FPIC work in Asia. In a country like the Philippines where there are laws and institutions recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights, including rights to FPIC for their land and other resources[5], there still remains a systematic lack of enforcement. The breakdown of trust between indigenous people, project developers and government institutions due to poor communication, lack of persistent dialogues of parties concerned, and genuine respect to FPIC principles have become underlying problems. While making FPIC works in a country like the Philippines may only directly affect 10-20 percent of its total population[6], it would set good precedent for Asian countries, which are home to 260 million indigenous peoples, who make up 70 percent of the world’s indigenous populations[7]. Oxfam views that FPIC is emerging more broadly as a principle of best practice for sustainable development. It helps to reduce conflict and increase the legitimacy of the project in the eyes of all stakeholders[8].

Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of losing their lands and having their livelihoods and rights to free, prior and informed consent impacted forever. Their vulnerability increases as the number of extractive industry and other land-intensive industrial projects grow.

In solidarity, Oxfam, regional partners and indigenous peoples’ organizations in Asia and around the world must find ways to make FPIC works in the Philippines and throughout the region. We have a long journey ahead of us. But Oxfam is committed to working with partners to develop capacities of indigenous rights defenders; and of indigenous peoples’ representatives to assert their rights to know about and approve of what happens on their land. Oxfam continues to advocate for the improvement of policies and practices by mining companies and governments to recognize indigenous people rights to FPIC, and their rights to a better life.

Indigenous people representatives from 8 countries in ASEAN took part in FPIC training and networking in Extractive Industries, Baguio City, Phillipnes,26-30 August, 2017. Photo: AIPNEE Facebook