In many parts of Asia, parks—including sanctuaries, totally protected areas, and heritage sites—are found within indigenous peoples’ traditional territories. In some cases, indigenous peoples have been removed from parks, while others remain within park boundaries or at the peripheries.
In Asia, examples of indigenous peoples living within traditional lands that have been set aside as parks include the Morowali Nature Reserve in Sulawesi, Indonesia; Kayan Mentarang National Park in East Kalimantan, Indonesia; St. Paul Subterranean National Park in Palawan, Philippines; Crocker Range Park in Sabah, Malaysia; Tasek Bera Ramsar Site in peninsular Malaysia; Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand; Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri, Cambodia; Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal; Ayubia National Park in Pakistan; and the Rajiji National Park in northwest India.
Park policy has tended to be one of removing those living within park boundaries, although the more recently created parks generally only restrict the activities of some established communities, especially those refusing to move due to lack of alternative resettlement areas.
People Living with Parks
The establishment of parks on traditional lands has a varying impact on indigenous peoples’ lives. Some who have been relocated feel they have been robbed of their land, as well as the animals and plants they once relied on for food. The Bataks, for instance, view the park as a curse. For many groups, parks have promoted conflict, exacerbated problems for the community, and done little to promote biodiversity conservation. For example, the establishment of the Ayubia National Park has been particularly onerous for women. They feel threatened by wild animals and are subject to offensive behavior by culturally insensitive wildlife staff, which has led to a rising incidence of violence. The importance of biodiversity conservation pales in comparison with the compelling need for fuel wood and fodder.
Others who are allowed to live within parks have found different restrictions imposed on them. At the Crocker Range National Park, communities have complained that applications for Native title to their traditional lands have been rejected and they are constantly threatened by park authorities to stop their hill paddy cultivation. Communities who live outside the park but have traditionally used areas that are now within the park for spiritual, health, economic, or recreational purposes have often found their access to the area restricted.
Indigenous Peoples as A Priori Rights-Holders
Many parks in Asia were home to indigenous peoples long before they were declared protected areas, and often indigenous peoples used those areas long before the creation of the state that now claims sovereignty over the lands. These indigenous communities thus hold a priori or customary rights over the land and removing them from the area constitutes a violation of their rights. Strong opposition is expressed especially by those who were forcibly moved without suitable alternative land for settlement and continuation of their traditional ways of life. Some communities are still seeking redress and restitution of their land.
Article 10 of the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states “indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option to return.” The process of gazetting parks has indeed violated national and international laws, which provide for the delivery of free, prior, and adequate information to affected people before park development plans are enacted. In most cases, this consultation has not occurred and even if it has, the decisions to establish parks have already been made and alternate options were not given to communities.
The International Labor Organization convention on indigenous people (ILO 169), the Organization of American States-proposed Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Ramsar Convention, the World Heritage Convention, Agenda 21, various World Conservation Union (IUCN) resolutions, and World Wide Fund for Nature principles are but some examples of legal and policy instruments that recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories, and natural resources. The U.N. Draft Decalration also states in numerous articles that indigenous peoples have the rights to maintain culture, religious traditions, languages, education, and economic, political, and social systems. This survival is only possible if indigenous peoples have direct relationships with their traditional lands and territories.
The Concept of “Use and Protect”
Indigenous peoples have traditionally had complex patterns of land and resource use in their territories. Except for a few strict taboo areas (which are usually small in size and often represent, for example, the abode of spirits), all their ancestral land has in one way or another been of either economic or cultural significance to the communities inhabiting it. Entry into sacred areas is allowed for specific reasons such as burial, religious ceremonies, and spiritual testing. There are also community-conserved areas such as those that contain salt licks, fish-spawning areas, bird and animal nesting areas, burial areas, and the sources of medicinal plants.
Indigenous values and customary practices allow them to use all areas and resources while at the same time protecting them. These customary values and practices are borne out of generations of experience. They are the knowledge accumulated as the result of trial and error processes, and are embedded in customary laws and practices passed on to the next generation by the socialization process and through teachings beginning at a young age. Customary practices often transcend into spiritual beliefs, and have laws in place to regulate them.
As indigenous communities become more fragmented, there is a need to establish rules and at the same time revitalize indigenous management values and practices on the use of the resources. Most communities are open to this idea and would highly appreciate respect for traditional systems by park managers.
Another relevant indigenous concept is that forests, rivers, land—be it beautiful land or non-fertile land full of rocks or swamps—and flora and fauna are all seen as part of a whole, each providing the communities immediately adjacent to it with sustenance for health and social, economic and recreational support. Degrees of interdependence exist between nature and humans. This concept is somewhat similar to that of ecosystems. Separation from an ecosystem does not necessarily lead to destruction, but people, especially those dependent on their ecosystem are more likely to suffer such a separation. Often livelihood issues are the only ones stressed in relation to the victims of eviction but these do not encompass all the needs that the traditional lands offer to indigenous communities for their sustenance and cultural continuance.
Enhancing Monitoring and Enforcement
Monitoring and enforcement are often called park management issues. The problems of monitoring and enforcement should not only be blamed on communities who were removed from the park but also on outsiders—be it researchers, poachers, swidden agriculturists, bioprospectors and biopirates, business people, or tourists. Indigenous peoples found within or adjacent to parks, particularly those who are also concerned with protecting the environment, can enhance the monitoring and enforcement of the area. It is more important and more beneficial to have communities monitor the situation within parks than to keep them out. If communities are removed from their traditional lands, problems will arise from people who are disgruntled, uninvolved in resolving the issues, or who are not given viable options in resettlement areas. If a genuine collaborative approach to park management can be realized, there is strong potential for indigenous communities to be partners in enforcement.
From the standpoint of international law and in view of the experiences demonstrating the failure of conservation when undertaken without people’s participation, it is clear that allowing indigenous communities to continue living and using resources within parks is a question of both rights and of pragmatism, or sound conservation practice.
Existing and emerging international laws, guidelines, and principles that recognize the core rights of indigenous peoples must be considered as fundamentally important benchmarks against which relevant land, biodiversity, forestry, wildlife, and other conservation laws and policies concerning parks and protected areas should be assessed. It is imperative to see this assessment and the formulation of an agreed-upon national framework as a national obligation and as ensuring good governance. In areas where indigenous peoples insist that certain lands be excised from parks, their views should be considered and undertaken through constructive engagement with the state. Communities who are currently living within any park should be allowed to stay if they choose and any form of coercion and threats should cease.
Respect for customary laws, or appropriate new protocols concluded and implemented by chosen representatives of indigenous institutions, communities, and peoples must be promoted and incorporated within national frameworks governing national parks. The existing legal and institutional frameworks of parks must also be changed in order to empower indigenous institutions and recognize their authority. At the outset, local and national transparent legal recourse and accountability mechanisms for indigenous communities should be established with the full participation of indigenous peoples. Efforts to develop good governance of the areas that fall within the jurisdiction of indigenous customary lands, and that have been included in a given park, should be ensured. The park and the people can work together to address issues of population growth and economic pressures. It would also be crucial to inculcate important values and principles of sustainable use while simultaneously protecting resources within the park area.
Once proper policies and laws encompassing all concerns, including indigenous peoples’ rights, were in place, the state would be in a better position to make and implement decisions about protected areas.
Respecting Indigenous Knowledge
Efforts by indigenous communities to conserve traditional hunting areas, watershed areas, areas that are the source of medicinal plants, fishing areas, and recreational and sacred sites must be appreciated and respected. It is also important to harness indigenous knowledge on resource management to complement other knowledge and technologies; for example, the indigenous practice of terrace rice fields could be introduced. Park authorities should be required to improve their technology to use energy-efficient housing and provide education and cultural awareness to their staff. It is also important to be aware of the dangers linked to tourism and tourism development, and not just advertise its benefits.
Research should be conducted on traditional practices demonstrating that traditional and indigenous knowledge systems are effective. It is obvious from indigenous areas that biodiversity has been preserved for generations, but there is little supporting documentation and research. As a pilot project, for example, an area could be given to a community to manage, and their work could be documented, being sure to respect the community’s own criteria for sustainability.
Governments and advocates for the creation and continuation of parks must examine the real objectives of these national parks. It is also important that the indigenous peoples’ perception of parks established or created on their lands be examined.
In many countries, the real goals are often not purely conservation-related but also to reap benefits from tourism, research, and other associated activities; indigenous communities are seen as hindrances to these goals. Despite numerous statements concerning respect for indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional systems, many governments still hold to the view that indigenous peoples who live a traditional life ought to be assimilated. Some also believe that indigenous peoples are unable to see from the conservation point of view and that education is a lost cause. As such, governments find it more convenient to remove indigenous peoples from the land in question.
If these perceptions persist and statements are mere rhetoric, then the creation of parks should be rejected. Political will and justice based on humane considerations rather than economic considerations and grandeur should prevail.
With 20 years’ experience interacting and working with indigenous communities at home in Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia, I truly believe that we as indigenous peoples have always been resourceful and have shown great concern and willingness to adjust for the protection and sustainability of our traditional areas. Respect for sound indigenous management principles and practices should be a basis for any collaboration in existing parks. If such non-indigenous knowledge is enhanced with the promotion of indigenous resource management systems, communities within or adjacent to parks would be encouraged to move toward successful collaborative management, and eventually self-management, of parks.
Many indigenous communities have suffered great hardship as a result of forced displacement from traditional lands that were taken for parks and other protected areas and development projects. Some of these parks have greatly benefited only some individuals or governments. Land tenure issues are therefore extremely important and should be resolved before any park is gazetted. Expansion of new protected areas must be examined within a rights-based approach, respecting the needs of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Finally, policies and mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that indigenous peoples’ lands and territories that have been appropriated for parks without their consent are returned, and any revocation of park areas must first and foremost give the original inhabitants the option to return to the area.
Jannie Lasimbang is Kadazan from Sabah, Malaysia. She is a co-founder of the local indigenous organization PACOS Trust. She is currently working as secretary general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact Foundation (AIPP), based in Chaingmai, Thailand. She acted as co-chair of the Indigenous Caucus at the Durban World Parks Congress and is heavily involved in indigenous peoples’ efforts to promote their rights at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Seventh Conference of Parties.
References and further reading
Khan, S.R & Naqvi, A. (1997). Indigenous Rights and Biodiversity Conservation: A case study of Ayubia National Park, Pakistan. In Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in South and Southeast Asia. Copenhagen: IWGIA.
Novellino, D. (1997). The Ominous Switch: From Indigenous Forest Management to Conservation—The Case of the Batak on Palawan Island, Philippines. In Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in South and Southeast Asia. Copenhagen: IWGIA.
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