Advancing the respect and recognition of Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples of Asia (IKAPA)

Karen Indigenous Woman of Maeyod village in Northern Thailand, with herbs and vegetables harvested from the rotational agriculture field. Rotational agriculture or shifting cultivation is the cultural heritage of Indigenous Communities and source of livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and enhancement, and food security for millions of Indigenous Peoples in Asia. Indigenous Women are the primary knowledge holders and perform 70% of the work of rotational agriculture. Photo credit: Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, AIPP.

Community Based Monitoring and Information System (CBMIS) and Mapping

Community-based monitoring and information system (CBMIS) is not a new practice in global movement for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. For indigenous communities, it refers to any approaches and tools they have been implementing to manage and document their lands, territories and resources.

One common CBMIS practice in indigenous communities is participatory mapping. Over the years, the role of maps produced by communities has expanded beyond management and documentation of Indigenous Peoples’ lands, territories and resources. Indigenous Peoples have been using it for policy advocacy. As reiterated by Mr. Gam A. Shimray, the Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) during a recent regional CBMIS workshop held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, “CBMIS is one of the tools we are using that can be a critical learning and ways on how we can provide visibility of our collective local actions and collaborate among Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and relevant actors to contribute in the regional and global advocacy processes.”

Indigenous communities use maps for advocating their collective rights because the region has seen cases of overlapping claims over indigenous territories. “The military has their own map, and so do the mining companies, thus, it is important that indigenous communities have a secured documentation of their lands, territories and resources,” says Mr. Myo Ko Ko, manager of the Promotion of Indigenous and Nature Together (POINT), Myanmar.

Additionally, Indigenous Peoples also need to protect their indigenous territories from illegal logging and hornbill smuggling. “These activities are threats to the communities, but our security is in danger if we report to the police or forest department,” said Ms. Pan Yee, a representative of Asho Chin indigenous community from programming area of POINT.

Participants of the regional CBMIS workshop organized by AIPP and FPP from 6-9 June in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo Credit: Mr. Nitol Chakma, AIPP

Meanwhile in the Philippines, indigenous communities have been using maps for delineation of ancestral domains and resources and policy advocacy.

“People conduct documentation relating to Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas  (ICCAs), which are being confused as ancestral domains. In reality, ancestral domains are bigger than ICCAs,” says Ms. Maria Elena Regpala of the Partners for Indigenous Knowledge Philippines (PIKP), during the CBMIS workshop. ICCAs refers to Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas, of which recognition is designed to conserve biodiversity.

Another challenge faced by indigenous communities in the Philippines is the adoption of Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan by the government. Yet unclarity remains, particularly pertaining to how the ancestral domain maps will be integrated by the local governments into their land use plans.

Same challenge is also faced by the indigenous communities of Thailand. The main issue is that the government policy doesn’t incorporate ways of life of Indigenous Peoples when planning for development. On the contrary, the country saw several cases where indigenous communities were evicted from the forest in the pretext of forest conservation.

One such of cases was from 12 years ago in Khun Tae village in Chom Thong district. The villagers weren’t allowed to enter their farming areas following a 1996 nationwide policy of evicting people from the forest areas. To minimize the conflicts and to prove that Khun Tae villagers can live in harmony with nature, the communities, with the support from Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT), opted for community mapping and advanced their land use and management system.

When IMPECT learned that the government rejected the map produced by community themselves, a committee was formed to further survey and support community mapping initiative. The committee consisted of a wide range of community members such as leaders, elders, youth and women possessing specific indigenous knowledge. The committee also brought on board the responsible government authority and agency in the conduct of survey and mapping. The final community map produced by the committee (representing the community members) with the participation of the local government facilitated the legal recognition of the community map.

A 3D map of Chom Thong Highland Conservation Group (CTHCG) in Khun Tae Village.  The 3D map covers 42 villages of 3 sub-districts of Chom Thong District. Forty-two villagers are the members of CTHCG. Photo credit: Ms. Mona Sihombing, AIPP.

Participants of the workshops visited Khun Tae village on 8 June 2019 and interacted with villagers to learn more on community struggles and initiatives in resolving conflict with lowlanders, challenges and lessons learned in gaining legal recognition of their community map including the roles and contributions of indigenous women in natural resource management.

Participants of the CBMIS workshop taking group picture in Khun Tae Village.
Photo credit: Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, AIPP.

Interestingly, maps produced by indigenous communities do not only contain spatial information but also the usage of the area such as on farming, regulated land plotting and ownership, etc. Communities also use local names and terms in their mother tongue.

Indigenous communities present their data in their own indigenous terms and concepts and often these are not properly accounted. For example in Vietnam, “the government always take out names that our ancestors put there, and in the map issued by the government they write in names that are easy for them to pronounce,” says Ms. Luong Thi Truong, Director of Centre for Sustainable Development in Mountainous Areas.

“The name given to any places has a certain meaning that can be explained in their respective indigenous languages. These meanings establish the connection between the community and their ancestral domains, and it plays a crucial role in the belongingness of the concerned indigenous community. We are trying to bring back the name of our villages,” added Ms. Luong.

It is therefore encouraged to seek guidance from indigenous elders. “If elders are not involved, there will be new names, and then many of our stories will be lost,” explains Ms. Len of PIKP, Philippines.

Preserving Indigenous Knowledge through CBMIS

In the ancestral domain maps, indigenous communities have also included non-spatial data, which shows abundance of their Indigenous Knowledge. “Our knowledge is shared through stories. Stories that are related to our foods, lands and resources,” says Ms. Lens of PIKP, Philippines.

Stories are indeed important channels to transfer and share knowledge, especially from the elders to the youth in the community. The elders of Palawan and Tagbanwa, Philippines, for instance, have informed the communities about their sacred mountain and forests. They were sacred because they can do their worship and rituals apart from the fact that these forests are the source of food for the communities. However, these ecosystem services being derived from the forest are deemed for extinction or depletion due to unsustainable human activities often caused by extractive industries. “After years of enjoying our rich resources, a company came to the area and slowly removed the mountain and the forests, and the mountain and forests are eventually gone,” tells Ms. Len. With that, the communities were put at risk of losing their food security.

To manage their resources, indigenous communities of Malaysia translated the CBMIS practice into a community protocol on resource management. “The community protocol is a compilation of knowledge, innovations and traditions, and it should be adopted by the whole community,” explains Mr. Nasiri Sabiah of PACOS Trust, Malaysia.

Community protocol, adds Mr. Nasiri, is the basis of their identity as it elaborates the close relationship between indigenous communities in Malaysia and their respective lands, territories and natural resources.

In areas prone to disasters, indigenous communities are practicing CBMIS for disaster preparedness and mitigation. “We combine modern technology and Indigenous Knowledge to know how to be safe from disasters,” shares Mrs. Chao Hui-Lin from Taiwan. Combination of both knowledge systems has thus resulted in a new early warning system and disaster map.

“We, indigenous communities, know how to be resilient,” he emphasized.

The claim isn’t baseless. Taivoan people of Taiwan, after surviving the 88-Molake Flood Catasthrope, teach younger generation about their culture and tradition to promote their tradition. At the same time, they also take climate change adaptation action to protect their environment. “We teach our children on how to use early warning system and information,” adds. Mr. Syu Ming-Jyun, a member of Central Taiwan Ping-pu Indigenous Groups Youth Alliance from Taiwan, during his presentation in the CBMIS workshop.

Indigenous Knowledge is critical for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity. Its because of the knowledge and sustainable resource management practices of Indigenous Peoples, 80% of the world’s biodiversity are found in Indigenous Peoples’ territories. “It is therefore very important for us to reflect and advocate on the roles of Indigenous peoples’ culture and knowledge,” states Ms. Joji Corino of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP).

“Indigenous Peoples have become a key indicator on what has to be done, from global to national to local implementations,” adds Ms. Joji.

Lack of recognition hinders full exercise of rights

The Regional Workshop on CBMIS, organized by AIPP and FPP in Chiang Mai, Thailand on 6-9 June 2019 saw participation of representatives of Indigenous Peoples from seven Asian countries: India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand. Each country participants came with different approach to CBMIS and Indigenous Knowledge preservation but share the same challenge: appropriation of indigenous lands and resources in the name of development and conservation; lack of legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples, Knowledge Systems and their collective rights to their lands, territories and resources; weak implementation by countries that have legally recognized Indigenous Peoples and their rights. This is a reality despite that all the seven countries have adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

When Indigenous Peoples do not get the legal recognition they are entitled to, it also poses a challenge for intergenerational transfer of Indigenous Knowledge. “The modern education system doesn’t include and recognize our Indigenous education system,” shares Ms. Anne Lasimbang, Executive Director of PACOS Trust, which then becomes the reason for young people to leave their community to pursue State-recognized education in the town.

In many countries, the lack of legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples hinders them from protecting their lands, territories and resources, as well as their Indigenous Knowledge. India, for instance, adopted The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act – more popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) – in 2006 before amending it two years later. It was initially praised for recognizing the rights of communities to live in and from their forests as well as to protect and manage their lands. In 2012, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a decision that undermines FRA by exempting major infrastructure projects from obtaining Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from communities living in the concerned forest.

“We, Indigenous Peoples are facing difficulties from court, police and government authorities. Big companies are coming and not following any rules. Whenever communities oppose they are charge sheeted with many Indian Penal Code (IPC) articles and put into jail even though they cannot take our lands without our consent,” shares Ms. Mamta Kujur, Adivasi Mahila Maha Sangh.

“Wherever Indigenous Peoples are, lands and territories are rich in resources. Government says it is government lands, but it is ours as per the law and to which we have had connection for ages. According to article 170 (b) of the Revenue Land Act, non-Indigenous Peoples and companies can’t take our lands, but it has been violated,” Ms. Mamta added.

Thailand, despite recognizing the livelihoods of Karen people through a Cabinet Resolution, still poses legal problems to its indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples still have problems with laws and policies, and community members are arrested because there is no legal recognition of indigenous lands and territories in the country.

Indigenous communities in Malaysia are also facing the lack of recognition. “Community protocol is also to seek recognition and to support our way of life and governance in our territories and resources,” explains Mr. Marusin Peliten, who belongs to Murut Tahol people of Sabah, Malaysia.

In Myanmar, the legal system focuses on individual land titles, while the Indigenous Peoples demand on communal lands are being neglected. “We include forests, water, resources, and all that connects to us as Indigenous Peoples,” says Mr. Myo Ko Ko.

Asian Indigenous Peoples’ Plan on Indigenous Knowledge

AIPP is promoting a strategic engagement for the legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the region, including Indigenous Knowledge. “Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and knowledge is crucial to combat climate change, reverse biodiversity loss, protect environment and achieve 2030 agenda on Sustainable Development,” states Mr. Gam.

“We are moving forward for a systemic approach for which community reference is important to support and scale up our advocacy initiatives,” he added.

The participants of the workshop openly expressed the need to have a network at the regional level to consolidate diverse initiatives and actions of Indigenous Knowledge holders as well as experiences on community based monitoring and information system and unanimously agreed to establish a regional network. They further discussed and agreed the name of the regional network to be Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples of Asia (IKAPA). Participants of each country have provided inputs on the objective, functions and key activities for IKAPA. AIPP will consolidate the inputs of the participants and will operationalize the regional network in the coming days in close consultation with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in the region.

“Once IKAPA becomes operational, it will play an instrumental role in advancing the recognition and respect for Indigenous Knowledge and voices of Asian Indigenous Peoples,” says Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, AIPP’s Environment Programme Coordinator.

He added further, “The IKAPA will facilitate the sharing of Indigenous Peoples’ collective actions and innovations, and contribute, in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, Local Biodiversity Outlook (LBO), Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as well as in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.” 

AIPP, FPP and partners are grateful for the financial support for the regional CBMIS workshop from the Secretariat of the Convention of Biological Diversity (SCBD), International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI).

To know more about IKAPA, please write to Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, AIPP Environment Programme Coordinator at nuri@aippnet.org

This article is written by Ms. Mona Sihombing and Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, with editing by and feedback from AIPP and CBMIS workshop’s participants. Photos and quotes are published with free, prior and informed consent.

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