The reason an international organisation like Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) exists is because national governments, their policies, laws and projects, don’t respect and protect the rights of forest peoples. Governments are allowing other interests, national and international, to take over forest peoples’ lands and impose schemes on them without the people having a say. FPP thus stands alongside indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers who make recourse to international fora to try to press for changes in the way their governments, and the industries they favour, deal with them. But getting governments to reform is not easy.
The articles in this newsletter illustrate this tension all too clearly. In Suriname, despite unanimity between indigenous and tribal peoples, and despite detailed judgments from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the government has backed down on its promise to pass a law recognising their rights. In Costa Rica, although UN human rights bodies have upheld their appeals, the Teribe people still face an uphill struggle to get the government to accept their voice in decision-making about the Diquis dam. Communities in Liberia and Indonesia find that their lands are being handed out by their governments to oil palm developers without their consent and are subject to harsh repression when they resist. They have had to appeal to international bodies, like the International Finance Corporation which funds such schemes, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil that certifies them, to seek redress. A regional review of the palm oil sector in Southeast Asia shows that where lands are secured and there is rule of law then oil palm develops as a smallholder crop and not as imposed plantations. The national framework is thus crucial to prevent land grabs. So it’s particularly disappointing to note that at its recent meeting the Convention on Biological Diversity, while devising a new work plan to secure ‘sustainable customary use of biological resources’, shied away from making recommendations on the need for legal reforms to recognise peoples’ rights to lands and resources. By contrast, the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights has censured UNESCO for making decisions about protected areas without the indigenous peoples’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).
Recognising the lack of national protections, the World Bank has for years insisted that its investments must abide by so-called ‘safeguard’ policies, including one on indigenous peoples (a policy all too often ignored in practice however). Now it seems that the Bank has given ground to borrower countries, which have baulked at the way these policies slow down lending, by proposing a new programme for lending huge chunks of money without safeguards being applied to the specific projects that the money will fund. Indigenous peoples and FPP are appealing against this ‘end run’.
Experiences from the ground show, as in the case of Peru, that, without safeguards, projects to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) undermine local peoples’ rights. As the indigenous peoples attending the global meeting on climate change in Durban make clear, the need is for alternative rights-based approaches that secure peoples’ rights to their lands and so prevent the destruction of their forests by outside interests.
In almost every country there are multiple layers of law – international laws, national laws and customary laws – that people use to regulate how humans relate to each other and to their environment. As a new review carried out with partners including the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact shows, international laws and customary laws are both a source of rights for forest peoples, but reforming national laws to secure these rights remains our biggest challenge.
Marcus Colchester, Director