Calls for stronger protection of indigenous rights in the agribusiness sector in Southeast Asia

Malaysia forest destruction
Camilla Capasso/FPP

Calls for stronger protection of indigenous rights in the agribusiness sector in Southeast Asia

For indigenous peoples, the environment is inextricably linked to every aspect of their lives and survival. They are the pillars of sound environmental governance.” – with these words Tan Sri Razali Ismail, from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKUM), welcomed participants to the 6th Southeast Asian Conference on Human Rights and Agribusiness.

Held in Kota Kinabalu - capital of the state of Sabah, Malaysia - on 3-4 November, the conference included representatives from the six southeast Asian human rights commissions, regional and national human rights organisations, prominent private sector organisations and NGOs, as well as indigenous peoples’ and community representatives.

The event, co-hosted by the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (JOAS), is the most recent of a series of meetings organised by Forest Peoples Programme in collaboration with Southeast Asia National Human Rights Institutions over the last five years and was aimed at exploring ways to make human rights obligations binding on transnational and national agribusiness companies through national reforms.

Particular attention was focused on the ‘Jurisdictional Approach’ to palm oil certification, which Sabah is pioneering with the support of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This innovative approach will apply the RSPO standard to all producers in the state and the aim is to make sure that by 2025 all palm oil produced in Sabah, accounting for 12 per cent of the global production, will be sustainable and RSPO certified. Datuk Darrel Webber, Chief Executive Officer of the RSPO, said that the approach would bring several benefits, including identifying high conservation value areas and high carbon stock sites and increasing knowledge on FPIC procedures. The participants made concrete recommendations to make sure that the process upheld UN principles on business and human rights while addressing the marginalised position that indigenous peoples and local communities have with government agencies in local and sub-national areas.

Before the conference, some participants joined two fact-finding missions organised by JOAS, Partners of Community Organisation (PACOS) and Sabah Environmental Protection Association (SEPA), with the aim of investigating the challenges faced by communities in Pitas and Bigor, in Nabawan, Sabah, due to the development of land-based projects in the areas.

The visits to Pitas and Bigor were an opportunity for the communities to look for solutions about the areas,” said Jannie Lasimbang, Secretary General of JOAS. “The message we would like to convey is that we are going for agribusiness but we also want to comply with international standards.”

Following the fact-finding missions, participants of the meeting called on the Chief Minister of Sabah to heed the appeals of the communities in Pitas, whose lands have been taken over by a shrimp-pond development project leading to the destruction of mangrove forests and loss of local peoples’ livelihoods. It also called for a revision of the law on ‘communal title’, to close loopholes that are being misused to favour corporate takeovers of community lands without proper consultation and without securing consent from the communities.

After four days of discussions, seminars and field investigations, participants issued a resolution calling for moratoriums to halt the further hand out of concessions throughout the region until existing conflicts are resolved. Participants noted how land conflicts as a result of agribusiness expansion are proliferating and urged a pause in the hand out of licences while community and indigenous peoples’ land rights are secured.

By Camilla Capasso