Biodiversity and Indigenous Land Rights

by Romane Lenoir

The forests of Borneo are a treasure of biodiversity, home to more than a million Dayak Indigenous people whose livelihoods directly depend on these forests. However, in the past decades, multiple government-enacted projects have threatened this peaceful equilibrium. Launched in 2005, the Palm Oil Mega project continues to devastate this environment. More recently, the Trans-Kalimantan Road network project, which is to be completed in the next 10 years, aims to facilitate access to previously inaccessible Indigenous ancestral territories. By opening them up to coal mining, industrial logging and palm oil plantations, it threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity. This project ‘will complete the circle of highways looping the island, ensnaring the last of Borneo’s forest in an ever tightening noose’. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these initiatives have been zealously fuelled by a desire to capitalise on the crisis and hasten the completion of these projects. 

Globally, Indigenous peoples’ land rights are being routinely violated. Comprising only 5% of the population, the land they live on is home to more than 80% of the earth’s biodiversity. It is collectively recognised that Indigenous identities are intimately tied to their lands. Their beliefs, languages and practices are intrinsically interwoven with the natural world through principles of respect and care. They also benefit from legal frameworks aiming to protect them. In spite of this, Indigenous peoples legally own just a fifth of the land they shelter. This renders them highly vulnerable to abuse. 

            There is a shocking discontinuity between the theoretical sanctity of Indigenous lands and the systematic exploitation they suffer from. It is common knowledge that numerous agribusinesses, mining and logging activities as well as land use for extraction and settlement purposes have consistently destroyed Indigenous peoples’ environments and well-being. In this process, countless natural habitats were destroyed. These processes are in blatant and unconcealed defilement of both Indigenous peoples’ rights and principles of environmental conservation. 

Contrary to widely held assumptions, conservation initiatives have actually also been extensively encroaching on Indigenous land. The global network of protected areas has been growing, fuelled by, at times, overly ambitious goals. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets, namely Target 11 set out for at least 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas to be protected by 2020. According to the 2018 Protected Planet report, this was close to being achieved. Fittingly, there has been an abundant increase in protected areas globally.

 However, there is an estimated overlap of 50-80% between protected areas and the lands of Indigenous peoples and local communities. This has led to the dispossession and displacement of ancestral tribes, deemed incompatible with conservation goals. This was sustained through the paradigm of fortress conservation. Such duplicitous rhetoric has legitimised the eviction of Indigenous peoples from 50% of the world’s protected territories that were part of traditional lands. This happened alongside various forms of violence, ranging from extra juridical killings to forced evictions, all characteristically destructive. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, noted that conservation initiatives consistently ‘ignore the growing body of evidence that forests thrive when Indigenous peoples remain on their customary lands and have legally recognised rights to manage and protect them’. Indeed, respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights is a cost-effective and resourceful way to preserve conservation and curtail climate change. Pretty et al. (2009) investigated this and found that a cultural understanding of the environment leads to sustainable management, harvesting and ecological dynamics. Deep-seated rights to land and forests are positively associated with biodiversity outcomes, as cultural diversity seems to sustain biological diversity. This begs the question of why conservation enterprises seem set on disregarding these facts that supposedly advance their purpose. 

When looking closely at these conservation initiatives, inconsistencies come to light. Following the eviction of Indigenous peoples, tourism, energy and agricultural activities are repeatedly developed within these recently-dispossessed ‘protected areas’. Financial gain seems to be the sole focus of such initiatives. ‘Governments like conservation because there is a lot of money in it. It brings money from the Global Environment Facility and elsewhere. But when your economic priority is to generate money from conservation, you want to get rid of people from these protected areas’ Tauli-Corpuz said. 

Along the same lines, The Heart of Borneo conservation agreement was set up in response to the Trans-Kalimantan Road network and Palm Oil projects in Borneo. In spite of being highly publicised, its effect was rather limited. On the other hand, it has been very lucrative for conservation organisations, through the promotion of sustainable commodities. These same companies allegedly supplying green products are actually often in violation of Indigenous peoples’ rights. Conservation is being carried out at the expense of already highly endangered people.

In the name of environmental conservation, too many seemingly protective initiatives are covertly, shamelessly and consistently abusing Indigenous peoples’ rights.

There is an emergent need to preserve the Earth’s rich and intricate ecosystems. Through traditional practices, Indigenous peoples offer an ecological sanctuary for the extraordinary biodiversity they hold.

An ancestral, sustainable and harmonious standpoint on conservation warrants for Indigenous peoples to be made leaders of conservation, not victims of it. 

(See the full Breaking the Heart of Borneo Report)

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