To successfully protect nature, ASEAN must hear from the unheard

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies. 

Exploitation and death of wildlife in Southeast Asia’s final frontier might be easily dismissed as a  mere environmental challenge for the general public, who face bigger problems in poverty and public  health. But for indigenous people, degradation is economic, cultural, and spiritual; placing them in a  much more strategic position to lead their governments against commercial plunder and climate change. 

To date, minorities continue to be on the margins in a multiethnic Southeast Asia. There are over 350 ethnic groups across the region, most of which take pride in their traditional customs, dances, and dress, but substantial representation for them in parliaments and policy-making agencies remains a  long stride ahead. 

This works to their detriment. In cross-border issues like climate change, ethnic minorities are most sensitive as they depend more on their immediate ecosystem, and most vulnerable as they suffer discrimination in both disaster preparedness initiatives, access to humanitarian assistance as well as  other social  services. This is evinced by a growing share of ethnic members among climate refugees at the wake of weather disasters across ASEAN and the world, and is even exacerbated by political factors such as weak government, armed conflicts, and fragile peace processes.

Reports of development aggression, or land-use projects that violate indigenous people’s human and political rights like consent and self-governance, persist across ASEAN. In Indonesia’s West  Kalimantan and Jambi provinces, ethnic communities are losing virgin forests and livelihood to palm oil plantations, whose operations have also become linked to reduction of aquacultural produce. One  company promised “electricity, water, health clinic, houses built with concrete, school, and plasma” to affected communities, yet none have materialised a decade since

Even the measures governments take to establish protection statutes are contended. In Myanmar in  2019, the Karen National Union (KNU) slammed its exclusion from a coalition of international organisations and financial institutions responsible for United Nations Development Programme’s  $21 million “Ridge to Reef” project, which aims to designate 3.5 million acres of forest, coastal, and  marine territory as a protected area. This exclusion of the KNU harmed an already-faltering peace process. The Myanmar government, infamous for its treatment of ethnic minorities like the Rohingya, used the project as pretense to surrender much of the protected land for large-scale logging and concessions to palm oil plantations and other corporate enterprises. In Thailand, a forest reclamation law passed in 2014 has resulted to redrawing of forest boundaries and eviction of hundreds of indigenous families, some of whom have farmed the land for over 40 years.

The problem becomes more intricate when these cases are sanctioned by the state itself. In the  Malaysian state of Sarawak, ethnic groups hit back at the local authorities’ decision to certify logging  activities as “sustainable.” In the Philippines, Lumad minorities in the south scramble to defend the Pantaron Mountain Range and other ancestral lands from entry of mining giants. Meanwhile, some of their young are coerced to recruitment in paramilitary forces linked to the Philippine military.

These are just a few cases where a patchwork of dead-letter laws, lax enforcement, media blackout, and corruption in government echelons contribute to environmental destruction in Southeast Asia. In all these cases, however, indigenous people have commonly resisted because of three reasons: the  dissolution of customary practices and knowledge, disruption of livelihood and income, and further peril to natural commons. Basically, they resisted a top-down conservation approach which did not  include their perspective. 

Traditional ecological knowledge is accorded to direct human environment and is likely poised to prioritise food and resource security instead of profit generation, leading to “sustainable  management of terrestrial and inland ecosystems. Ethnic minorities have been stewards to  biodiversity for centuries, and recording this collective knowledge passed down generationally is  instrumental in the fight against climate change. For instance, in Australia, one of ASEAN’s many  neighbours and major economic partners, there has been a significant effort in recent decades to recognize and stress the essence of ethnic diversity in cultural environmental research as opposed to the reigning Anglo-European paradigm. For ASEAN governments, the only way forward is inward.  

ASEAN member states should enact laws that entrench a scientific and rights-based approach to  environmental protection, and this should be supported by national civil society networks. They  should create national research bodies, with due threshold to ethnic representation, tasked to  document and popularise traditional knowledge regarding sustainable management of land and  resources to wider academic and research circles. This body would also serve a great role as  consultative authority in policy-making decisions regarding indigenous communities and their  domain. Lastly, governments should rectify and combat land-use conversion attempts that encroach on ancestral land and impede indigenous people’s rights to self-determination. 

Marrying political will with science and cultural sensibility is crucial in an era where inclusion of intersectionalities is at an emphasis. Let ethnic communities lead. They will not disappoint. 

This article was written by Mel Joseph Castro, edited by Dhini Hardiyanti, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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