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Indigenous Peoples and local communities lead in conservation: Report


The fishing community living at the only floating village in the sub-continent, the Champu Khangpok floating village within Loktak, have suffered extensively from continued human rights violation by State on the excuse that the fishers are ‘intruders’ in water body protected by State.

By Salam Rajesh

The territories and areas governed, managed and conserved by Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are the dominant form of conserving and sustainably governing commons, according to the report Reconciling Conservation and Global Biodiversity Goals with Community Land Rights in Asia (February 2022) published by the international organization Rights and Resources Initiative.

The highlight of the report features the strong argument that to ‘effectively and equitably mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, new conservation modalities are needed to end exclusionary approaches, embrace human rights-based strategies, and advance the recognition of the land, forest, water and territorial rights of IPLCs who customarily own over half of the world’s lands’.

The report states that as of October 2021, protected areas in Asia cover approximately 15.37 percent of the region, that is, around 478.5 million hectares. A huge population of about one billion people either currently live in these protected areas or in areas of high importance for biodiversity conservation in the region.

The report further details that one hundred fifty million people in Asia live within protected areas while a further 859.2 million live in non-protected biodiverse areas covering an additional 23.8 percent of the region. This accounts for 23.3 percent of the region’s population and highlights the extent to which people and biodiversity overlap, the report says.

India’s total land coverage is 316.7 million hectares out of which the protected area coverage is 18.168 million hectares, accounting for 5.7 percent. The non-protected biodiverse areas in India account for 60.393 million hectares at 19.1 percent. A staggering human population of 241.2 million lives in the non-protected biodiverse areas, and this fairly demonstrates the significance of IPLCs who manage non-protected biodiverse areas in their own systems.

Referring specifically to the importance of IPLCs in conservation of ecosystems, the report strategically highlights that, “Global data demonstrates that Indigenous and community rights holders’ lands have lower rates of deforestation, store more carbon, and hold more biodiversity than lands managed by either government or private entities”.

Outlining current major impediments to effective conservation action, the report points out that ‘lack of secure or customary land tenure systems, lack of recognition of Indigenous Peoples as a distinct group and their diverse identities, and exclusion of Indigenous and local systems of traditional governance, knowledge, stewardship, and sustainable practices while favoring Western forms of conservation are at the root of conflicts’.

The report further states that, ‘biased and colonial perceptions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities as adjuncts to external forms of conservation rather than leaders and owners of a conservation agenda in their own right on their customary territories, lack of political will to implement customary institutional reforms, and lack of financing for Indigenous and local organizations doing critical work to secure tenure rights, advocate for reforms, and build the enabling conditions for transformative change’, too, hamper in progressive actions on ground.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress held at Marseille in France during September last year suggested the means to resolve issues on the ground, by stating that, “The Congress commits to fostering a new approach with a meaningful role for all, from grassroots organizations to governments and communities to corporations. Our new approach must recognize everyone’s responsibility, and guide them to act for nature and our future”.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN committed to support and prioritize the implementation of the first IUCN Global Indigenous Agenda for the Governance of Indigenous Lands, Territories, Waters, Coastal Seas and Natural Resources, a self-determined strategy developed and owned by Indigenous Peoples, as a contribution to the work of the IUCN and global conservation.

On a similar note, the preamble to The Land Rights Standard spells out that, “Respect for human rights is key to protecting the environment and the realization of healthy, sustainable, and productive landscapes”.

Substantiating on its preamble, The Land Rights Standard specifically calls upon organizations and entities engaged in promoting climate, conservation or development actions to ‘respect and uphold human rights, both individual and collective’.

It further appeals States ‘to acknowledge, respect and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples as affirmed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the rights of local communities, of Afro-descendant peoples, and particularly of the women within these groups, as affirmed by the International Labour Organization, including their community-based rights to the lands, territories and resources they customarily own or use, regardless of whether such rights are legally recognized by a State’.

This latter assertion is generally applicable to many of the ‘indigenous territories’ where IPLCs have lived and thrived for ages. Conflicts of interest are dominant in pockets where IPLCs resist States’ intervention for extractive and destructive so-said ‘developmental’ projects or schemes, which usually are carried out without the FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) process.

A typical case study in Manipur, one out of several such cases, is understandably the decades-long rights violation committed by State upon the IPLCs who live and thrive upon the freshwater Loktak Lake, a Ramsar site of international importance.

For both the fishing and the agrarian communities living within the larger Loktak wetland complex, the intervention of the State with different schemes had outrightly interfered with their rights to life, and their rights to resource use within the Loktak commons.

The fishing community living at the only floating village in the sub-continent, the Champu Khangpok floating village within Loktak, have suffered extensively from continued human rights violation by State on the excuse that the fishers are ‘intruders’ in water body protected by State.

The contention, as in this case which is fairly similar to many other cases including in traditional forest areas and other wetlands, is that the commons have been accessed by IPLCs since ages, much before the State promulgated legislation to ‘protect’ such ‘biodiverse’ pockets. The issue on Rights to Life, as emphasized by international covenants, comes to the fore where conflicts of interest arise between States and IPLCs, and since dragging on for years on end.

In finding solution to the issue, The Land Rights Standard points out that, “promoting effective legal recognition of these community-based rights to lands, territories and resources, and their associated customary tenure systems, governance structures and customary laws” needs to be complied with in accordance with both national and international laws.

Under the lead of the United Nations its subsidiary body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has supported the initiative of the ICCA (Indigenous Territories and Community Conserved Areas) Consortium’s drive to accord legal recognition to CCAs (community conserved areas) across the globe, outside of the protected areas under States’ governance.

CCAs are today key to conserving and protecting many of the non-protected biodiverse areas throughout the globe, with India being a major contributor to this global effort. Policy planners in Manipur need to keep tap of this new initiative so as to find solutions for many of the issues plaguing the State concerning the unending conflicts of interest, with specific reference to the respect of human rights of the traditional custodians of forests, rivers and wetlands.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])

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