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Indigenous peoples at crossroads with developers


As a case study in Manipur, IPLCs settled and living off the resources of wetlands like Loktak and Pumlen has since been hounded by the State on the charges of ‘encroaching’ and ‘disturbing’ the ecosystem of these wetlands.

By Salam Rajesh

Indigenous peoples in resource rich locations around the world continue to struggle against external pressures that seek to secure their traditional lands to engage in extractive commercial activities. In the process, conflicts of various dimensions continue to plague communities that are marginalized and victimized by the more powerful external influences (read as big-time companies and industrial setups, and sometimes government agencies). Yet, there are emerging stories of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) winning their battles against heavy odds.

In a recent update by global organization Amazon Watch, the Canadian mining company Belo Sun experienced a setback in its plans to open a massive gold mine in the Xingu River in Brazil’s Pará state when the company lost authorization to meet with Indigenous communities during the pandemic due to a pressure campaign by Indigenous leaders and human rights organizations including those working at global scale.

The Canadian mining company Belo Sun had plans on becoming the largest open-pit gold miner in Brazil by taking over the rights of Indigenous people in Brazil’s Volta Grande do Xingu region. In addition to Juruna and Arara Indigenous peoples living there, there are other population of Indigenous groups and several riverside communities. As is usual of ‘developmental’ projects, these communities were not properly consulted on the project which had the potential of tremendous negative impacts on their lives and their traditional lands.

The Brazilian National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) had authorized in-person meetings between Belo Sun and the Indigenous peoples who would be impacted by the proposed project to validate its Environmental Impact Assessment study. The move was opposed by several Indigenous leaders and human rights organizations on the ground that it would over-ride Indigenous peoples’ interests through coerced and forced ‘trickery’ as is evident of many such projects. The argument was basically on the point that Indigenous peoples remain one of the most impacted and vulnerable groups in the world by major projects having high risk factors for both the natural and human environments.

The Volta Grande do Xingu region in Brazil, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, has already been grappling with the negative impacts of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power project. This singular project has been in the center of controversy over socio-environmental impacts on Indigenous communities. This reeks of a similar controversy over the Loktak Hydroelectric Multipurpose Project in Manipur where Indigenous people and local communities have been at loggerheads with State over issues on large scale displacement of the local people living in the wetland area, and the tremendous negative impacts on the hydrological cycle and natural ecosystem of Loktak Lake leading to extensive biodiversity loss and impacts on local people’s livelihoods.

Referring to another instance of Indigenous peoples emerging victorious in their struggle against external influences, in 2017 the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East based in Peru won a significant lawsuit against Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the state energy agency Perupetro who had planned to develop oil zones within the Sierra del Divisor National Park, home to indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation which were recognized by the Peruvian Government in 2018 and 2019.

Signaling the win for native communities that had fought against oil and mining projects on their land, a Peruvian judge ruled that the government exclude the indigenous region of Loreto, located in Peru’s northern Amazon near the border with Brazil, from any oil exploration and exploitation. The judgment paved the path to successful protection and conservation of the Peruvian rainforests in the Amazon Basin on the one hand, while ensuring the safe future of the IPLCs.

These isolated wins by Indigenous peoples in their fight against external interventions that seek to destroy their indigenous territories of life, redefine the odds IPLCs face against State’s intrusions. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in her 2020 report on human rights abuse worldwide stated that land and environmental defenders and those defending Indigenous peoples’ rights are particularly at risk and vulnerable to attack. For instance, people and communities protesting land grabs and objecting to private sector projects imposed by governments without their free, prior and informed consent are particularly at risk of threats to life and properties.

The report endorsed that those working on land, environmental and Indigenous peoples’ rights were the most targeted sector of human rights defense in 2020, with detention, arrest and physical attack as the most frequent violations.

As a case study in Manipur, IPLCs settled and living off the resources of wetlands like Loktak and Pumlen has since been hounded by the State on the charges of ‘encroaching’ and ‘disturbing’ the ecosystem of these wetlands. Local people refute the charges levelled on them with the simple reasoning that they have been associated with the wetlands since centuries. Their entire life activity revolves around sourcing food and means of sustenance from the wetlands. The shared relationship entails them to be conscious of protecting the very ecosystem upon which they depend for their living, and not in destroying it.

Fishers at Loktak have been at loggerheads with the State for the past four decades. Fishers at Champu Khangpok floating village have even been charged of ‘polluting’ the lake, and the State had attempted eviction of the fishers from within the lake. The fishers resisted on the grounds that Loktak is their ancient territory of life, and that the State cannot re-define them as ‘encroachers’, or for that matter any sort of illegal occupiers in the broad sense, in par with definition of transitional migrant workers encroaching in unclassified government property.

The argument per se for the fishers is that the vast spread of Loktak Lake, or of Pumlen wetland as such, is their ancient territory of life, and they have the very right to access freely to eke their living. The question on right to life is the bench marker for this marginalized section of people whose only source of earning for their living is the fish resource of the lake. To date, the conflict of interest has been a see-saw, tilting on either side without any concrete resolution in sight. The loss is for both in the sense that in the midst of the conflict the priority on conservation of the lake has lost sight.

For the IPLCs, resisting State’s interest in over-exploitation of the natural resources in vital biodiversity rich areas is as tough as it can be, that too without the resources and backing they need. This is where the isolated victories by IPLCs as in Peru or in Brazil truly become meaningful and exemplary for other IPLCs in similar situations.

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

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