The disputes in Loktak Lake, Manipur is now overflowing to the adjoining wetlands like Pumlen, Khoidum Pat, Ikop, Kharung, and others. The disputes centre on the issue of rights – land rights, right to life, right to livelihood, and the right to access to resources amongst others.
By Salam Rajesh
Coming back to that discussion on the Indigenous Peoples’ assertion of their rights in territories traditionally held and managed by them since decades, and centuries, going through the pace of Conservation International’s Indigenous Negotiations Resource Guide (October, 2021) is a good base to work from, specifically concerning the question on how to address these rights in the correct perspective.
Opening the dialogue for a wider discussion, the Resource Guide opens up with this important statement, “Despite legal protection for the right to benefit from activities like mining, agriculture, ecotourism and conservation, many Indigenous Peoples have been excluded from the real benefits of projects and programs that take place on their titled and traditional lands”.
Indigenous Peoples own or have tenure rights over at least 25 percent of the world’s land surface, including approximately 40 percent of terrestrial protected areas and 37 percent of ecologically intact landscapes.
The Resource Guide very specifically mentions that “forests managed by Indigenous Peoples are critical for global climate mitigation, as they contain at least 24 percent of the total carbon stored above-ground in tropical forests”. This, coupled with the massive carbon storage by wetlands, makes critical nature reserves managed and controlled by Indigenous Peoples very important to climate change negotiations.
As the Guide re-emphasizes, indigenous ‘negotiation capacity’ can help communities mitigate harmful impacts and maximize potential benefits of projects. This comes from the basic argument that indigenous peoples’ rights are at most times violated by States and other development agencies when taking up schemes in lands originally managed by the IPs.
Indigenous peoples’ rights arise from the historical relationships between them and their lands and territories – a history that has been marked by constant struggle to defend against dispossession and violation of land rights, asserts the report.
Referring to the assertion of rights, the Resource Guide is quite bold in stating that, “Collective land rights form the basis of many other rights, including the right to practice culture, the right to self-determination, and the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)”.
This discussion at the global context finds reflection on ground where as in the case of Loktak Lake or Pumlen Pat, for instance, the reference to State going ahead with plans to take up ‘development’ projects in these wetlands without prior consultations with the local people is indicative of the outright violation of the rights of IPs, especially in consideration to the non-observation of the FPIC process and without seeking consent of the wetland dwellers and wetland dependent locals whose livelihoods are very much linked to the water bodies.
Other than the violation of basic fundamental rights of the local people, is the question on how the locals are going to benefit directly or indirectly from the State’s intervention. Benefits can come from two sources, as direct outcome of the State’s intervention and as outcome of the ecosystem services from long term conservation of the wetlands. In both cases, proactive participation of the locals is truly essential to achieve the goals.
In this context setting, Conservation International’s Resource Guide clearly states that “International law recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) – their right to give or withhold consent to projects affecting their lands and resources. FPIC is a collective right of Indigenous Peoples that is rooted in their relationship to resources from ancestral lands. FPIC is central not only to the economic and social well-being of Indigenous People, but also to their survival”.
This then is fundamentally what has been missing all this while as in the case of conflicts of interest between State and the local people in Manipur. The instances are everywhere, whether it is the case of Loktak Lake, Pumlen Pat or the disputes on proclamation of wildlife sanctuaries in the hill districts of the State – more pronounced with the locals’ objection to the notification of the proposed Shirui National Park in Ukhrul District of Manipur, more specifically in the absence of the FPIC process.
The fundamental issue, as in the State, is to what extent the State respects the rights of the Indigenous peoples – in specific the wetland and forest dwellers, and dependents – when it comes to land rights and the right to access to resources.
The definition of ‘protected areas’ is at the root of most of the disputes, wherein it is not clearly defined as to where the Indigenous peoples stand when it comes to defining their territory in terms of State’s classification of most land as ‘State Land’ – with or without basis.
The disputes in Loktak Lake is now overflowing to the adjoining wetlands like Pumlen, Khoidum Pat, Ikop, Kharung, and others. The disputes centre on the issue of rights – land rights, right to life, right to livelihood, and the right to access to resources amongst others.
A concerned factor in-between these conflicts of interest between State and the local people is the negligence of the local self government system by the State. The negligence, or willful ignoring, of the local self government system, as for instance over-riding the authority of the Jilla Parishad and the local Gram Sabha in the decision-making processes.
As in the case of Loktak and Pumlen wetlands, the basic question arises as to what extent the State had consulted the grassroots-level governance system in their decision making process. Fundamentally speaking, it can mean a unilateral decision by the State – the typical top-down model of State governance – when it comes to significant development agendas concerning these wetlands, and which could impact the lives of the wetland dwellers and wetland dependent communities drastically on long term basis.
The issue essentially also reflects upon the United Nations’ assertion that Indigenous peoples better manage the forest lands under their control and management, and that these traditional custodians need to be seen as vital partners towards effective forest and wetland management in meeting the climate goals.
States’ decision-making processes, as well as conceptualizing plans for initiating so-said developmental programs, need to seriously look at the proactive participation of Indigenous peoples in achieving targets set by the UN in its 2030 and 2050 Agendas. To achieve this, the State leadership must incorporate the traditional wisdom and knowledge of local people reinforced with scientific temperament to achieve the set goals rationally and successfully.
(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])