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conceptual mapping >  cultures and identities  > Indigenous People Make Best Forest Custodians

Inter Press Service (IPS)

Indigenous People Make Best Forest Custodians

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> By Marwaan Macan-Markar

The millions of indigenous people living across Asia and the Pacific are finally gaining recognition for the key role the play in forest conservation.

This shift has been a feature of a major conference being held here this week to shape forest management policies in this region for the next 20 years. Activists championing the cause of local communities welcome this sea change, given that forests have been sacred to these people and central to their identity.

‘’Indigenous people have a sacred relationship with forest lands. Societies have to work with them in making plans about forests,’’ says Peter Walpole, executive director of the Asia Forest Network, a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Tagbilaran City, Philippines. ‘’Empowering indigenous people is essential to help manage forests.’’

‘’If you want to protect the forests you have to begin by dealing with them,’’ he explained in an interview. ‘’You cannot walk over them as has been always the case. These communities were there much before forests were declared as protected areas.’’

Those advocating this view hope that the emerging trend will help to lift the indigenous communities out of poverty, since they live on the margins of society and are often at the bottom all social and economic indicators. Many governments in the region have refused to give indigenous people citizenship, consequently doubling their burden to lead a secure life, say researchers studying forestry policies.

Currently, there are between 210 and 260 million indigenous people living in Asia and the Pacific, according to United Nations figures. Yet, only a few countries — among them India — have legislated to address the plight of this dispossessed group. In December 2006, New Delhi introduced new laws to address the concerns of communities living in the tribal belt in the centre of the South Asian sub-continent.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the hosts of the meeting in the northern Thai city, the new emphasis on indigenous communities reflects the broadening of the global agenda to respond to forest management and the crisis of deforestation. ‘’A decade ago, policy making was guided by a narrow and conventional approach. But that has to change given the range of pressures placed on forests,’’ says C.T.S. Nair, chief economist in the forestry department of the United Nations body.

The need for such a comprehensive response will require policy makers to understand the link between indigenous people and the forests they live in and around in its broadest terms, Nair told IPS. ‘’One the one hand, we want to know what countries are doing about their indigenous people. But we are also saying that just empowering them is not enough; they have to benefit from the change.’’

To achieve that, the FAO is endorsing the calls for local institutions to be built to support the indigenous groups. ‘’They need stable and reliable structures to protect them from the rapid change impacting the forestry sector due to globalisation,’’ says Nair.

This week’s conference, from Oct. 16-18, has attracted 250 participants from 39 countries. It is being held under the theme, ‘The Future of Forests in Asia and the Pacific Outlook for 2020’. It comes nearly a decade after the first Asia-Pacific outlook study, in 1998. Read more.

date of on-line publication : 25 October 2007

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