Managing forests, sustaining lives, improving livelihoods of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups in the Mekong region, Asia

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This paper presents the Learning Route, ‘Managing Forests, Sustaining Lives, Improving Livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Groups in the Mekong Region’, undertaken in November 2012 by PROCASUR and AIPP with the support of IFAD. It describes the Learning Route process, outputs and outcomes, as well as lessons learned, in addition to two case studies – one in Lao PDR and the other in Thailand – of community-based forest management, communal land titles and sustainable livelihoods. The document also provides a general overview of the land tenure system and its effect on the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups in Asia, with particular focus on Lao PDR and Thailand.

The Learning Route is an innovative initiative, promoting sustainable grass-roots solutions to economic underdevelopment. This collective undertaking brings together key stakeholders – donors, governments, civil society organizations, indigenous peoples and local communities – to interact with each other for a period of at least seven days while learning about community-based projects worth replicating in other areas.

The preparation and the process strengthen the partnerships of those directly involved, as well as the capacities of organizers, while at the same time empowering the host communities. These are added benefits to the enriching and inspiring lessons and knowledge gained by the participants.

The indigenous peoples’ communities of Lao PDR and Thailand involved in this exchange provided rich experiences to learn from. The strength of the two case studies presented in this document lies in the fact that both concern community-driven initiatives, which have been duly recognized by the governments in their respective countries as models to be scaled up. These cases demonstrate that there is much to learn from grass-roots efforts by people who have been adapting and innovating to meet their economic needs or to cope with climate change, while strengthening community cooperation and social cohesion.

Asia has the largest population of indigenous peoples in the world and, therefore, is richly endowed with traditional knowledge. This highly specialized knowledge has enabled the indigenous peoples’ communities to develop livelihood strategies and occupations that are well adapted to the local conditions. It ranges from traditional medicine – which is becoming increasingly appreciated by and integrated into modern health-care systems – to sustainable management of natural resources and climate change mitigation. The development of such specialized knowledge is a growing pattern within many indigenous peoples’ communities in Asia and it is ready to be tapped for the common benefit of all.

With this context in mind, the organizers of this enriching exchange are honored to share this report of experiences. It is comprised of two parts:

  • Part I reports on the good practices and solutions in natural resource management and livelihood diversification developed by the Learning Route host communities, and documents the main outcomes and lessons learned during the Learning Route, as identified by participants. This effort represents the first step towards scaling up these innovations to the regional level in the Mekong areas.
  • Part II frames these indigenous experiences in a broader socio-political and legal context, providing an overview of the legal status, the land tenure system and the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples in Asia, with specific attention to Lao PDR and Thailand. It identifies the major challenges indigenous peoples and ethnic groups are facing today, as well as the opportunities that could benefit local communities.

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