Two-thirds of the estimated 370 million self-identified indigenous peoples are in Asia, enriching the region’s enormous cultural and linguistic diversity. They have strong cultural attachment to and livelihood dependence on land, forests and waters, and the natural resources therein.
Their ownership of, and unique collective historical connections with their territories have continuously been developed and maintained through complex and diverse customary land and resource use management systems that are repositories of tangible and intangible wealth.
In Asia, “indigenous peoples” as a term is contentious. The fact remains, however, that the individual and collective rights of peoples who self-identify as indigenous peoples are being violated on a daily basis. All too often, their lands, territories and resources are sacrificed and expropriated for state-sponsored development and corporate projects that lead to gross and wide-scale violations of their collective rights especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources. The granting of concessions for mining, logging, plantations, and other extractive industries—as well as infrastructure development for national development—have dispossessed and marginalized many indigenous peoples in Asia.
Although all states in Asia voted for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) on September 13, 2007, many refuse to respect and implement indigenous peoples’ collective rights, especially to their lands, territories and resources and to self-determination. Several Asian states, underpinned by legal systems inherited from colonial times, have arrogated to themselves the right to allocate, regulate and determine land and resource ownership, use, control and development. These systems, imposed on indigenous peoples, often do not recognize the historical and customary use of lands and resources that they have nurtured and managed for centuries based upon their inherent rights and traditions. This has also led to the loss of these peoples’ cumulative collective indigenous knowledge and worldview that have enabled them to sustainably develop their fragile homelands and unique cultures over the centuries.
The formal legal recognition and status granted by Asian states to indigenous peoples varies from country to country. In a number of countries, indigenous peoples have constitutional recognition, while in others they are invisible in the fundamental law of the land. Still in other states, the use and applicability of the term indigenous peoples remains contentious. However, legal recognition, even when conferred does not always guarantee the full range and enjoyment of individual and collective rights. In some Asian countries, it is limited, conditional or not properly implemented. It also does not extend to all indigenous peoples within the country, and is often glossed over when state or private business interests prevail. The absence of formal legal recognition often results in indigenous peoples being denied many basic rights and services including collective rights based upon national and international human rights law.
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