Overview of the State of Indigenous Peoples in Asia

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Two-thirds of the approximate 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.

They have unique collective historical connections with, and ownership of their territories that 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.

There are different names, that governments and others use to refer to indigenous peoples collectively – like “ethnic minorities”, “hill tribes”, “tribal people”, “highland people”, “aboriginal people”, “native people”. Some of these terms are not appreciated by many indigenous peoples, since they often imply notions of cultural inferiority, “primitiveness” or “backwardness”.

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 territories are sacrificed and expropriated for state-sponsored development and corporate projects that lead to gross and wide-scale violations of their collective rights, especially regarding their lands, territories, and resources. The unilateral declaration of national parks and conservation areas, 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. The militarization of indigenous territories in response to protest actions has also resulted to serious violations of their civil and political rights including killings, arbitrary arrests and torture. These impositions and outright non-recognition of their rights are causing widespread and escalating conflicts, forced displacements, massive environmental degradation, food insecurity, ethnocide, and the weakening of the distinct socio-cultural systems and cohesion of indigenous peoples. These are making them even more vulnerable to human rights violations, especially where it concerns indigenous women.

Although almost 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 the 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.

However, amidst the continuing violation of their rights, indigenous communities and organisations in Asia have continued to gain strength in recent years. More organisations are being established at the local, sub-national and national levels, including among the indigenous youth and women. In Nepal, indigenous representatives are campaigning to have distinct representation of indigenous peoples in the Constituent Assembly, although their demand for a federal system based upon indigenous identity remains as a huge challenge. In Indonesia, the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples in the Archipelago [Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, AMAN] has won its case in the Constitutional Court through its declaration that customary forests are not state forests, affirming indigenous peoples’ customary rights over their forests.

Indigenous peoples in Asia have also increased their engagement and participation in regional and international bodies, including with UN agencies and processes. With their sustained advocacy for full and effective participation on the issue of forests and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation), they have gained representation in national REDD+ bodies, such as in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Indonesia. They continue to contribute to the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ rights and concerns in the negotiations on the Climate Change and Biological Diversity Conventions, among others. They have been engaging, along with civil society organisations, with the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), particularly with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), although indigenous peoples remain invisible in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and in the work of the AICHR.

The regional umbrella organization, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), is part of this growing movement, with 47 members in 14 countries. With its program expansion in partnership with more than 80 organisations and institutions from the local to global levels, it is strengthening cooperation and solidarity of indigenous peoples in the region and beyond. This cooperation is further advanced through its established networks in cooperation with other organisations and institutions: the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders Network (IPHRD), Indigenous Voices in Asia Network (IVAN), Climate Change Monitoring and Information Network (CCMIN) and Asia Indigenous Peoples Network on Extractive Industry and Energy (AIPNEE).

Given the tremendous needs of Asia’s indigenous peoples, AIPP is focusing on awareness raising and capacity building at the grassroots level and sustained lobby advocacy and networking at the national, regional and international levels on human rights, environment, climate change, indigenous women’s empowerment, sustainable development and related issues. Key activities include the production of popular educational materials for indigenous communities, community seminars, trainings, workshops, institutional strengthening, mainstreaming of indigenous women’s rights and concerns, exchange visits, dialogues and engagements with relevant bodies, processes and mechanisms.

However, as this briefing paper shows, indigenous peoples in Asia still have a long way to go in realizing their collective rights, especially to their lands and resources. This overview presents the state of indigenous peoples in the following key areas: legal recognition; right to lands, territories and resources; situation of indigenous women; human rights, militarization and national security; environment and climate change; and sustainable development and related issues.

The member-organisations of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact [AIPP] have translated the publication Overview of the State of Indigenous Peoples in Asia into selected national languages to enable access to the material for education and advocacy work. The publication is available in the following languages: Bahasa Indonesia, Bangla, Burmese, Khmer, Kinh, Kokborok, Lao, Nepali, Tetum.  These translations and their printing were made possible with the support of the European Union’s European Instrument for Human Rights and Democracy [EIDHR]. Readers are encouraged to download the publication and use it for raising awareness on the situation of indigenous peoples’ human rights in Asia.

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