* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hit hard by the pandemic, Asia's indigenous and local communities face fresh government-led efforts to exploit their land and resources
In addition to its devastating toll on public health, COVID-19 has exacerbated global food insecurity and economic crises. These costs have been particularly acute for Indigenous Peoples and local communities on customarily governed territories and lands.
Yet some of the worst impacts have originated not from the crisis, but from decisions made to protect vested interests. A recent analysis by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, the Coalition for Tenure Justice in Indonesia, and the Rights and Resources Initiative shows that governments across Asia have used the pandemic’s cover to promulgate detrimental laws that counteract the advances made in recognition of Indigenous and community tenure rights.
Governments have taken advantage of limits on public mobilization to push through controversial economic policies predating COVID-19, leveraging lockdown regulations to quash opposition and target activists. Governments have continued pushing this misguided bid to revive economies despite evidence that these practices increase the probability of spreading zoonotic diseases by degrading the very ecosystems that prevent them.
ROLLING BACK RIGHTS
While these trends are visible across South and Southeast Asia, the study shows that threats to Indigenous and community rights are particularly severe in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
The Philippines has received global attention for its militarized response to the COVID-19 crisis, known as Enhanced Community Quarantine. Over 17,000 people were arrested for violating the quarantine in its first 20 days, including Indigenous Peoples mobilizing against extractive projects. In September, President Duterte extended a provision that grants him special powers to appropriate budget for stimulus and development activities in the name of pandemic response.
The Philippines’ Department of Agriculture and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) have also released a joint proposal for increasing food production on so-called “idle” ancestral lands belonging to Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Civil society and community representatives have denounced this “Plant Plant Plant” program as a way of opening ancestral lands to industrial agriculture, hindering customary practices that promote sustainable use of natural resources.
In Indonesia, the Workplace Creation Law (called the Omnibus Law) was passed on October 5 despite strong opposition from peasant, Indigenous and environmental organizations. The law deregulates mining, diminishes penalties for environmental violations, removes requirements for environmental impact assessments, and excludes Indigenous and local communities from decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, in the name of stimulus, Indonesia’s government granted automatic extension of coal mining concessions and renewal of licenses for plantations, timber, and pulp concessions. It has also attempted to revoke legality requirements for wood exports.
To boost food security, President Joko Widodo instructed state enterprises to open new rice fields on 900,000 hectares across Central Kalimantan, including many customarily governed lands and peatlands. Large-scale projects have already resulted in land grabs leading to forced evictions and resettlements of farmers. During the pandemic, the Indonesian Consortium of Agrarian Organizations recorded 37 new agrarian conflicts, leading to two local deaths and 39 arrests.
In India, an overnight lockdown declaration left millions of migrant workers stranded in cities, forced to walk hundreds of kilometers to their homes. But movement restrictions were not applied to India’s mining sector, which was deemed essential, and afforestation programs continued to employ local communities as wage labor to plant monoculture plantations on their own ancestral lands, converting them to state-owned in the process. Recent months have seen numerous community displacements, including for a reservoir and conservation initiatives.
India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also proposed a regulation that would diminish public hearings for environmental impact assessments and weaken consultation processes. It will pardon projects with existing violations and exempt certain industries from environmental assessments. Environmental clearance requirements for mines looking to expand have been waived, and hydroelectric and fossil fuel projects in particular have received rapid approval without proper oversight.
BULWARK FOR NATURE
Such rollbacks to environmental and social protections, and to land and resource rights come at a moment when neither communities nor the world at large can afford them. The pandemic has underscored that communities are better able to protect themselves from diseases when they have secure land rights. Research also shows that community rights can drive food security, inclusive livelihoods and protection of forests, including the flora that provide the source for many of the world’s medicines.
As scientists warn that deforestation and biodiversity loss increase contact between humans and novel pathogens, recognition of Indigenous and community land rights could provide an urgently needed bulwark against environmental destruction. But with vested interests taking advantage of the crisis to advance laws that hinder environmental and social protections, the hard-won conditions for securing community land rights are at risk. As COVID-19 cases reach new heights, the lands and forests that protect us are being auctioned off to the highest bidders.