For the past couple of days, I have been going in and out of a global conference in Penang on forests, biodiversity, community rights and indigenous peoples organised by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific.
The theme “Ecological equity: Sharing the stories, reclaiming our rights” couldn’t have been more timely. Listening to the heart-rending stories from indigenous representative and activists from places such as Philippines, Uganda and Bolivia, I realised that the indigenous groups in Sarawak who are struggling to protect their native customary rights land are not alone.
It seems to be a common pattern across the world that many indigenous communities – especially those living in forests – are being driven off their land, in many cases with meagre compensation. Corporations involved in mining, logging, plantations, agrofuel and biopiracy (the theft of genetic material in forests followed by attempts to ‘patent’ them) have been greedily eying native land.
It seems like rapacious corporate greed literally knows no boundaries. Increasingly, plantation firms are also targeting Africa. One Ugandan woman claimed that a Malaysian firm has been driving out indigenous communities from thousands of hectares of land there with minimal compensation.
Without their land, the native communities lose their sources of food and livelihood, their culture, indeed their very soul. No wonder many of the indigenous communities are now resisting: they are not about to give up their ancestral lands so easily.
The speakers at the conference also seemed highly cynical about all those ‘Sustainable Roundtable’ initiatives. They are seen as industry attempts to put on a cloak of legitimacy to their profit-driven business that often cares little about displaced communities and the trail of environmental destruction and misery left behind.