Indigenous people make up around 5% of the global population with the largest majority living in Asia. 70 million Indigenous people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods and as a spiritual place of worship.
Across South East Asia, Indigenous communities often lack the paper certificates that prove that they own their land. This leaves them vulnerable to land grabbing or trespass. There are international and national laws and policies that offer protection to communities but there is little education or awareness about these rights. The process for obtaining titles can be long, expensive and complicated. Private companies such as those in the mining and agribusiness industries are often outcompeting Indigenous groups in gaining forest tenure rights as they have the finances and legal knowledge to do so. Traditionally, land in these communities is not owned by individuals, but collectively.
Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates globally, and over 2.1 million hectares of Cambodian land has been given to private business. Government attempts to support local communities have had little impact, as the government’s real focus is on increasing foreign investment and development. As a result, there have been violent land disputes. Communities are displaced and have few options for compensation.
In Laos it is estimated that around one million hectares of land have been given to investors. Deforestation has reduced forest coverage by 30%. The government claims ownership of 99.9% of the forest, and there is little recognition of traditional land ownership. This leaves Indigenous communities vulnerable. An ambitious railway strategy to strengthen connections with neighbouring countries will also have a negative impact on indigenous communities.
The laws in Vietnam do not align with the customary practices of Indigenous groups who perceive forests to belong to and encompass the ancestral spirits of whole villages. Although the law allows for community land management, only 2% of forest has been allocated to communities, compared to 26% to individuals and 72% to state enterprises and authorities.
Deforestation not only affects people’s livelihoods and homes, but it also has a devastating impact on global climate change. Where Indigenous people have ownership, forests are managed more sustainably and the plants and animals that make up the forests’ rich diversity are protected.
Cord is working across the region to strengthen and support Indigenous human rights defenders, ensuring they have the knowledge, network and skills to peacefully and effectively defend their land. Through Cord’s programmes hundreds of land titles have been granted giving people peace of mind for the future of their livelihoods. Human rights defenders have improved the way they capture and share information about illegal activity on their land. Forestry groups have started sustainable businesses that both provide the long-term finances needed to complete the process of gaining land titles and improve the local economy. Human rights defenders are learning about the laws that protect them and engaging with authorities and other powerholders to resolve land disputes in a peaceful way.