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ENVIRONMENT: Indigenous People Make Best Forest Custodians

Marwaan Macan-Markar

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Oct 17 2007 (IPS) - The millions of indigenous people living across Asia and the Pacific are finally gaining recognition for the key role the play in forest conservation.

This shift has been a feature of a major conference being held here this week to shape forest management policies in this region for the next 20 years. Activists championing the cause of local communities welcome this sea change, given that forests have been sacred to these people and central to their identity.

‘’Indigenous people have a sacred relationship with forest lands. Societies have to work with them in making plans about forests,’’ says Peter Walpole, executive director of the Asia Forest Network, a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Tagbilaran City, Philippines. ‘’Empowering indigenous people is essential to help manage forests.’’

‘’If you want to protect the forests you have to begin by dealing with them,’’ he explained in an interview. ‘’You cannot walk over them as has been always the case. These communities were there much before forests were declared as protected areas.’’

Those advocating this view hope that the emerging trend will help to lift the indigenous communities out of poverty, since they live on the margins of society and are often at the bottom all social and economic indicators. Many governments in the region have refused to give indigenous people citizenship, consequently doubling their burden to lead a secure life, say researchers studying forestry policies.

Currently, there are between 210 and 260 million indigenous people living in Asia and the Pacific, according to United Nations figures. Yet, only a few countries – among them India – have legislated to address the plight of this dispossessed group. In December 2006, New Delhi introduced new laws to address the concerns of communities living in the tribal belt in the centre of the South Asian sub-continent.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the hosts of the meeting in the northern Thai city, the new emphasis on indigenous communities reflects the broadening of the global agenda to respond to forest management and the crisis of deforestation. ‘’A decade ago, policy making was guided by a narrow and conventional approach. But that has to change given the range of pressures placed on forests,’’ says C.T.S. Nair, chief economist in the forestry department of the United Nations body.

The need for such a comprehensive response will require policy makers to understand the link between indigenous people and the forests they live in and around in its broadest terms, Nair told IPS. ‘’One the one hand, we want to know what countries are doing about their indigenous people. But we are also saying that just empowering them is not enough; they have to benefit from the change.’’

To achieve that, the FAO is endorsing the calls for local institutions to be built to support the indigenous groups. ‘’They need stable and reliable structures to protect them from the rapid change impacting the forestry sector due to globalisation,’’ says Nair.

This week’s conference, from Oct. 16-18, has attracted 250 participants from 39 countries. It is being held under the theme, ‘The Future of Forests in Asia and the Pacific Outlook for 2020&#39. It comes nearly a decade after the first Asia-Pacific outlook study, in 1998.

The new tone for a broader agenda in grappling with forestry-related issues has been shaped by the events and debates that have unfolded since that 1998 study. The threats and new pressures on forests have ranged from deforestation and forest degradation to climate change, the expanding trade in timber and the role of forests in tourism.

Currently, the world’s forest cover is estimated at 3.9 billion hectares, or some 30 percent of the planet’s land area. Of that, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for some 700 million ha.

‘’How countries manage their forests is increasingly becoming a matter of international concern on account of the wide ranging impacts of deforestation and forest degradation have on climate and water resources,’’ Jagmohan Maini, former coordinator of the United Nations Forum on Forests, said in his keynote address to the conference.

According to Jan Heino, head of the FAO’s forestry division, the trade in forest products have kept pace with the spike in global trade over the past two decades. The value of global trade has gone from nearly two trillion US dollars in 1983 to 10 trillion dollars in 2005, he said, adding that during the same period, the forest product trade had grown from 50 billion dollars to 260 billion dollars.

The demand has left a giant footprint on the forest cover across the Asian continent. The Asia-Pacific region has ‘’lost 10 million ha of its forests in the past 15 years, largely in the drive to supply increasing demands for agriculture and forest products,’’ states the FAO. ‘’Recently, new threats to forests have emerged in the push to develop bio-energy resources from such crops as oil palm.’’

But till now, however, the eye-witnesses to such change and devastation were sidelined due to their economically weak status and their lack of power as a political constituency. ‘’The indigenous communities have been left poorer because of the poor quality of the forests,’’ says Walpole. ‘’The enormous exploitation of forest resources has severely impacted them.’’

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