The coronavirus pandemic has put Asia’s Indigenous communities under serious pressure

Beyond its health repercussions, the coronavirus pandemic is making it even harder for Indigenous people in many parts of Asia to defend their civil and land rights, with governments and companies taking advantage of the pandemic to brush them aside. In this photograph, Moken fishermen on Bocho Island in Myanmar carry plastic baskets containing fishing nets. (AP/Altaf Qadri)

Many communities have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, but for some, such as the Chao Lay, the global slowdown in travel and tourism has also given them some breathing space. The positive side effects of the pandemic for such communities are, however, few and far between.

The term Chao Lay is used to refer to three Indigenous groups (the Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi) who live on the popular Andaman Sea coast and islands of southern Thailand. According to the report Raising Our Voices to Save Our Future, published in autumn 2019 by the Indigenous Women Network of Thailand (IWNT) and the Manushya Foundation, some 13,000 Chao Lay live in 44 communities across five provinces in Thailand: Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Ranong and Satun.

Their way of life and relationship with the environment, often poorly understood by the authorities, has been under serious pressure for decades. Their communal lands and territories have been classified as conservation areas, for example, or taken over by the tourism business, an activity from which they derive little if any benefit. Their economic exclusion is compounded by the marginalisation and discrimination they face, including the denial of their citizenship rights, on the grounds that they are not registered anywhere.

The Chao Lay have suffered many land rights violations, as a result, especially at the hands of tourism investors, as most Indigenous people do not have titles to their traditional lands, considering them to be communal goods and not the property of individuals.

Unlike the other groups, the Moken, or ‘sea gypsies’, did not use to live in the coastal villages but on their boats, maintaining a semi-nomadic lifestyle for generations, sailing the seas during the dry season and returning to their settlements on the Surin Islands of Thailand during the monsoon season.

But over the years, successive laws passed by the Thai authorities have increasingly encroached on their territories and restricted their ability to travel by sea, impacting both their way of life and their livelihoods, as they are no longer able to fish where they please.

In 2010, under pressure from the Indigenous people and the organisations that support them, the Thai authorities issued a resolution aimed at improving the Moken’s livelihoods, a fundamental victory in terms of official recognition of their rights and the protection of the marine environments on which they depend.

As Emilie Pradichit, founder and director of the Manushya Foundation (an organisation seeking to connect and empower local communities throughout Asia) nonetheless explains to Equal Times, the fruits of this victory remain limited.

“There is a resolution designed to protect their right to their ancestral lands but it is poorly implemented by the [Thai] authorities, owing to their deep-rooted prejudices and discriminatory practices,” she says.

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As Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells Equal Times, there is still a huge gap, across South-East Asia, between what is required by law and what happens in practice. It is therefore crucial, he points out, that governments and United Nations agencies support the struggles of these communities, defending their rights, their territories, their ancestral cultures and their ways of life, to enable them to deal with the difficulties posed by the corrupt business practices and government interests that are brushing them aside.

The victories of these communities, as Robertson explains, “are too few and far between”, and there is very “little transparency or accountability” regarding the government action being taken.

A David and Goliath-like battle

Over time, Indigenous peoples have managed to organise themselves and have built alliances with international organisations (which promote knowledge about their ancestral ways of life and their central role in preserving the environments they inhabit). They are working together, joining forces to press for the recognition of their rights and for their perspectives to be taken on board in the decisions that affect their lives.

In conversation with Equal Times, Signe Leth, a land rights advisor for the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), an organisation dedicated to defending and promoting indigenous peoples’ rights, spoke about the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) as an example of the new step forward in their struggle. This platform for sharing experiences and best practices, set up by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which recognised the importance of these communities in addressing and responding to the climate change challenge, is the fruit of a long battle for respect and recognition.

For Leth, Indigenous peoples are by no means passive subjects. “It is they who have driven the struggle, who have been fighting in the UN, and who are constantly voicing their concerns,” she says. Indigenous peoples are also the ones who barricade their lands and patrol their territories, who organise protests and risk their lives in the struggle to protect their lands. NGOs and the UN are mere allies in the struggle.

And their struggle has had its victories. Leth points to the example of the Supreme Court ruling in Nepal, for example, ordering the suspension of a huge road expansion project in Kathmandu Valley. Indigenous peoples in Malaysia, the Philippines, India and many other places have managed to safeguard their lands by physically blocking the way of mining companies, or by patrolling their territories and chasing outsiders away.

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As the adviser nonetheless warns, “There is also a large body of conservationists who still do not recognise the contribution Indigenous peoples make.” She quotes the example of a group in India that has filed several court cases accusing Indigenous communities of poaching and deforestation. In neighbouring Nepal, rangers in Chitwan National Park have been accused of torturing, harassing and even killing members of the Indigenous community living in the park’s buffer zone and who have been (wrongly) accused of poaching.

Then there are the lockdown and containment measures that governments on all continents have gradually adopted to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made the situation worse for many already vulnerable communities.

Several organisations report that governments and companies in countries such as India, Cambodia and Indonesia have taken advantage of the situation (for example, when Indigenous people moved to temporary shelters to protect themselves from the spread of Covid-19), to encroach on indigenous peoples’ lands, revoke their rights and weaken environmental protection laws.

Leth explains that the coronavirus crisis has impacted Indigenous peoples’ food security and livelihoods, for instance, as they have not been able to manage their farmlands (since they have not been able to access them) over recent months. Land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia reports that the Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) bulldozed two sacred mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting grounds and burial sites in Ratanakiri province during the lockdown.

Jaynee Garganera, one of the coordinators of Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), a national coalition of organisations fighting against largescale mining and other destructive projects in the Philippines, told the press that the government has allowed mining operations to continue during the fight against the pandemic, even though the sector’s contribution to the country’s economy is “minuscule”. Garganera was urging the country’s environment department to issue a moratorium on mining in environmentally critical areas such as watersheds, primary forests and small island ecosystems.

For Leth, the wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous peoples are essential to combating climate change, finding social and political solutions and continuing to live in a culturally diverse world. But in the midst of a race in which new hurdles continue to appear, the finishing line seems far away. Governments will have to prepare economic recovery strategies once the health emergency is over. The drive to speed up resource extraction and to reactivate the tourist industry are two sources of concern for Indigenous peoples’ rights. But the local communities are not prepared to give up and will continue to fight for recognition, raising their voices to make themselves heard.

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