While land was a persistent source of conflict between Governments and indigenous peoples around the world, adequate State recognition of indigenous land claims and the equitable resolution of disputes had fostered avenues for peace and stability in Bangladesh and the Philippines, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today, as it concluded its review of good governance principles.
Devasish Roy, a Forum member from Bangladesh, presented a study on best practices and examples in respect of resolving land disputes and land claims, focusing on two case studies: their resolution in the Philippines and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, he said, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Commission had jurisdiction over all sorts of lands except “reserved forests” settled in the name of the Government. The Commission resolved disputes in accordance with the laws and customs of the region. While there were no appeals of its decisions, a judicial review by the Supreme Court could be pursued. In the Philippines, the 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act covered ancestral domains, self-governance, social justice, and the cultural integrity of indigenous peoples. While the Philippines had one of most advanced references to free, prior and informed consent, there had been complaints that that process had been “faked”, as it followed format only rather than spirit.
Outlining recommendations, he urged both countries to initiate legal, administrative, logistical and other reforms to address “dysfunctionalities” in the models. For the Philippines, that meant repealing the 1995 Mining Act, while for Bangladesh, it meant amending the 2001 Land Commission Act, in line with the advice of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, and devolving full administration authority to district councils. More broadly, he urged other Governments to study the models for “implementable ideas”. The United Nations and financial institutions could promote the models as ways to resolve land claims and disputes involving indigenous peoples.
As for Bangladesh, along with transferring full land administration authority to Hill District Councils, he urged cancelling commercial leases to non-residents; revoking notifications to create new “reserved forests”; and providing executive support to the roles of traditional Circle Chiefs, Headmen and Karbaries (Village Chiefs).
The presentation touched on many of the basic rights and legal prerequisites being discussed under the Forum’s special theme of good governance. When the floor was opened for debate, indigenous representatives described how issues associated with land — forced displacement, military occupation and dispossession by large-scale extractive projects among them — affected their territories, which were often rich in natural resources. Several speakers decried that the laws, policies and very institutions established to promote and protect their rights were in fact responsible for eroding, and in some cases, destroying them.
In that context, a representative of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum said the land disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts were among the most contentious between Bangladesh and the indigenous peoples. Despite the signing of the 1997 peace accord, there had been a number of arson attacks on indigenous homes over the last 16 years, many of which were attributed to land disputes. Charges that law enforcement officials had failed to protect indigenous people — and played a silent role in the violence — had forced people to flee their ancestral homes and made the lives of those who remained deeply insecure.
Along similar lines, a representative of the African Caucus (Tribal Link) pointed out that indigenous peoples on the continent had inherited colonial systems of land tenure and individual property rights, which had allowed dominant groups to expropriate ancestral lands over centuries. Individual property rights were inconsistent with traditional systems of collective occupancy. As such, indigenous peoples did not have the legal tools or resources to assert their ancestral rights, which had led to abuse of communities and negative impacts on the environment.
A representative of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) said that in declaring “protected areas” — which covered 1.6 million square kilometres or 29 per cent of the River Basin — Governments had not obtained the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples prior to such decisions. Encroachment on indigenous territories, including through programmes such as the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative, was another problem.
The issue of free, prior and informed consent received attention, with several speakers calling for genuine respect for that process. In that connection, a representative of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance said the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines had been used to perpetrate massive natural resource extraction, land grabbing and abuse of collective land rights. To date, it had approved 251 large mining projects, most of which had excluded the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples. Further, 44 indigenous peoples had been killed since July 2010, while others who had asserted their land rights faced threats to their lives. She urged the dismantling of the Commission.
Some speakers offered suggestions on how Governments could remedy increasingly dire situations. A representative of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii urged the Forum to press the United States to recognize Hawaiians as indigenous people, rather than as a racial category. He also recommended the convening of a world conference on decolonization.
Government representatives, speaking as observers, weighed in on how their countries handled land issues, with New Zealand’s delegate noting that an ongoing treaty settlement process in the country was providing claimants with opportunities to reach agreements with the Crown. Claimant groups could purchase surplus Crown lands and innovative negotiations had resulted in an increase in settlements achieved over the last four years.
Likewise, said the Philippines’ representative, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples focused on customary laws and practices, while the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act guaranteed their rights and protection, including the right to self-determination.
Commenting on the day’s contributions, Joan Carling, a Forum member from the Philippines, expressed disappointment at the low level of Government participation in the debate, stressing that it would have enriched the discussion. There was a clear need for national grievance and redress mechanisms, and for fostering national dialogue, she said.
Kara-Kys Arakchaa, a Forum member from the Russian Federation, responded to interventions made yesterday by the representative of the Crimean Tatar people, stressing that the Russian Federation had adopted a law in 1991 on the rehabilitation of persecuted peoples in the Soviet Union, including the Crimean Tatars. Under that legislation, full rights had been restored to those people and individual citizens had received — and continued to receive, since the Republic of Crimea was currently in the Russian Federation — compensation for persecution by the former Stalin regime.
On that same topic, Aisa Mukabenova, another Forum member from the Russian Federation, said Crimea’s declaration to join the Russian Federation was legitimate. The first steps had been taken, including recognition of the Tatar language as equal to Ukrainian and Russian, and the representation of Tatars in the leadership of Crimea. The political will was already in place, she added.
Also speaking today were representatives of the following indigenous organizations: the Hodinoshone community, Disability Caucus, Forum International des Peuples Autochtones de l’Afrique Centrale (FIPAC-IPACC), Femmes Autochtones du Quebec, Inc., Quebec Native Women, Inc., Grand Council of the Crees, Assembly of First Nations of Quebec, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Cordillera Peoples Alliance, West Papua Interest Association, Association des Femmes de Kabylie, Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indigenas Campesinas y Comunidades Interculturales de Bolivia (COINCABOL), Kapaeeng Foundation and Malaya Foundation, University of Waikato, Naleb, Chihene Nde Nation, Indigenous Peoples Survival Foundation, and Yurta Mira.
A representative of Denmark (also on behalf of Norway, Sweden and Finland) spoke as an observer.
Also speaking was a representative of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The Forum will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, 15 May, to continue its work.