29 July 2016

Use it or Lose it: Tough Decisions for Indigenous Peoples

August 9th– International Day of Indigenous Peoples

For the second time just this year I have worked with indigenous peoples who have been forced to move and change their lifestyle due to land pressures. These tough choices are often driven by external actors and concepts of land use that marginalize conservation and instead are based on “use it or lose it” policies

My first experience with this phenomenon around indigenous lands was in Paraguay, where the drought stricken community of San Lazaro in the Chaco decided to leave their established land in order to move to a remote region that they owned, because they were facing significant external pressures from ranchers and others who wanted to take it over. The only way to guarantee this access and right to use the land was to resettle.

The people who led this resettlement were primarily women and children who moved to an area with virtually no infrastructure or water – and where there is no access to health services or schools. This move was seen as necessary to protect the land – if it was not occupied immediately it could be lost forever to the community. What a tough decision.

Recently in Brazil, I saw a similar phenomenon in the remote regions of the urban periphery (periferia). In this case a group of 50 Guarani peoples – 19 of them school aged children opted to occupy one of the most remote parts of their community to protect it from land grabbers. Due the rugged nature of their land the residents were primarily young people. When these outsiders enter the community the frequent refrain is “How did you get here?”. The response they give is simple: “We were always here.”

How can we help to preserve indigenous lands

Policy makers and the international community frequently discuss the ways that indigenous peoples serve as stewards of their land. However, conservation and preservation are not sufficiently valued when designing and enforcing laws, instead a policy of occupation forces indigenous peoples to make tough decisions to use the lands by living on them or cultivating them, or lose them to others.

Some policy measures that could help preserve indigenous lands include:

  1. Partnerships with local and national governments to recognize conservation as a value, preserve indigenous lands, and restrict access by outsiders. The Socio Bosque program in Ecuador is an excellent example of how governments can better value conservation through collective economic incentives for indigenous and African descendant peoples to help them remain on their land.
  2. Making GPS tools available to indigenous peoples to empower them to better monitor their lands in ways that do not require them to physically occupy all of their lands as the only way of protecting their territories. For example, indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Peru received practical training on carbon stock measurement, GIS and interpretation of carbon maps to help them track and monitor their biodiversity resources. The results: 56% of the trainees increased their knowledge of biodiversity and climate change.
  3. Harsher sentencing, fines and enforcement for non-indigenous individuals who illegally build in and occupy indigenous territories. And the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 adopted by the International Labor Organization, recognized throughout Latin America, can be a useful tool to recognize indigenous perspectives on land rights, land use, and land tenure.

On August 9th, as the world celebrates the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, I encourage you to use this opportunity to not only recognize the contributions of indigenous peoples, but also to remember that concepts such as “land”, “development”, “profit” or “use”, do not have the same meaning for all.

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