Indigenous Peoples Heroes Day and Beyond: A Tribute

Giovanni B. Reyes
Chairman, Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group-Global Environment Facility
President, Philippine ICCA Consortium

In commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Heroes Day not only on November 10, 2023, but in their daily struggle for land and life, we pay tribute to the gallantry and heroism of the world’s Indigenous Peoples. In their own country, region and continent, they are known for their history of making decisions acceptable to community members including individual and collective leadership against plunder of natural resources.

Indigenous Peoples of Asia Islands and Mainland Asia, Pacific Islands, Australia, the Middle East, the Amazon in South America, Congo basin in Africa, North America, Scandinavia, and the Greenlands comprise only 6% of the world’s population and occupy at least 28% of global land surface. Despite this, the global persistence of Indigenous Peoples is not faceless. Moreover, it is certainly not without voice and distinction. In the Amazonia of South America  covering portions of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela,  indigenous groups residing on 2.4 million square kilometers of ancestral territory is capable of holding 100 million metric tons of carbon. In the Philippines, 158,000 hectares of identified and mapped indigenous community-conserved areas in the portions of the Sierra Madre, Caraballo, Cordillera, Central Luzon, Mindoro, Central Mindanao, Northern and Eastern Mindanao and Central Mindanao, hold 10.5 million tons of carbon equivalent to gas emissions of 7 million cars annually (de Vera and WRI, 2019). This is a tiny segment of the country’s estimated 5–7 million hectares of ancestral domain. Both the Amazonia and Asia Islands’ carbon capacity are clear commonalities that the world’s Indigenous Peoples manage to  sustain earth’s survival.  Between 2001 to 2021, Indigenous-managed forests have been considered major carbon sinks, whereas forests not managed by Indigenous Peoples are carbon sources (Veit, WRI, 2023). Indigenous-managed territories and areas resulted in the conservation of 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

There is no mistaking that lands and resources of Indigenous Peoples are paradoxically the key drivers of deadly attacks against indigenous peoples, whose only reason for defense of land is to pass these intact for future generations. Indigenous Peoples are not even talking about seemingly non-gut issues like ‘climate solutions’ that to many are desperate attempts to defend nature from the onslaught of logging, mining, large-scale agri-business and hydroelectric dams.  Moreover, it is certainly not about UN treaty bodies on human rights, climate and biodiversity conventions and declarations waiting for Indigenous Peoples to fulfill what these laws and treaties demand from them. In contrast, Indigenous Peoples  already struggled for climate and biodiversity solutions, long before the enactment of UN conventions, and are themselves rightfully demanding State parties to make private business accountable, and to respect indigenous Peoples their right to give or withhold Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).  The recent victory of the Kenyah-Jamok indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Malaysia, against giant Samling Logging Company  was largely on account of Indigenous Peoples’ efforts, though unaware that theirs was a defense of the very reason the UN Conventions on Biodiversity and Climate Change exists.

Neither was it a State party to these conventions that provided understanding and assistance to the Kenya-Jamok people’s needs and demands, but rather, a non-state actor, Save the Rivers Network. 

We continue to witness in other regions of the world how Indigenous Peoples take on herculean tasks against natural and man-made disasters, and embody courage not only for themselves, but in defense of the earth’s ecosystems. We take inspiration on how the Ogiek Indigenous Peoples of Kenya resist their forced evictions from forests upheld as theirs by the African Court on Peoples and Human Rights.

This calls on the Kenyan government to revoke its eviction order and instead implement the African Court’s 2017 and 2022 judgements affirming  the Ogiek indigenous peoples’ ownership rights over the Mau Forests and its resources. The Kenyan government’s reason for evictions – conservation of the Mau Forests – is a Fortress Conservation type long held by science and modern civilization as flawed and a harbinger of tumult.

Likewise inspiring are the struggles of the Quiche peoples of Guatemala, Karen peoples of  Myanmar, Garo peoples of Bangladesh, Isnags of the Philippines and the iTaukei of Fiji Islands on their assertion of right to self-determination. The UN Human Rights Council through the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples Rights  and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through its OECD Regional Program are encouraged to make direct visits to Indigenous Peoples and their communities, upon the invitation or request for dialogues by indigenous peoples themselves.

GEF CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez left, GEF-IPAG Chair, Giovanni Reyes

Dialogues, learning exchange and understanding between indigenous peoples and multilateral bodies provides reciprocity between indigenous knowledge, policy and science that allow shift in perspectives favorable to indigenous peoples, nature, and reiterating calls for State parties for recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ right to give or withhold FPIC as part of their international human rights obligations.

“Transformational change” ambitions and “game changing” rules on biodiversity finance are not non-gut issues for Indigenous Peoples. These shifts must radically depart from the business-as-usual schemes to avoid generating the same paltry achievements in land degradation goals in the next seven (7) years. Furthermore, translating these into direct financing support for Indigenous Peoples necessitates taking into account the yawning gap of high biodiversity levels of indigenous-managed lands and the far too meager progress achieved by State parties on climate and biodiversity targets.  The clarion call stays: the more indigenous peoples’ rights to land and resources are recognized and respected, the lesser climatic disaster. 

As we pay tribute to daily struggles of indigenous peoples – not only during Indigenous Peoples’ Heroes Day – we remember their unmatched contributions for the global  environment. Labeling of indigenous peoples’ defense of basic rights to land as “terrorism” and criminalization through red-tagging, and disinformation will not prevent the world’s foremost environmental protectors from trailblazing. As a former trailblazer in the mainstream campaign for indigenous peoples’ rights,  and lawyer of the Philippines’ Cordillera Hero Macliing Dulag once said, “the best defense is offense. We self-destruct only when frightened.” (Claver, “Billy” William, 2001).

Saludos and in Solidarity.

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