How indigenous communities can save forests – and the human species

We need regenerative livelihoods that build resilience in communities.

This article originally ran in Aliran. It has been republished with permission from the author. 

Indigenous people’s struggles often make the news, but beyond outrage and bitterness, few people are aware of the challenges they face nor how organisations on the ground work to overcome them.

To shed light on this, I interviewed The Borneo Project, an organisation dedicated to protecting Borneo’s forests and communities.

How do the lockdown and the state of emergency affect the work of The Borneo Project and its partners?

Most importantly, they are slowing down communications and putting the Borneo Project’s main project on hold.

One of our largest projects at the moment is a socio-ecological survey of the Baram area of Sarawak. Since our field manager can’t travel to the Ulu from Miri, we cannot collect the necessary data or meet with our field technicians.

Another big way they’re affecting our work with collaborators on the ground, primarily through our work with Save Rivers, is by preventing our ability to gather and organise.

A lot of the work involves community meetings, information meetings and workshops. These are an essential part of the work to consult communities and give them information, and they can’t happen in the same way during lockdown.

There have been instances of governments around the world taking advantage of the lockdown to give companies concessions on indigenous land, and Baram was no exception. How can local groups for indigenous rights and environmental justice overcome such pandemic-induced obstacles?

The lockdown means that it is more difficult for communities to monitor their land and determine where and when logging is occurring, and yet logging and oil palm companies continue to operate.

Despite the pandemic, we continue to assist communities who have been fighting for the government and companies to acknowledge their full native customary rights. However, during the pandemic, we have only ramped up our campaigning to support communities through the Stop the Chop campaign.

The Stop the Chop campaign was launched in response to recent concessions that have been certified as sustainable by the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS).

While the MTCS has very high standards, concessions are granted despite consultation processes falling very short of meeting said standards.

For example, many communities are unaware they are within the concession areas, others have actively voiced their opposition and have been ignored.

Neither the public nor the communities have access to the social and environmental impact assessments.

The Borneo Project has long proposed the creation of a Baram peace park. What is the current state of negotiations between the state government and proponents of the park? What made this initiative so lengthy?

The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) has endorsed the proposal for the Upper Baram forest area, also known as the Baram peace park.

The proposal has the dual goals of forest conservation and sustainable development and was developed by the Sarawak Forest Department with inputs from local communities and civil society.

Now, the ITTO is looking for donor countries to fund the project. Projects like these take a lot of time when communities are properly consulted and involved, to find funding and to push the government to take the next steps. It took a very long time to establish the Pulong Tau National Park, for example.

It is understood that the best way to protect forests is by supporting and investing in the indigenous communities that call them home. If you could build on this, what would it mean to invest in indigenous communities? In what ways can a government empower indigenous groups to take care of their territories?

Investing in indigenous communities means empowering them to make decisions regarding their land and equipping them with the means to do so.

It is increasingly acknowledged that community-managed forest protection is much more successful than top-down forest protection. Communities are the experts when it comes to their land, what they need to thrive and how to protect their forests.

The problem is that the power of extractive industries, like logging and oil palm companies, strips indigenous communities of their rights and resources. Harmful mega-development projects, like mega-dams, do the same thing.

All these activities benefit the wealthy few, at the expense of indigenous communities, and really at the expense of the global community.

Deforestation affects everyone – we need forests to survive as a human species. We will not have a chance to combat catastrophic climate change if we do not protect the remaining forests and regenerate degraded land.

Finally, what alternative forms of governance and development does The Borneo Project advocate?

The government should grant full native customary rights to enable communities to manage their land. The current process for obtaining NCR is very long, difficult, and complicated, and recent policy changes have attempted to reduce their territories even further.

Furthermore, we need to discuss what ‘development’ really means – we need development that works for everyone, not just the elite.

We need regenerative livelihoods that build resilience in communities, not massive extractive industries that create wealth for a few people while stripping away the resources and resilience of communities. 


This article originally ran in Aliran. It has been republished with permission from the author. 

Daniele Speziale, originally from the small Italian town of Savona, studied at Penanti Secondary School in Bukit Mertajam as a 17-year-old exchange student and later as a political science research intern at USM – and he has been passionate about Malaysia ever since. Now a political science graduate from Leiden University in the Netherlands, he is back in Italy