Voice of the indigenous "must be heard"

Parliamentarians from 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region have gathered in Manila for the first regional seminar highlighting the role of indigenous people in the context of climate change and mineral rights.

The three-day event, which began on 25 March, will examine innovative approaches and solutions to the impact of climate change on indigenous people.

“It's important to have an indigenous voice to make a difference,” Carol Ann Martin, the first indigenous woman elected to the Australian parliament, told IRIN.

“The indigenous people know what is happening to the world. This conference is just so important for all of us.”

About a third of the world's 900 million rural poor are indigenous, of whom 70 percent are in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD).

“We need policy reforms. Parliamentarians have a role to play,” Agatha Sangma, a member of the Indian parliament and a state minister in the Ministry of Rural Development, said.

Victoria Corpuz, head of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), said appropriate legislation - on issues such as energy resources and mining - was crucial in helping countries face the problems caused by climate change.

Indigenous people should be allowed bigger involvement in defining country policies, she said. “Indigenous people are often overlooked. They only look upon us like victims, but not as solutions to the problem. We are the ones suffering the most from climate change. We want to be more visible. We want to provide solutions to these problems,” Corpuz added.

Photo: Carmela Fonbuena/IRIN
Victoria Corpuz, chairwoman of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, says indigenous people should have a greater say in policy

A member of the Kankana-ey ethnic group in the Philippines' Cordillera region, Corpuz cited how local governments routinely disregarded the opposition or concerns of the indigenous regarding mining activities in their communities.

“When the typhoons came, it was such devastation,” she said, referring to last year’s Typhoon Parma, which resulted in massive flooding in northern Luzon island. Heavy rains caused already soft soil in the mining areas to collapse, resulting in massive landslides.

Control over natural resources is a central focus of the conference. In the Philippines, for example, indigenous people would like to control their own renewable energy resources.

“It should be decentralized. We see what's happening to our dams. They have been drying up because of climate change,” Corpuz said.

Resource rights

The indigenous face the same problems even in developed countries such as Australia.

One of the more pressing needs, Martin said, was having their land titled, noting that they wanted the right to develop their own resources.

For India, Sengma said policies should be "re-tooled" to focus progress on “quality not quantity”.

“We have to have harmony with nature. We are a fast-growing economy. Rural India should grow alongside urban India. Quantity is different from quantity. These are two different things,” Sengma stressed.

Among the 12 countries represented at the conference were India, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand.