Ecological Equity: Sharing stories, reclaiming our rights

Friends of the Earth Australia has co-coordinated the documentation of the Ecological Equity: Sharing Stories, Reclaiming our Rights conference in Penang, Malaysia, 14-16 October 2010. The conference organised by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific and hosted by Sahabat Alam-FoE Malaysia included presentations by Indigenous Peoples, communities and campaigners from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Timor Leste and Japan.

Groups and communities attending the conference challenged the risks in current proposals to ‘reduce deforestation’ (REDD) and dangerous World Bank forest carbon trading initiatives. The conference also focused on local communities for the recognition of land rights and free, prior and informed consent. This is part of an ongoing campaign to call for new and real decisions to stop deforestation once and for all and a demand for climate justice.

The thematic focus of the “Ecological Equity: Sharing Stories, Reclaiming our Rights” pre-conference centred around our principles that we need to defend and protect our forests, and the rich biodiversity within, as they provide for the livelihoods of many local communities and indigenous peoples and towards the prevention of runaway climate change.

For many indigenous peoples and other forest dependent communities, forests are their source of livelihoods and is the centre of their spiritual and intrinsic cultural and ecological beliefs. Their traditional knowledge in managing the forest and their lands, their rituals and cultural heritage are closely linked with the forest. Over decades of ancestral domain and their relationship with the land and the forest, they harnessed their traditional ways in caring for the forest as a source of their needs. The forest is an important part of their cultural and spiritual values.

Indigenous women often acted as frontiers in the defence of the forest as they play a crucial role as custodians of the resources within. Forests provide indigenous and forest peoples with edible and medicinal plants, bush-meat, fruits, shelter, firewood and many other goods.

Day 3 of the ConferenceDay 3 of the ConferenceFriends of the Earth has always taken the position that for our efforts at forest, biodiversity and natural resource conservation to be successful and meaningful, rights of local communities to these resources must first be recognised and respected.

Without the recognition of rights, justice cannot be accomplished. Since the traditional knowledge of local communities is key for the protection of our natural resources, environmental conservation efforts must, therefore, be undertaken in a respectful and in equal partnership with communities. Such an approach will pave the way towards ecological equity, in which social justice and human rights become an integral component of environmental justice.

Violations of indigenous peoples rights and community rights, however, continue unabated to this day. This reflects the existence of larger systemic flaws and injustices within our political and economic systems. Communities nevertheless continue to resist in defence of their rights and livelihoods and in the process, direct us to real and meaningful solutions to biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.

The conference bought together community partners, for people to gather and learn from the rich stories of indigenous peoples and local communities. Community partners came from Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Uganda to share their local struggles and the defence of their rights and territories, to highlight and celebrate their successes and to help us bring together some tools for intervention and transformation for the recognition of peoples’ rights.

Organisations working on the same areas were also invited so that we can share stories and have a rich discourse on effective ways to forge alliances and how to increase our effectiveness in order to work together to push for the defence, protection and recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities.

The conference opened with a video presentation put together by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific on the struggles of communities from around the world.

Throughout the pre-conference, parallel sessions were organised for community sharing which focused on three types of stories:

 a) stories of right, stories of might


 b) community solutions, sustainable livelihoods


 c) hope, courage & solidarity: natural resource protection & community rights in conflict/post-conflict areas

 To tie in to the stories shared by the community partners, sessions were also organised for more strategic discussions on tools and technicalities: international and national challenges and opportunities. These sessions specifically looked at the drivers of forest and biodiversity loss and the types of projects or schemes that exacerbate the threat to our fragile ecosystems and the continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The conference also had a live debate cum talk show segment which centred around the need for round-table discussions (round table on sustainable soy, round table on palm oil and discussions on agro-fuels) and certification schemes as part of the agenda. Six experts from various fields gave a lively and vibrant discussion and opened the discussion to the audience for a more engaging debate.

During the evenings, the conference organisers also featured documentary films and stories which were brought along by the community partners. We also dedicated one night for a simple cultural night where friends from across the globe gathered for poetry sharing, song and dance and in remembrance of one of our colleagues who had been murdered while we were gathering.

Young photographer, Conor Ashleigh who was funded through the APE grant also took the journey after the conference with Sagung Nyipa to the the Ba’marong community who struggling for their survival against logging companies. You can see Conor’s photo-story here.

Given the presence of community partners and campaigners from more than 60 countries, we organised a press conference which was covered by more than 15 local and national media stints (including popular news bloggers). Through this press-conference, we also delivered our messages to government officials who were, at that time, gathered in Nagoya, Japan for the 10th Conference of the Party (COP 10) of the UN Convention on Biological Biodiversity (CBD).

On behalf of the Friends of the Earth federation we would like to thank APE for their kind support of the Friends of the Earth International pre-conference, organised by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific and Hosted by Sahabat Alam Malaysia – Friends of the Earth Malaysia, October 14 – 17, 2010, Penang, Malaysia. The conference was also supported by Hivos People Unlimited, 11.11.11 and Naturskyddsforeningen.