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The Pandemic’s Hidden Casualty: Human Rights

  • Carmina Flores-Obanil
  • July, 2020
  • 140
  • Indigenous Activism in Asia

For many of Asia’s indigenous peoples, COVID-19 is exacerbating long-standing policies of marginalisation

The lush forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range, on the Philippine island of Luzon, have been home to the Dumagat-Remontados indigenous peoples for centuries. But their ancestral lands are now under threat.

In this area, the Philippine government is planning to build the Kaliwa Dam, despite environmental concerns and opposition from local indigenous communities at risk of being displaced and losing their livelihoods. In 2009, the Dumagat-Remontado - with the support of the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance (SSMNA) - had successfully stopped the construction of the Laiban mega-dam through a public campaign and legal actions. But under President Rodrigo Duterte, the project was scaled down and last year it secured a dubious environmental compliance certificate and a $211.2 million loan from China Exim Bank.

Since then, militarization in the area has increased. Community leaders have been “red-tagged” and falsely accused of belonging to the rebel group New Peoples’ Army (NPA). “Under the guise of suppressing the armed rebellion, the military keeps attacking indigenous peoples, who are caught in the crossfire despite complete lack of evidence for the accusations against them,” said Conrado Vargas, a local community leader and coordinator of the STOP Kaliwa Dam Network (SKDN).

When the pandemic hit, the situation became even worse, as the heavy presence of police and the military due to the lockdown made it doubly hard for the local people to move freely in their land. In March, a member of the Dumagat-Remontado community was abducted and physically abused while in custody. As denounced by the SKDN, this was the latest episode in a context of continuous violence, unreasonable use of force, threats, and harassment by the military.

The case of the Dumagat-Remontados is not unique. Across Southeast and South Asia, indigenous peoples and local communities - who were already severely impacted by development projects such as dams, agribusiness, or mining activities - are now facing additional challenges due to the COVID-19 emergency.

“In Nepal, those who violate the lockdown have been arrested. But there is insufficient information about COVID-19 for indigenous peoples, as materials have not been translated into the different local languages. This fact - coupled with police arrests - has raised indigenous peoples’ fears about the disease,” said Durga Yamphu, from the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP).

Moreover, despite the lockdown, many companies have even expanded their operations. In the Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, while local indigenous peoples were sheltering at home because of the pandemic, the Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) cleared hectares of land and bulldozed two sacred mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas, and burial grounds.

“My people believe in the spirits that inhabit the forests and mountains. Now that the company has cleared our mountain, we have no place to pray and the spirits will be very angry with our villagers for allowing this to happen,” said Sev Suen, a community representative from Kak village.

The areas cleared were among those designated to be returned to the Ratanakiri indigenous peoples, as established in 2015 through a mediated agreement. In 2019, however, HAGL had unilaterally pulled out of the mediation process, which was then re-opened this year. But the promise of a fair agreement was short-lived.

“This clearance of land already designated for return is the latest of many acts of bad faith. The damage it has inflicted on these communities adds insult to injury, and it calls into question whether HAGL is truly committed to resolving this long-standing dispute,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia.

Across Southeast Asia, communities who live in areas impacted by development projects have been denouncing the double standards applied by their governments. While daily wage earners in the informal sector were forced to temporarily stop working and lost their livelihoods, many business and extractive activities were allowed to carry on.

“While we are observing quarantine, the government has continued issuing mining permits. And communities we are working with also reported an increase in illegal mining activities, conducted especially by Chinese companies. This has led to increased tensions, adding to the emotional and psychological burden of communities under quarantine,” said Jaybee Garganera from Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), a national coalition of organizations fighting destructive large-scale mining in the Philippines.

Moreover, in many...

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