Overlapping land uses and indigenous groups – two’s a crowd?

by Rhodri C. Williams

A bit more evidence came this week that even as regional human rights bodies build up indigenous land rights in theory, global warming, population pressure and competing land uses are breaking them down in practice. In a law and society vein, the current situation raises the concern that decisions like that in the recent Endorois case (by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights) risk serving only to raise expectations on the part of threatened indigenous groups in all corners of the world that cannot possibly be met given the resources, attitudes and capacity in many of the states involved.

The most alarming reports are currently coming out of a cluster of Sahel states in Africa where indigenous pastoralist groups are facing severe recurring drought conditions. The FAO reported recently that 9.8 million people are  vulnerable to severe hunger in Niger and Chad, with “thousands more under threat in the north of Burkina Faso and northeast Mali.” Further east, WFP notes that 23 million people remain subject to food insecurity in Ethiopia, and the Famine Early Warning System Network has warned that half the rural population of Djibouti will require humanitarian aid through the remainder of this year.

The news for pastoralists in Africa is not entirely bleak, however. Most of the above reports highlight new or existing aid programs meant to provide for both short-term food distribution and longer-term resumption of food security through measures such as seed improvement for animal feed, cash for work programs to improve pastureland, and stocking or de-stocking, as need be. In some countries, such as Mali, there is evidence of both improved government response and local resilience. Other hopeful signs come in the way of innovations such as the development of rain calendars meant to both serve the narrow purpose of helping communities understand changing precipitation patterns and the broader purpose of supporting more informed local risk management strategies.

However, as if it was not enough that Sahel pastoralists must contend with recurrent drought and food insecurity, other factors such as population pressure and competing land uses appear to compound these threats in many regions. In its above-cited press release, the FAO notes that food security for both farmers and herders in Chad is impacted by the “influx of refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region and the Central African Republic, estimated at over 300 000 people”.

At least in the case of Darfur, it is already well known that displacement, both internal and across the border to Chad, has been fueled by competition between agricultural villagers and pastoral nomads for land. In light of the fraught conditions for agrarian livelihoods throughout the Sahel, displacement from open land conflict in any one part of the region risks intensifying land competition elsewhere and creating a cascade effect. Well away from all the publicity around Darfur, for instance, IRIN reports that land disputes in Burkina Faso between pastoralists and farmers have been aggravated by development projects and “threaten to spill into neighbouring countries as herders seek grazing pastures”:

Communities – mostly in the south – with no formal land rights have been pushed out by hydro-agricultural irrigation projects and migrants from other parts of the country that have formed sedentary farming communities, [Livestock Ministry director] Guissou told IRIN. “Indigenous groups are often left to their own resources in this [development] process and there has been no systematic effort to involve them, which frustrates them and leads to conflicts.”

Pastoralists pushed off the land are forced to travel farther across borders to find suitable pastures, Guissou added. “What were yesterday’s pastures have become hydro-agriculture projects in the south, which are not taking into consideration pastoralists,” the Ministry of Livestock director told IRIN.

There are eight million cows and 19 million other smaller cattle nationwide. Following the droughts of the 1970s, the government designated 185 pastoral zones covering two million hectares – which is more than one million hectares short of what is needed now, Guissou told IRIN.

He added: “Our herding and farming methods are still traditional and take up a lot of land. Since the 1970s drought, and [ongoing] climate change, there has been an increase of humans and animals on limited space with limited resources.”

To minimize the risk of conflicts between farmers and herders, the Ministry of Livestock has outlined a land clearing plan that takes into account herders’ migration patterns and animals’ water needs, but only a fraction of the millions of dollars needed to finance the plan has been raised by the government, said Guissou.

Meanwhile, in the other hemisphere, the New York Times reports on a brewing conflict between the Pemón indigenous group in Venezuela, which practices a form of ‘prairie swidden’, periodically burning patches of savanna for hunting and agricultural purposes, and an increasingly assertive non-indigenous population that has followed roads and economic opportunities into their territory. The article describes a scientific debate over whether traditional burning practices reduce or increase the risk of larger fires spreading to nearby cloud forests crucial to Venezuela’s important hydro-electric energy sector. While arguments against burning raise shades of similar assertions that have severely impacted on indigenous groups in Southeast Asia (see the final section of a report on Cambodia I wrote for COHRE a few years back, for instance), the scientific debate appears at risk of being overtaken by facts on the ground:

The Pemón face a backlash over the fires beyond the realm of scientific debate. Nonindigenous Venezuelans here often call them “quemones,” a play on the Spanish word for someone who burns a lot. “The Pemón are pyromaniacs by nature, and this year we’ve seen some of the worst fires in memory,” said Raúl Arias, 54, who operates a helicopter service in the area.

Some Pemón chafe at such statements. “Outsiders come here and leave their excrement and trash on the tepuis [local rock formations], then complain to us about fires that spoil their view,” said Miguel Lezama, 46, a leader near Mount Roraima.

New motivations for some Pemón to light fires complicate matters further. Scholars have seen an increase in fires to protest the installation of electrical towers and the opening of the satellite-monitoring base. Other Pemón sometimes start fires to harass the government into meeting demands for services.

Few experts know how these fires will affect the Gran Sabana, aside from sowing dissent.

“The government is wrong if it thinks the Pemón are its docile sheep in the savannas,” said Demetrio Gómez, 36, a Pemón leader who took part in a violent protest near Santa Elena de Uairén this year to dislodge squatters from Pemón land. “We burned these lands long before anyone else arrived,” he said, “and we’ll keep burning them into eternity.”

The article notes that the increasingly violent confrontation over traditional savanna burning in Venezuela “is part of a broader debate over the sovereignty and proper management of indigenous lands” and that much of the area in question has not been recognized as belonging to the Pemón but is rather “cordoned off as either national park or military territory”.

In fact, the failure of the Venezuelan authorities to recognize the land rights of the Pemón flies directly in the face of rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that were, in turn, heavily relied upon by the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights in their recent ruling in favor of the Endorois pastoralists in Kenya. However, the truly disconcerting question human and indigenous rights advocates must ask themselves is whether these hopeful but infrequent episodes of jurisprudential progress fly in the face of current reality – and if so, what can be done.

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2 responses to “Overlapping land uses and indigenous groups – two’s a crowd?

  1. Pingback: UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in session « TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: TN at five months « TerraNullius

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