Free, Prior, Informed, Consent, New Fad or Feudalism?

Six years ago, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations through its General Assembly session passed the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Previously, in 1998, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), appeared and declared Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as a solution for the environmental violations experienced by indigenous people in the Philippines. In contrast to the urban populations in the big city, like it or not, we have to recognize that indigenous peoples are “different” because they have their own legal structure, traditions, and cultures. They are also special in a geographical way because they live in the areas with natural resources. These two privileges attracted many parties to take advantage of indigenous peoples. Among these parties are state governments, which (of course) want to carry out development for the sake of their people, private corporations, and civil society groups.

At first glance, the words “take advantage” and “make profit” have a negative connotation. But they may also have a positive impact. Government has an obligation to the welfare of its people through national development. For example establishing schools, access to health services, transportation, bridges, paved access roads, and clean water or irrigation systems. If it takes indigenous land to accomplish these projects for the greater good then why not? Without losing their tribal identity, indigenous peoples are also part of the world community that should develop and adapt to changes. The same thing applies to business activities such in the corporate and private sector. Their projects have economic potential and create job opportunities. This is all for the sake of indigenous people’s improvement. But to achieve their welfare, there must be a price to pay. Each development has risks, whether it’s socially, economically, or environmentally. Most often it influences the indigenous people. That’s why FPIC is suggested to be implemented. The ideal thought, FPIC is a middle ground for the “win-win solution” between indigenous laws and the interests outside them.

Unfortunately, the fact is the other way around. Even after the concept of FPIC was declared, innumerable conflicts occurred across the world as the result of development on community land. A series of FPIC “community consultants” sprung up jumping on the lucrative business extracting monies from companies to ‘help’ communities. In South America, much praised example by the NGOs the implementation of FPIC has not solved any of the communal conflicts but rise to claims of a new feudalistic system is created by-passing national laws. Surprisingly several FPIC and indigenous peoples’ rights violations were financed by international institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Examples of such cases include:

  • Construction of dams in Laos for hydropower energy development (12 are under construction, 25 have entered the final planning). These dams not only caused damage to the biodiversity and increased carbon emissions in Laos, some are also standing on the land that previously belonged to thousands of indigenous peoples. The land given to the indigenous peoples as a replacement is sub-standard to what they had before and their living situation is now lower.
  • The construction of Batang Ai Hydropower in Sarawak, Malaysia. Although this project had been running since the 1980s, in 2009 the indigenous people in Batang Ai still did not have access to public transport and they received poor quality of public services. According to studies, the relocation of approximately 2,800 residents of Batang Ai as the result of the project did not end successfully because the agricultural land which was prepared in the resettlement area failed to yield a harvest. The indigenous people’s income is drastically decreased and 60% of heads of families are living below the poverty line. Nevertheless, the ADB said the resettlement is a culturally sensitive and economically sound program because the policies and the plans were carefully investigated and prepared.

Those two cases are only small examples of FPIC’s failed efforts for improving the welfare of indigenous peoples. There are many other cases, even involving violence and military forces as happened in the Philippines. FPIC is a mere formality on paper and has not guaranteed the participation of indigenous peoples in determining their property. How do we expect their active participation on multi-million dollar projects with questionable legal concepts promotes different communal standards? Even in small events such as a seminar on the importance of FPIC held by Oxfam America in September 2012 in Washington DC, none of the indigenous community representatives were invited to express their opinion. How can that possibly be? How could a famously idealistic NGO, well known for defending justice and well-being such as Oxfam, forget the most important element in the FPIC seminar? If FPIC socialization cannot even touch the subject of its own goal, then no wonder the indigenous people became more and more distant from the advocacy that can raise their voice. No wonder eventually they became increasingly alienated from development and continue to be the victims of industrialization.

As the Chief of Yawanawa tribe in Brazil said in his open letter to some NGOs, “We are tired of anthropologists, environmentalists, church-related organizations, and other specialists speaking for us and using us for their self-interest. Please respect our self-determination to the make our own decisions.”

Free, Prior and Informed Consent as the example of the Brazilian chief suggests also applies to the NGOs. And despite Indonesian policy makers are pressurized by foreign led advocacy groups like the UK based Forest Peoples Programme and its local front Scale Up to adopt FPIC type of feudalistic concepts require very critical examination before creating new communal alienation.

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About Ika 12 Articles
Ika Virginaputri is an independent writer and current-affairs observer for the Dekker Center. She lives in Jakarta and writing for the Dekker Center and national and international media.

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