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Indigenous tribe in Indonesia wins land rights amid growing recognition of their role in climate fight

Around the world, indigenous people have historically suffered from abuse and rights violations, despite being critical to forest conservation. This tribe in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, just won rights over its land after a 40-year struggle. Are governments waking up to the reality that indigenous groups could lead the battle against climate change?

A month after they were recognised at the United Nations for their role in mitigating climate change, an indigenous group living in the remote forests of West Kalimantan is now the owner of 10,000 hectares of ancestral land. 

The Dayak Iban tribe of Sungai Utik fought for legal recognition for almost 40 years, ever since a local company first encroached on their land in the 1980s. Headed by customary chief Apai Janggut, the community has rejected illegal loggers who arrived over the years offering money in exchange for their trees. 

“For us, the forest is like our father, the earth our mother and the river our blood,” said Apai Janggut, customary chief of the long house. “This journey was not easy. But if we continue to protect our land and the forest, what we own will never escape us.”

Studies have shown that deforestation rates are much lower in areas occupied by indigenous communities such as the Dayak Iban, making them critical to forest conservation and keeping carbon in the ground.

Besides shielding its forest from commercial interests, the Dayak Iban tribe sustainably manages its land in accordance with traditional knowledge and customary laws, demarcating certain areas as sacred and protected while restricting farming and the extraction of natural resources in others. From food and water to medicine and wood, the group takes only what it needs from its environment.

However, governments often fail to recognise indigenous communities or infringe directly on their rights. The Indonesian government, for instance, has a history of handing out vast tracts of land occupied by indigenous communities to private companies for the purposes of mining, logging, and clearing land for oil palm and paper plantations. 

Even though Indonesia has expressed its commitment to reducing deforestation-driven emissions, it remains one of the most deforested countries in the world, and has the highest rate of deforestation in Asia. 

Eco-Business reported from West Kalimantan on the significance of the win in a country with a dark history of indigenous rights violations. Read our full story here. 

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