How can Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land be secured? Some lessons from the East Asia and Pacific region

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How can Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land be secured? Some lessons from the East Asia and Pacific region How can Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land be secured? Some lessons from the East Asia and Pacific region

Indigenous Peoples (IPs) play a critical role in the protection of the world’s remaining tropical forests and preservation of biodiversity.  This stewardship, and IPs’ contribution to climate adaptation and mitigation, is intimately linked to land rights. Without security of tenure, multiple forest hotspots will remain at risk and an essential component of our global climate change mitigation effort will be lost. For IPs themselves, secure land tenure is equally essential, as it enables them to sustain their livelihoods and maintain their collective social identity. 

During the recent climate COP26 summit, $1.7 billion of financing was pledged to IPs’ rights to land and forests. A key question going forward is therefore how these promises to support indigenous land rights can be translated into meaningful action. While IPs’ rights to land are protected by various instruments under international law, the realization of such rights is dependent on the laws, policies and implementation capacity of the countries where they live. The World Bank’s experience supporting land tenure programs in the East Asia and Pacific Region can provide insights on how this can be advanced in practice.

More than 225 million of the world’s estimated 476 million IPs live in the East Asia and Pacific region.[1] Several countries in the region have adopted laws and policies that recognize IPs and their rights to land and forests, but most have yet to fully implement such policies, including mapping and registering indigenous land on nationwide scale. The World Bank currently supports Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao PDR with the registration of land rights in rural areas, including various forms of technical assistance on indigenous rights to land. In addition, the World Bank also supports civil society organizations (CSOs) in several East Asia Pacific countries to advance IPs’ legal awareness and fulfilment of rights.

The following early lessons can be drawn from these experiences:

  • Consideration of the social, cultural and legal contexts of the host country is critical when advocating tenure rights of IPs. The diversity across the region, including of local indigenous systems of land tenure, is so vast that a one-size-fits-all approach to address and advocate for IPs’ rights is difficult. Moreover, in many countries, the concept of indigenous communities remains sensitive. In Lao PDR, for example, the word indigenous is hardly used, as the preferable and socially accepted term for communities with communal characteristics is “ethnic groups.” In Indonesia, the government holds that all citizens are indigenous, but does grant special rights to customary law practicing groups (so called adat communities). Adopting the culturally and legally accepted terms is critical when advocating rights, both when communicating with governments and communities on the ground.
  • IPs' tenure security can be enhanced even when indigenous land rights are yet to be fully recognized by national laws. The legal recognition of IPs and their land rights – as well as the extent of such recognition – varies widely among countries. in the Philippines, a national statute (the 1997 Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act) promotes and recognizes these rights. In Lao PDR, on the other hand, the government has only recently started developing regulations that recognize customary land rights. Pending the issuance of this legislation, communal lands ineligible for land titling are being recorded to the cadaster as part of the Enhancing Systematic Land Registration Project supported by the World Bank. In Indonesia, an extensive regulatory framework on customary land rights is in place but is yet to be systematically implemented. The World Bank provides analytical and advisory support on the implementation of this framework. As a first step towards the systematic regularization of tenure rights of IPs, the government is conducting province-wide inventories to identify all communal lands in the forested islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
  • CSOs need more support as they play an essential role in legal awareness raising and local-level efforts to secure rights. Even in countries where indigenous land rights are recognized by law, communities are sometimes unaware of their rights or tend to struggle with the administrative processes to secure them. CSOs can help navigate through administrative hurdles, and assist with access to legal remedies. Interventions should therefore focus on local organization capacity building, while community representatives should be given voice in advocacy campaigns and technical assistance programs. In Lao PDR, World Bank support to enhance access of vulnerable and remote communities’ to legal information is channeled through local CSOs, who design and implement legal awareness raising activities.
  • Inter-institutional coordination between national government agencies is often a prerequisite to secure IPs’ tenure. Ultimately, indigenous land rights can only be secured when tenure is simultaneously secured for all stakeholders, including both public and private land holders. Boundaries between indigenous areas, state land, and forest areas are often unclear. Clarifying the boundaries of all these areas is essential to the protection of the remaining indigenous and communal territories while minimizing the chance of land disputes. This can be achieved when all land and land use rights in the landscape are mapped and registered simultaneously in a participatory way, which requires intensive coordination between government agencies. However, conflicting mandates between government agencies, particularly forestry and land registration agencies, hamper this process.  Ongoing support to Indonesia and the Philippines to  achieve a unified land register and clarify tenure rights in forest landscapes has shown that governments welcome external support to facilitate inter-institutional dialogue and promote an integrated land administration.

$1.7 billion could go a long way in protecting the land rights of IPs around the globe. Current engagements and analytics in the East Asia and Pacific region indicate that significant progress can be made in a variety of country contexts with varying degrees of legal recognition of indigenous land rights . Interventions will only be effective if they cater to national and local legal, social and political contexts, prioritize the agency of local organizations and community representatives, and stimulate inter-agency dialogue and coordination at both national and local levels.


[1] Based on IPs stock-take assessment conducted by GP SSI. Data collected from various sources for each country, including from: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Who we are, Indigenous peoples in Asia (2010, Chang Mai, Thailand); ILO, The rights of indigenous peoples in Asia (not dated); Minority Rights Group Directory; and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs Yearbooks.


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