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Resisting land grabbing, empowering communities
by Arnold Padilla
Feature Story
Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 04:30

PENANG, Malaysia - In Sarawak, Malaysia, thousands of hectares of forests, where the Iban and Melanau indigenous groups have been living for centuries, are being cleared to give way to massive logging operations and palm oil plantations. Customary rights of the indigenous communities in Sarawak's Sibu town - including the right to cultivate the land and the right to utilize the forests' resources - are being violated by the government in favor of large private corporations, some of which have ties to the highest echelon of Malaysian bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, in the Kalpitiya region in Sri Lanka, poor fisherfolks are being displaced by large-scale foreign investments on tourism projects. The region's 121-hectare Ilipanti Island, which for generations has served as shelter and traditional source of livelihood for small and migratory fisherfolks, was sold by the Sri Lankan government to an Indian company for tourism development. Fear has been gripping the erstwhile peaceful and quiet fishing community with the presence of private security forces in the island.

"Sibu and Ilipanti are just two of the numerous communities of the poor and marginalized in the Asia Pacific that face the threat of profit-motivated land grabbing by the rich and powerful. But the economic, physical and cultural dislocation of fisherfolks, indigenous peoples, peasants, pastoralists and other small food producers is a region-wide and global assault that undermines human rights and food sovereignty," said Ms. Sarojeni Rengam, Executive Director of the Penang-based regional advocacy group Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP).

Rengam cited the 2012 report of the international non-profit group GRAIN which documented 416 cases of land grabbing last year, involving 35 million hectares of land in 66 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

"In Asia, there is an intensifying pattern of corporate land grabbing that takes away the livelihood of small food producers while over-exploiting and poisoning lands, forests, seeds, waters, marine resources and other natural resources," Rengam explained.

Resistance by local communities is often met with State and corporate aggression and violence. These governments have also reneged on their responsibility to uphold the rights and welfare of the people. Based on the documentation done by local communities, high-ranking government officials themselves are involved in land grabbing like in Sibu where palm oil company Sarananas Sdn Berhad, which is allegedly linked to Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, is involved.

"But the good news is that the people are fighting back despite all the odds. There is a vibrant and growing social movement in Asia and in other parts of the world that continue to resist massive corporate land grabbing," said Rengam.

PAN AP, which is holding its three-day Congress in Penang from 2-4 September 2013, has been a committed and resolute participant of this social movement.

"Through our work in documenting cases like in Sibu and Ilipanti as well as FFMs (fact-finding missions) and other initiatives with our partners in the region, PAN AP helps build the capacity of local communities in resisting land grabbing and promoting food sovereignty," Rengam pointed out. PAN AP and its partners have also developed case studies and popular materials such as short films and posters on land grabbing with the hope of reaching a broader audience and raising awareness.

Rengam added that at the international level, PAN AP has been involved in various platforms and processes such as the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to bring the voices of marginalized communities to United Nation (UN) bodies. "Through these global platforms, we are able to challenge one of the important venues where policies that often legitimize land grabbing are being determined," said Rengam.

But new challenges and threats continue to emerge. Rengam explained that PAN AP's third Congress, themed "Empowering Communities, Protecting the Environment and Building Sustainable Livelihoods", will gather around 80 of its partners in the region to review existing strategies, develop new plans, and strengthen the network.

"We need to keep building on our work and consolidating our gains, especially on how to further empower the affected communities. Hopefully, the PAN AP Congress will do that. ," Rengam added.

(For additional information about the PAN AP Congress and its advocacy work against land grabbing, please contact Vasentha Sampasivam at vasentha.sampasivam@panap.net)

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