Indigenous Peoples make up 15% of world’s extreme poor, but their needs are not always considered when it comes to basic services such as healthcare, education, clean water and energy. To ensure a just transition to renewables, vulnerable groups must be at the centre of decision-making for policies that will directly affect their rights and livelihood.

Renewables are not free of human rights violations

On its own, a shift to renewable energy sources that have lower emissions does not necessarily mean that the transition will be just and equitable.

For example, the promotion of palm oil as a source of renewable energy has led to rampant expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines mostly in rural areas where many Indigenous Peoples live. Clearing the land for palm oil has resulted in a several human rights violations, including the killing and criminalization of environmental defenders as well as the use of forced labour and child labour.

Norman Jiwan of the Forest Peoples Programme in Indonesia points out that even in cases where palm oil may obtain a sustainable certification, that certification does not necessarily lead to equitable outcomes for Indigenous Peoples. He explained, “Oil palm may be certified by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) or by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) however, sustainable certification does not necessarily lead to equitable outcomes for IPs.”

States need to protect and uphold human rights

The Paris Agreement compels states to protect and uphold human rights in all climate actions, including the deployment of renewables. In Southeast Asia, however, violations of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights have continued throughout the region in large-scale renewable energy projects, including hydropower, solar and geothermal projects, as well as in crop expansion for bioenergy.

The transition to renewables has displaced Indigenous People’s from their ancestral lands, and in many cases, energy projects were developed without their free, prior and informed consent. There are often also no established grievance mechanisms for those affected to seek redress for human rights violations.

The displacement of Indigenous Peoples is also a result of states refusing to grant them legal rights to land. In 2016, a Malaysian federal court ruled that that the Dayak people of Sarawak cannot rely on their native customary rights to claim title over virgin forests as their territorial domains and communal forest reserves. While in Myanmar, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law denies land rights to many people for communal and customary uses of some land by classifying it as “vacant”, allowing the state to take possession of it.

Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights have continued throughout the region in large-scale renewable energy projects, including hydropower, solar and geothermal projects. Photo: May Thazin Aung / SEI.

A silver lining: technical capacity-building and women

The good news is that renewable energy projects can be both sustainable and equitable if Indigenous Peoples are empowered to manage their own resources to develop renewables that benefit their communities.

At the 9th Southeast Asia Conference on Business and Human Rights in the Philippines, Indigenous Peoples’ rights were highlighted, including a call for collaboration in creating pathways for just and equitable development of renewables.

Victoria Lopez, former Executive Director of Sibol Ng Agham At Teknolohiya, Wellspring of Science and Technology (SIBAT), explains that Indigenous Peoples participation in micro-hydropower projects that combine watershed protections can “re-strengthen their empowerment for their existence and the rights to reside [on their ancestral land].”

SIBAT is a non-profit organization in the Philippines that brings technology to alleviate poverty in rural areas. SIBAT’s Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology (CREATech) provides advisory services and capacity building for poor Indigenous Peoples living in Northern Luzon for installation of community-based and off-grid renewable energy systems, such as micro-hydro, small wind-power installations, and solar water systems.

Indigenous and ethnic women are also crucial actors in promoting renewable energy and environmental stewardship within their communities. Adrian Lasimbang, an indigenous senator from Sabah, Malaysia, and the Executive Director of Tobpinai Ningkokoton Kobuburuon Kampung (TONIBUNG) asserts, “In developing renewable energy projects, it is key to engage women’s groups to ensure greater buy in, better project planning and long-term sustainability of the project.”

He added that women do a lot of their daily activities as a group, so they tend to think of communities’ needs first before their own individual needs.

TONIBUNG trains indigenous engineers to develop and harness renewable energy within their communities while promoting environmental stewardship.

Indigenous Peoples as partners in transitions to renewables

Despite facing numerous human rights violations, Indigenous People continue to pioneer, pilot and develop renewable energy projects within their communities, while striving to protect and preserve the ecosystems around them.

The international community must do its part to put Indigenous Peoples centre stage in the global dialogue on energy, not least because their inclusion is integral to achieving SDG 7, which aims to ensure access to energy for all. Efforts towards a just transition should promote the participation of Indigenous Peoples in current energy partnerships, and ensure that state and private sector actions respect and uphold their human rights and recognize their role as champions for a sustainable future.

The 9th Southeast Asia Conference on Business and Human Rights was organized by the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines (CHRP), the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), the Philippines Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), and the Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education (TEBTEBBA), and supported by SEI under the Strategic Collaborative Fund Programme.

This article was co-written by Andy Minjun Sung, who completed his internship at SEI Asia in late 2019.