Mobile indigenous people belong to the land

08 / 2004

“The term mobile peoples (e.g., nomadic and migrating shepherds, hunter-gatherers, shifting agriculturists, seasonally mobile flood-plain and delta inhabitants, sea-nomads, and other peoples with dynamic regular changing patterns of land use) encompasses those indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on extensive common property use of natural resources and whose mobility is both a management strategy for dealing with sustainable use and conservation and a distinctive source of cultural identity.”(extract from the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples declaration).

In 2003, nomadic people gathered from many regions of the world in Durban (South Africa) at the 5th World Parks Congress where they got a chance to be represented for the first time. Building upon the principles set out in the Dana Declaration, they identified common concerns shared by indigenous peoples and agreed to integrate the term ‘indigenous’ into the official name of their group, thus expressing their solidarity with the larger and well-establish indigenous and tribal peoples movement worldwide.

Representatives of mobile indigenous peoples pointed to the unique needs, perspectives and conservation benefits deriving from their cultures and mobile lifestyles and formed the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP) to promote solidarity among themselves and a policy friendly environment leading to the respect of their cultural identity and mobile livelihoods in harmony with nature.

In Iran, like in many other countries, indigenous people have been the victims of land distribution and adversely affected by agricultural installations. This has led to major conflicts between sedentary farmers and nomadic shepherds, which shows why land reform policies have to take into account the needs of all local users.

Since 1963, two revolutions implemented an ongoing process of land reform in Iran. From the very beginning, land reform was implemented to calm political instability rather than directly addressing issues of social and economical instability. Faced with a terrible economical situation in Iran in the 60’s, the US recommended land reform as a means of achieving political stability. The reform did serve the government by dividing large-scale properties that were a threatening power and helped galvanise the popularity of the administration. The US (University of Utah) now admits that the lack knowledge of local specificities and the failure to taking all the local users and needs into account, led to the failure of the US-assisted land reform programme in Iran.

The Islamic revolution in 1979 continued the process of land reform by nationalising and redistributing the land gradually. However the political process was tightly controlled and economic initiatives were virtually impossible.

Farmers were also the first victims of the Iraq/Iran war between 1980 and 1988, a war that reinforced the authoritarianism of the regime limiting new experiments and openness to outside relations and experiences.

Some farmers managed then to improve their situation by creating local and community co-operatives often supported by local authorities that were more open-minded. Generally though, during the process of land distribution, the lack of support created a situation whereby many farmers had to sell what they had been given, and either work for landlords again or go to the city where they faced social exclusion and related issues.

NGOs have recently become increasingly active in issues of natural resource management, youth (composing 60% of the population) and women. Working on environmental issues, it appeared that nomadic people, who were being punished by the government for land degradation, were the first victims of land reform: the alienation of their traditional resources trapped them in increasingly smaller territories, the consequences of which included: the loss and erosion of their livelihoods and cultures and severe land degradation. Mobile peoples’ rights have been ignored and relative “participation” has only been granted to sedentary people.

Mrs. S. Farahami’s organisation works to provide legal support to the tribes. They set up legal centres in local communities to help them claim legal access to the land, and face the fact that the laws simply ignore them, trying to invoke customary rights regulating ancestral access to the land. For her, the most important work is setting up councils of elders. This allows tribes to get organised and adopt an official position and a better strategy in their search for land access. The elders are very important in passing on traditional rules of land use, which could, one day, be officially included in Iran’s reformed legislation. This would not only resolve the human rights problem but also address the issue of natural resources conservation, because indigenous tribes never considered having “access to the land” in Iran, they have always seen themselves as part of the ecosystem: living from and actually “being the land”.

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