All posts by Laura O'Neill

I am currently doing my Masters in Development Studies at UNSW. I first become passionate about international change on a volunteer trip to Nepal in 2002. Upon returning I set up a charity from Australia with a Nepalese street boy and we worked together to sponsor potential run away children from his remote village in Langtang region. I finished a music degree and became a teacher, eventually returning to Nepal to continue this work (... after some years of disruption including broken bones and wheelchairs). In Nepal I also worked with different orphanages, HIV/AIDs shelters, street kids, unaccompanied children of prisoners, Tilganga eye centre as well as filming and compiling short dramas made by children's clubs about traditional health practices and girl trafficking to India. Recently I was living in Singapore and had the chance to be involved with many local SE Asian projects including disaster relief, education of slum children, children's homes, environmental groups, migrant women's shelters and cultural centres for traditional music. I returned to Australia at the start of this year to study and I plan to continue working abroad once I finish this degree. On home soil, I am a big supporter of Aboriginal issues and wrote and performed many political songs including "Freedom Rides" which was used in the documentary reenacting Charlie Perkin's historic bus journey. The song was also performed with acoustic Indigenous group The Stiff Gins. I have been involved with refugee issues for many years, in particular, working with children who previously lived in Villawood under the Howard years. While immobile and jobless after a broken leg, I was a participant of a surprisingly productive Centrelink project scripting, filming and acting in a short film about Ethiopian refugees settling into Australia and accessing government services. It was a lot of fun to make and was approved by UNHCR to be shown in refugee camps in East Africa. During June/July semester break I went to Christmas Island and worked with asylum seekers mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq which was a very humbling and important experience for me. Apart from that, I love walking hand in hand on sunset beaches, coconuts, tropical flowers and sandy reggae bars and I hope to share skills, knowledge and discussions with YOU. Laura.

FPIC and Indonesia: Indigenous Forest Rights in Development

Indonesia’s stretch of territory is made up of over 17, 500 islands and is the world’s largest archipelago. The nation is dense in tropical forest and has the third largest coverage in the world (behind Brazil and the Democratic republic of Congo), of approximately 100 million hectares of tropical forest. Due to this wide geographical spread, different types of forests can be found, such as the evergreen lowland dipterocarp in Sumatra and Kalimantan, seasonal monsoon forests and savannah grasslands in Nusa Tenggara, nondipterocarp lowland forests/alpine areas in Papua and extensive mangrove regions nationwide. Within the different sub zones lives an amazing diversity of wildlife including the iconic red haired Indonesian orang-hutans (forest men), proboscis monkeys, gibbons, tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, cassowaries, birds of paradise and numerous other rare insect, bird, reptile and mammal species. Indonesia has a precious and unique ecosystem, but as exploitative forest practices are on the rise, many animals dependent on forest ecosystems have become endangered and face very real threats of extinction.

Collecting traditional herbs

It is not just animals that are affected by detrimental forest practices, many indigenous Indonesians (warganegara pribumi) are facing major upheavals in their lives as these practices increase. Those most affected are the isolated indigenous communities living deep in the jungle (masyarakat terasing) who depend entirely on forest resources to support their survival,livelihood, traditional culture and lifestyles. It is these masyarakat terasing who are most vulnerable to detrimental impacts of forest management decisions that determine their access and ownership rights to land. In an era of increased outside interest in Indonesian forests by parties involved in a number of fields including Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects, mining companies, oil and logging companies, plantation projects, industrial developments (both government and private) and other interested industries, there has never been a more arresting need for confident legal protection of indigenous people’s land and human rights.

Although discussions, debates and internal negotiations regarding indigenous rights have been on the UN table for three decades, it was not until the 13th September, 2007 that an official Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly by a majority of 144 states in favour and 4 votes against (out of interest, those states against were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States). The fact that this declaration has been adopted for less than four years reflects an historical poor state of protection and a startlingly delayed rights-based representation of indigenous sovereignty worldwide. The declaration codifies and articulates a series of rights relating to customary law, natural resource use, land ownership, self-determination and lastly, indigenous autonomy in decision making processes under the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

Article 19 of UNDRIP states that:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

While Article 32(2) outlines that:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

As a declaration, UNDRIP does not have the status of binding International law and as is, Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) can only be considered a principle of best practice. Although FPIC is not a legal requirement, many private companies and governments recognise the vital importance of this realisation and are working towards implementing meaningful FPIC with Indigenous communities. FPIC is a rights based model that has been designed to give more autonomy and ownership to Indigenous populations. It is not a set of consultations with already established outputs that is ‘presented’ to a said community; it is a process of informed and mutual negotiations that benefit counterparts and stakeholders involved in an ethical fashion.

To gain a deeper understanding of the issues, let’s take a closer look at what each of these principles entail.

  • FREE. Indigenous people exercise free choice void of coercion, force, manipulation, bribes or alcohol to come to a consensus. Independent bodies not related financially or politically to the project developers should conduct negotiations to eliminate bias, act as a safeguard against misconduct and provide judicial remedies if conflict arises.
  • PRIOR: Clear and sufficient notification is given to the community so that people have space to comprehend the project, request additional information, seek advice, clarify points and ask questions. In Australia this is 12 months, however time frames vary according to communities and projects worldwide.
  • INFORMED: All relevant project information is provided in local languages and people have access to independent legal or technical advice from an outside party. Information can include preliminary assessment of the likely impact of the project, stakeholders involved in construction and operational phases (including local people, researchers, sponsors, commercial interests and partners), potential risks involved eg spiritual land concerns or pollution and projections of foreseen implications eg commercial, economic, environmental, cultural and conditions for 3rd party involvement.
  • CONSENT: Approval of the project happens when negotiations are complete and legal documents produced that do or do not give permission for a project to go ahead. Indigenous people have the right to say YES or NO to a presented project and if the community says NO then projects cannot go ahead.

Because FPIC is ‘relatively’ new there are still many roadblocks involved in implementing and fulfilling indigenous people’s rights in practice. As you can imagine, if the negotiating party has private, for profit interests in forest resources, there is a real danger of manipulation or lack of transparency in the negotiating process, particularly considering the unequal levels of power between counterparts. If FPIC is to be a principle of delivered dignity and real equity, monitoring needs to be consistent and impartial to ensure fairness and authentic representation of indigenous rights holders.

In Indonesia, complications in delivering FPIC can arise because it is difficult to establish legal ownership of lands by indigenous communities living in and with the forests. It is difficult to claim rights if land ownership is not even in community hands. In a recent Forest Dialogue in Riau province, one of the root causes of problems discussed was state land. “Most communities in agricultural lands are considered to be on State land and almost all forests are classed as State Forest Areas. As a result, State agencies are granting leaseholds to palm oil companies on agricultural lands and to forestry companies in State Forests without taking community rights or views into account.” This issue is not an isolated or one off concern for Indonesia. One government representative from the National Land Bureau declared that there are over 3,500 land disputes associated with the palm oil industry in Indonesia, most of which stem from land acquisition processes that take indigenous land without allowing for customary rights or FPIC processes to be.

FPIC is a right of prime importance for indigenous people worldwide. The author has recently developed a keen interest in this field while researching indigenous people’s role in benefit sharing agreements through carbon trading projects in provinces of Indonesia. The author feels that more people should investigate and learn about FPIC as a principle of development and human rights and keep watch of how it is delivered in current and future projects in Indonesia and indeed, worldwide.

Non-violent conflict resolution: what the experiences of a Tibetan Buddhist political prisoner can teach us

British citizen and Tibetan refugee, Tash Despa risked his life by going under cover as a journalist and documentary maker. He wanted to show the world the suffering Tibetans face under Chinese occupation. His journey demonstrated the permeation of military and police presence in Tibet and the incredible fear, terror, torture, arrests, detentions and ‘disappearances’ carried out by these forces. Despa reports that writing the short phrase ‘Free Tibet’ resulted in a 3 year jail term for one Tibetan. In another case, Tibetan singer Tashi Dhondup was arrested for violating the law and sentenced without trial to re-education through labour under the charge of ‘separatism’. His crime? Singing pro-independence songs that also referenced a desire to meet Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sadly, these stories are among many unjust accounts of Tibetan suffering and the shocking reality of a life without human rights.

Although there are many tales to be heard and shared, this is the story of one Tibetan refugee monk, now living in Dharamasala, India. His name is Geshe Lobsang Gyaltsen. He feels that he has finally found safety in India and thus, gives consent and encourages his story to be shared for the benefit of educating people about the situation of Tibet. I met him in December 2010 through a small NGO called Learning and Ideas for Tibet (L.I.T.), which was established in 2008 by Tibetan monks and an Australian volunteer. This is his story.

In response to the widespread human rights violations experienced in Tibet, 17 year old Geshe and his fellow Tibetan monks held a peaceful protest on the roof of their Buddhist monastery in Lhasa, 1989. This nonviolent demonstration was brutally disrupted by the Chinese police, who beat the monks with batons. Amongst the drama, Geshe fell from the second story roof, breaking his leg. The police arrested all the monks, forcing them to admit they were involved in the demonstrations, again, beating them violently. They also threatened to close down the monastery if any future demonstrations occurred.

On August 25th, 1989, both the lay and monastic community participated in a demonstration stating that Tibet had been an independent and free country before the Chinese invasion. 600 Chinese police were sent into Geshe’s monastery to interrogate all involved, searching for any anti-government documents. The police didn’t find any evidence. However, they took four monks including Geshe, tied them up, and put them into the back of a truck and drove away. The journey was long and bumpy. Eventually, the truck stopped in front of a prison and the police made the monks stand against the wall of a dark courtyard. They were beaten for an hour straight with batons and iron rods. One of the monks was beaten so badly that he has permanent kidney failure to this day. Geshe experienced a similar fate with his liver, which, to this day is badly damaged and barely functional. On this same day, Geshe’s nose was broken, soaking his face and clothes in blood.

Each monk was locked in a small, windowless room with no light, no carpet, no bed. Just a steel door that continuously created dark days and nights. The day after they arrived, the police began interrogating them, asking who exactly was behind the anti-Chinese sentiment, accusing the Dalai Lama of instigating the protests. The monks said this was not true, upon which they were further beaten. This time, the methods of torture intensified. Electric rods were used to shock the monk’s bodies and freezing cold water was poured over them, which in the winter time made them feel like they were covered with ice. This interrogation continued the same way, every day, for two months. By this stage, the monks had serious injuries, including badly infected kidneys and livers. Although, they requested medical assistance, the police refused.

After a month, Geshe’s family visited him in prison, bringing with them fresh butter, meat and fruit for him. In front of his family, the police acted very generously towards the prisoners, denying any maltreatment of the monks. However, when the family left, Geshe never received the fresh food and instead, the police kept the goods for themselves. Life returned to a cruel routine in prison; a series of unbelievable conditions that the monks had to endure.

Their daily tasks included cleaning and looking after the numerous pigs that were kept in the prison grounds. For this, they were not given any instruments or brooms and were forced to clean the unhygienic pigsties with their hands. After this chore, there was no water for them to wash their hands and they were forced to eat with these same dirty hands or starve. The food they were given was not sufficient. It consisted of coarse barley flour, which was half fried and half raw. The texture of the grain was too rough to digest and they all suffered stomach pains and diarrhoea. Some days, they received no food. When they needed to use the toilet, they were forced to use a corner of their small cell and clean up by hand their own feces and pools of urine. They also did not have sufficient clothes (just one set of robes) and when they requested an additional set (taking into account the very cold winter months in Tibet), the police refused to give them any other clothing and beat them further.

Geshe’s sentence was nine months. During this time, he was never able to wash his face or body, or change his clothes. After his sentence was complete and he was released, Geshe was given a letter addressed to the head of his monastery. He was was told to hand it directly to him without reading it. He took this unopened letter and when the head of the monastery read it, he was told the letter forbade him to ever return to his monastery. Geshe was forced to leave and went to live with his parents. Life was difficult for him and his family because the Chinese government sent spies to monitor his every move. He couldn’t even visit neighbouring villages without permission from the local government post. Geshe recalls feeling there were no human rights or freedom of movement in Tibet, so he decided to escape to India one early morning. He walked for ten days to the border of Tibet and Nepal, where he then met a Nepalese guide who assisted him through the mountains and showed him a direct route to Kathmandu. It was extremely cold and the mountain rocks were like ice. It was an escape that almost took his life. Geshe fell from this dangerous path into a river and almost drowned in the freezing water.

Geshe finally reached the Nepal refugee reception centre where he stayed for two months, receiving food, lodging and medical treatment. From there, he was transferred to the New Delhi refugee reception centre and finally to the Tibetan refugee community of Dharamasala/McLoud Ganj in North West India. Here, Geshe was able to have a special audience with the Dalai Lama who asked him which monastery he would like to join. He chose a place close to Bangalore, where more than 6000 monks live. He relocated to southern India in 1991, where he began studying Buddhism. 16 years later in 2006, Geshe completed his studies and attained a Doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy. He returned to Dharamasala in 2007, where he is now teaching Buddhism and learning English.

When asked how he felt towards the guards and prison staff during his detainment, Geshe responds with dignified and principled Buddhist ideas. Despite the horrendous torture, Geshe says he never felt anger towards these people and instead, showed them compassion. According to Geshe, if one continuously reacts with loving kindness and compassion, then any person will become a friend. It is not possible for a friend to conduct torture and inflict pain on another friend. In response to issues of freedom for his home land, Geshe does not advocate for an independent Tibet and instead, sides with the political stance of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach.” In Buddhism, the ‘middle way’ is known to be the path that Siddartha Guatama realised in order to reach enlightenment and become Buddha. It is a path of neither self-denial nor self-indulgence, rather a practice of harmonious balance and the realisation of the interdependent nature of all forms.

The Dalai Lama converted this religious principle into a political tactic advocating a peaceful, balanced and realistic solution for peace. It is ‘a non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties- for Tibetans: the protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations.’ Instead of complete independence, the movement advocates for the establishment of an autonomous region of Tibet divided into three traditional provincial regions, governed by a democratically elected leader who has genuine autonomy within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. It is not closed and self-propagating, but a compromise considering the best outcomes for all involved. In a recent public teaching in Sarnath, India, the Dalai Lama stated that this can be worked at through international dialogue and called for support from the EU, USA, and Australia. He is aware of the natural resources given by Tibetan rivers that flow to over one billion people and advocates for harmonious relations with other countries in order to protect the environment while supporting large populations with vital water needs. At 76, he is still incredibly dedicated to religion and politics. He is pro-democracy and wants Tibetans to move with the ‘new world’ of the 21st century.

The struggles of the Tibetan people continue today and thankfully, there are many peaceful human rights activists dedicated to this cause. It is inspiring and humbling to hear and see all the non-violent approaches to conflict resolution; retaliating against beatings and abuses with mantras and prayers of universal compassion. Projectiles of loving kindness. Ahimsa in action. Buddhism is a very ‘conscious’ religion and part of the core teachings is that suffering is inescapable, and that everything is transitory in nature. Buddhists believe the body is continually reincarnated in a cycle of samsara until one breaks through this rotating existence to attain enlightenment and stop the suffering of rebirth. According to Buddhist philosophies, humans suffer due to the nature of this form of existence; we cling to internal false perceptions of reality, which causes us sadness and a whole range of fleeting emotions. With this realisation in mind, there is no reason to inflict additional outside pain to already tired bodies and minds, we carry enough suffering just through human existence, let alone from unjust violations of human rights.

Tonight I say a prayer for the unnecessary suffering of those refugees, political prisoners, orphans, dislocated and oppressed Tibetan people and take a moment to contemplate and learn from the Buddhist approach to conflict resolution through non-violence and compassion.

This is a prayer by Geshla Tsulga.

Due to the great force of negative karma amassed in past lives

In this life, we Tibetans are undergoing great suffering;
May all the causes for this suffering finally be consumed,
And may the happy sun of freedom dawn above us all.

The most salient supporting condition for the suffering of Tibetans
Are the Chinese, who are confused about what causes happiness and pain;
May they develop great loving kindness and compassion
Directed toward us Tibetans and all sentient beings.

We must recognize that for us Tibetans to view the Chinese
As our enemies, and for them to view us with hatred and disdain,
Will cause ceaseless suffering for all concerned. Knowing this,
Let us have love for one another like the love between mother and child.

Through the powerful reality of the Three Jewels and relativity free of extremes,
And through the powerful truth of the unwavering causality of karma, good and bad,
May these aims that I have prayed for with a good heart
Come to pass right now without any hindrance.