Joan Carling. co-convenor, Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development at the Global Landscapes Forum, Bonn, Germany, December 2017. GLF/Pilar Valbuena

Inclusion of indigenous groups will ensure sustainable landscapes, says Joan Carling

Partnerships and collaborations essential

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — In the 1970s when Joan Carling was attending university, she lived for a while with the Kalinga people in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, observing how they used and cared for their land.

Moved by how their landscape was intrinsically linked to their identity as a whole, she joined them to protest against the construction of four hydropower dams along the Chico River that, if developed, would affect 16 towns and villages and displace some 85,000 people. They won.

The Chico River Dam Project has since become an oft-sited case study in how land issues are addressed in both the Philippines and worldwide. As for Carling, she has become a leading activist for indigenous peoples in a number of contexts, including as an indigenous expert for the U.N. Economic and Social Council and as the secretary general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP).

Carling recently spoke at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) conference in Bonn, Germany in her role as co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development about the vital role indigenous people play in landscape management and sustainable development.

In her speech, she said that although indigenous peoples are providing solutions to climate change problems and promoting sustainable development for all, they are facing threats around the world for defending their lands.

“Indigenous peoples are practitioners of sustainable landscape management, knowledge holders and rights holders,” she said, adding that scientific and traditional knowledge are critically important in discussions about sustainable landscape management.

“We need to be treated as actors, not the problem or the victim, and partnerships should evolve around this – partnerships and collaborations are essential – we need to move together,” she said.

Carling also expressed her support for a memorandum of understanding signed by indigenous groups and the GLF in Bonn for the continued engagement and participation of indigenous peoples in the GLF, which aims to reach a billion people, developing a community around sustainable landscapes, restoring degraded land, ensuring land and gender rights.

“This is a very big step forward in recognizing the role and contributions of indigenous peoples to sustainable landscape management,” Carling said.

“We hope that the GLF will lead to transformational changes on the ground in empowering indigenous peoples, local communities and smallholder farmers as key actors in sustainable landscape management,” she added.


Since childhood, Carling has been intimately familiar with the conflicting interests of developmental and ancestral land use. She grew up on a logging concession in the Cordillera region with the Kankanaey people.

Time and again, she saw how a lack of legal recognition and protection affected indigenous peoples as governments repeatedly partnered with investors to pursue economic growth, which almost always came at the expense of cultural traditions and land rights.

To this end, in a career that now spans more than two decades, Carling has approached her work through a lens that links human rights issues, climate change, and Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) consultation.

“We are self-governing peoples and rights holders and institutions, upholding sustainable development as part of our well-being,” she said in a 2015 speech at the United Nations.

“Why then are we being evicted to give way to hydropower dams, to mono-plantations and extractive industries? These destroy our lands, villages, livelihoods, sacred sights, our customary institutions, and our well-being. This is the question of thousands of indigenous peoples who continue to be discriminated and marginalized as an effect of the economic effect in many states.”

Make no mistake—she is not against development. In fact, she believes that indigenous communities can lead by example, demonstrating how to achieve development in a sustainable way. However, they must then be included in decision-making processes at all levels. Additionally, they must be included in the institutions and partnerships shaping land development, and they must have access to protective rights. Otherwise, they will continue to be displaced and their cultural heritage destroyed.


While her work as the secretary general of AIPP continues to broadly address indigenous rights issues, she has focused particularly on women’s issues in relation to land use. Because indigenous women do not only help manage their communities’ land and resources, but also cultural and spiritual practices, their ties to their land and its natural cycles run deep. They can observe and determine the best time to plant crops, as well as determine what to do to give thanks to their spirits and ancestors.

“Women are at the frontline of the grassroots movement for land rights, and this is a matter of life and death for them,” Carling said in an interview on her work for AIPP in 2016. As land use and rights are put into question and women are forced to venture off their land limits or into more developed towns in order to provide for their families, they are more exposed to instances of violence and sexual abuse.

“The land rights movement flourished with women in the frontlines along with men. Acknowledging and honoring the sacrifices and achievements of women in the land rights struggles, as well as addressing their specific challenges and promoting their aspirations are vital in advancing the land rights movement across the globe,” she said.

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