Sacred Land, Powerful Stewards
This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.
By Alex Haber
In our grants, loans, and investments, RSF partners with organizations and entrepreneurs focused on protecting the environment as central to both our economic and spiritual life. One of our Donor Advised Fund clients, Tamalpais Trust, has a strong and innovative agenda: supporting the capacity of indigenous-led organizations to promote culturally sensitive approaches to environmental stewardship through indigenous knowledge systems. Last year, Tamalpais Trust granted over $2.7 million through RSF to organizations working on these issues. Two in particular – Kivulini Heritage Trust in Northern Kenya and the Forever Sabah project of Land Empowerment Animals People in Malaysia – are helping build strong indigenous communities to lead environmental stewardship and sustainable development.
Kivulini Heritage Trust works with pastoralists, fisherfolk, and other minorities in Northern Kenya to preserve sacred sites, support local livelihoods, and promote environmental management centered on indigenous knowledge and institutions. Last year, Tamalpais Trust funded a project to link peace-building among different communities with development in the border region of Northern Kenya and Ethiopia. New development is poised to raise the standard of living for many, but it will also privatize land and limit access to traditional management techniques and sacred sites. Communities in this region are migratory along both sides of the border, so mapping migration routes and sacred sites is important for protecting their way of life. However, previous attempts at mapping by outside groups have raised fears of privatization and conflict among indigenous communities. To overcome this, Kivulini is working closely with locals on participatory mapping of routes and sacred sites while also encouraging inter-community peace-building to strengthen indigenous groups’ understanding of the challenges of land development and their capacity to act together to control their own destiny.
Across the Indian Ocean, in Malaysia, the Forever Sabah project of Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) is working closely with indigenous people to protect the Sabah region. Forever Sabah is a 25 year ($100M US) program designed to move away from an economy based on the exploitation of natural resources and toward a diversified, equitable, green economy. Over the past year, LEAP has facilitated community-led roundtables to develop a first wave of projects for the program. These include forest connectivity across the state, watersheds, and communities; renewable energy initiatives; sustainable food and agriculture projects; and a community-based ecotourism school. Native land rights are incorporated into all aspects of Forever Sabah. As just one example, LEAP is working to establish the first Watershed Conservation Area in Malaysia, which would be co-managed by local communities in the Telupid Forest Complex. The key distinction between current “protection areas” and this new “conservation area” is that the latter preserves native land rights and use.
These are just two examples of a place-based approach to ecological stewardship, which we value at RSF. By supporting indigenous capacity building, Tamalpais Trust is helping to transform ecosystems by empowering communities to take control of the future and that of the land they care for.
Alex Haber is Program Manager, Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance