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Thoughts about people, land & identity

While the forest is not ours, we’re still fighting for it.

[Titta Lassila] Peter Kitelo comes from Kenya, and he’s saying out loud what many must be thinking. Kitelo represents the ogiek community of Mt. Elgon forest. The people do not own the land where they have been living for generations. But the land is all they have, which makes them conserve it.

Indigenous communities can easily be evicted from their lands if the national or foreign interest toward the mineral resources, wood or agricultural potential of their terrain grows strong enough. People are advised to start buying their food instead of growing it, to move to an artificially created community far away from home, or they are not consulted at all. The fight for securing land ownership and defending human and communal rights of communities that might lack the capacity to defend themselves is ongoing, as long as displacements, land-grabbing and false compensations continue to occur all over the world.

Where does one’s identity originate?

During this week in the Community Conservation Conference organized by the Global Forest Coalition I have heard several stories from and of people whose rights as human beings are disrespected and even violated. The stories have made me think about the human identity, its individual as well as communal side, and what it constructs of and grows from.

For me, as a landless dweller of a small city in the more or less democratic North, as someone who moves so often that there is no time for growing roots to the actual place where I live, having a land with history, meaning and ancestry feels both distant and extraordinary, yet something essential. Where do I belong? To what extent is my identity connected with my hometown, my home country or the physical origins of my family? More than I can imagine, I guess.

But where are we heading to, as people? Social, cultural, personal or communal detachment from the earth is a threat to the overall sustainability of the human way of life. Also us urbanites need to realize how dependent we are on the earth, its healthy soils, waters, forests and wetlands.

Mapuche means people of the earth. ‘Mapu’ means earth and ‘che’ means people. So what are the people without earth? Or what is earth without its people?

Member of the Mapuche community of Tralcao in Southern Chile, Francisco Manquecheo asked me, how are the indigenous Mapuche people supposed to live, if all their land, all their territory, is taken away from them. Mapuche people’s lives are directly dependent on the land and its resources, but they have already lost a large portion of their ancestral lands to forest industry. This has had a huge effect on their communal identity.

Preserving the communal identity

What about those whose homes are disappearing without the help of multinational companies or unequal state legislation? Those whose land is washing away with the sea? One of many powerful experiences during the week has been meeting people from Samoa and Solomon Islands, possibly the two countries most threatened by climate change. Sea levels are rising, eventually swallowing up these small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Sapa Saifaleupolu, a researcher from Samoa, wonders what will happen to the culture and identity of the indigenous people of Samoa, if they lose their lands and are forced to relocate elsewhere. How will their cultural heritage and traditions live on when there are no more sacred places or traditional livelihoods? Many continental indigenous communities have already lost these ‘fundamental and non-negotiable rights‘, as Fiu Elisara from Samoa puts it. This has led to social marginalization, deepening poverty and degradation of culture.

The conference has empowered, I dare to say, everyone who has participated in the long and intensive common discussions. People’s voices have been heard, and next they can be multiplied. A global community can only be created with solidarity and respect. Ugandan resource person of the Global Forest Coalition, David Kureeba, summarizes the reason for all of us gathering here, thousands of kilometers away from our homes, communities and forests:

Power belongs to the people. Power belongs to the communities.” This we can all agree on, right? I wish this global dialogue could help us all to (re-)connect with the earth.

Titta Lassila, 5.9.2015
Vice chairperson of Siemenpuu Foundation