When Nomads are Stateless, the Environment Loses, Too

Is this the best form of land management?

A few years ago, a few Maniq people of Thailand began to receive Thai citizenship. Like other nomads in Thailand, including the Moken, the Maniq have for years struggled to protect their way of life in the face of widespread environmental devastation and coercive and forced assimilation. Their struggle to be recognized as people before the law with a say in government is mirrored in the struggles of the Bajau Laut/Sama Dilaut in Southeast Asia, the Roma in Europe and the Bedouin in the Middle East. All over the world, nomadic and previously nomadic peoples struggle to be regarded as citizens rather than as “tribes”. In many countries, stateless nomads cannot own land; they often live in nature reserves controlled, and exploited, by governments.

This struggle is a struggle against racism and, in particular, against anti-nomadism, often imported from European philosophy, that viewed nomads as incapable of forming or participating in states. Today, this toxic view has taken on new life, as many nomadic groups struggle to reclaim their lands from governments bent on resource extraction. In some countries, nomads have successfully sued the government for total or partial control of their lands. But in many countries, nomads are stateless. Not only can they not vote or sue, governments often view stateless nomads’ political activities as a security threat.

Nomad statelessness is a grave human rights violation, but it is also an environmental catastrophe. While governments often sell or lease land to companies in order to exploit the environment, nomadism relies on environmental stewardship. This makes nomadism the ideal economic activity for sensitive ecosystems. In fact, many nomads had been successfully managing sensitive ecosystems for generations, until governments seized their lands and began a severe and rapid deterioration of the environment.

How do we get back to balance? In some places, governments have bowed to public pressure to create parks in order to attract tourism. Parks are great, but are they as good as they could be? Activities that nomads used to successfully maintain ecosystems, like controlled burning, are frequently banned, while harmful activities, like logging, are allowed. Nomads may be allowed to live in these parks, but have little or no say over how the parks are run. The best and most sustainable way to ensure that nomadism and the nomad environment are protected is to give nomads the most important tool in their struggle to change harmful government practices: citizenship.

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