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Why conservationists should be concerned about natural resource legislation affecting indigenous peoples’ rights: lessons from Peninsular Malaysia

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For conservation to be effective in forests with indigenous peoples, there needs to be greater recognition of indigenous customary rights, particularly with regards to their use of natural resources. Ideally, legislation regulating the use of natural resources should include provisions for the needs of both indigenous peoples and biodiversity. In reality, however, legislative weaknesses often exist and these can result in negative impacts, either on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, their surrounding biodiversity, or both. Here, our case study demonstrates why conservationists need to pay greater attention to natural resource legislation affecting indigenous peoples’ rights. Apart from examining relevant laws for ambiguities that may negatively affect biodiversity and livelihoods of indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia (known as the Orang Asli), we also provide supporting information on actual resource use based on questionnaire surveys. In order to address these ambiguities, we propose possible legislative reconciliation to encourage policy reform. Although there are positive examples of conservationists elsewhere adopting a more inclusive and participatory approach by considering the needs of indigenous peoples, greater recognition must be afforded to land and indigenous rights within natural resource laws for the benefit of indigenous peoples and biodiversity.

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We are grateful to the Orang Asli of the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex for their hospitality and insights. We thank the Perak State Parks Corporation and the Department of Orang Asli Development for their invaluable assistance. DMR is supported by a WWF-US Kathryn Fuller Science for Nature Fellowship and the Pulau Banding Foundation. GRC is supported by a James Cook University Postgraduate Research Scholarship and University of Malaya Research Grant. WWF-Malaysia’s tiger work in Belum-Temengor has been supported by US Fish and Wildlife Service Assistance—Division of International Conservation Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund Award, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Malaysian Wildlife Conservation Fund and WWF-Netherlands. WWF-Malaysia’s protected areas work in Belum-Temengor is wholly funded by generous donations from the Malaysian public. We would also like to thank Shariff Mohamad, Lau Ching Fong, Christopher Wong, Elangkumaran Sagtia Siwan, Hamirul Razak, Umi Rahman and Allim for conducting the interview surveys with the Orang Asli of Belum-Temengor, and Surin Suksuwan, Rejani Kunjappan and Belinda Lip for the internal review of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sheema A. Aziz.

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Aziz, S.A., Clements, G.R., Rayan, D.M. et al. Why conservationists should be concerned about natural resource legislation affecting indigenous peoples’ rights: lessons from Peninsular Malaysia. Biodivers Conserv 22, 639–656 (2013).

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