Indigenous Data Sovereignty: of the people, by the people, for the people. Experiences from the Mekong

OD Mekong
OD Mekong
Jul 12 · 6 min read
Photo: by Ben Pederick during the production of Prey Lang — One Forest, One Future.

At this year’s RightsCon, the Open Development Initiative (ODI) coordinated a session on the progress and implementation of IDS in the Mekong. The session showcased work that is being undertaken by ten Indigenous groups, involving over 80 villages across Thailand (supported by IMPECT), three ethnic groups in Vietnam, work being supported by Open Development Cambodia (ODC), and a regional perspective from the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). These examples highlight the tireless commitment of Indigenous peoples’ to regain sovereign rights over their culture, traditions and lands regardless of the terminology they use.

The term IDS and its application across the Mekong is at best nascent, and across the region a similar trend emerges: little to no institutional recognition of Indigeneity, with laws and regulations that do not uphold Indigenous and ethnic minority rights being developed and implemented haphazardly. Additionally, the manipulation of such regulations to commandeer natural resources and land under colonial-style conservation applications or for large scale investments continues to neglect the betterment of Indigenous and ethnic minorities.

Ms. Wanitchaya Kanthayoung (or Leiw for short), of the ethnic Tai Yai community, committee of the Indigenous Women Network from Thailand, explained how women within the community have commenced mapping initiatives, to counter persistent land conflicts with authorities over the lack of recognition of Indigenous peoples rights. Existing national laws and policies adversely impact the ability of Indigenous peoples to assert their rights to land, territory and natural resources. This collaborative effort, led by Indigenous peoples in Thailand, has brought together a network and partnerships with Indigenous peoples organisations (IPO), NGOs and academics to produce their own information (community maps). Data collected is controlled and owned by them and used to advocate for greater parcels of land ownership under customary rights to ensure that they can continue their traditional practices. Leiw reflected that by;

“…. ensuring women’s voices in community mapping processes allowed for the inclusion of traditional knowledge on food, medicine, natural resources utilization and sustainable management based on culture, way of life and women’s perspective. Without this we will lose our customary land.”

In Vietnam, the story is much the same. Interestingly, everyone is legislatively considered “equal” under Vietnamese law; Indigeneity is not recognised. This has a detrimental effect in a system where the “entire people’s ownership of land” is recognized as being governed under the State and so technically, no land is deemed private. As a result of this, large, fertile, resource-rich areas that are inherently occupied by Indigenous and ethnic minorities have been repurposed in the interest of the State for development. In practice, resources for development, such as hydropower, mineral extraction and large-scale monoculture plantations are controlled by a small number of powerful and wealthy people, so they are contrary to Indigenous customs and benefits.

In response to this context, Cultural Identity and Resource Use Management (CIRUM) has been working with Red Dao (known as Yao, Mien), H’mong and Tay ethnic groups in Northern Vietnam to help collect data and information and address their own development issues. They have done this through the launch of action research into the health and well-being of communities who have been impacted by the mismanagement of land due to overlapping land claims or conflict between Indigenous communities, state actors (such as the State Forestry Enterprises, Forest Management Board) and investors. As a result of such work, evidence-based advocacy approaches using this data, has allowed reclamation of customary rights to forest, natural resources and land by ethnic minority peoples’ to govern under traditional land use practices.

The significance of IDS principles within this context was reiterated by a Vietnamese representative during this event. Although the term itself was not used, the concept of self-determined data collection by Indigenous people that had purpose, meaning, and relevance. It is considered fundamental in exercising their governance over land and natural resources to protect their well-being. General awareness of Indigenous issues in Vietnam remains low. Communities have been receiving support primarily to facilitate off-line discussions with constituents to gain support for customary rights over land, forest, knowledge and data. Online facilitated discussions have been utilised, such as Facebook groups. However, there are civic constraints in the country that hinder freedom of expression. Multi-stakeholder discussion, including policy-makers, has helped to shift the narrative and contributed to some successes in gaining recognition over forest and natural resources.

Image of Indigenous Kuy representative in front of large standing tree trunk
Image of Indigenous Kuy representative in front of large standing tree trunk
Photo: by Paul Stewart

Cambodia is the most progressive country in the Mekong in regards to Indigenous rights, as it recognises limited customary tenure. Here, Indigenous communities have been able to attain customary tenure under existing land laws; so far twenty communities have official customary titles. The collection and release of this data has been supported by Open Development Cambodia (ODC) whereby Indigenous groups were supported during the data collection process and retain ownership of the data, supported by the Open Development infrastructure.

National efforts aside, it is important to not forget the regional and global efforts that have been developed to support broader recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights. One such global initiative is the Indigenous Navigator (IN) being implemented by the Asian Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP), Forest People Program (FPP), International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and it is currently in the second phase of development. The IN initiative was established to track and monitor the level of recognition and implementation of Indigenous peoples’ rights based upon internationally recognised conventions and aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The tool collates data from local and national levels to aggregate within an open access tool that can be used by Indigenous organisations and communities, duty bearers, NGOs and journalists.

Diagram of monitoring framework of the Indigenous Navigator and key tools. Sourced from their website.

AIPP, a lead implementer of IN in Asia, has reflected upon the awareness-raising components of the process. The exercise of collecting data on important issues such as gender equality has provided awareness opportunities among community groups to bring these issues to the forefront. More broadly, general dissemination of knowledge of Indigenous rights under national laws has enabled the support for national census in Bangladesh. The inclusion of Patro local language in school curriculums. The establishment of relations with the Ministry of Planning in Cambodia with the intent to expand ministerial level support across 16 ministries. Finally, the replication of the survey for enhancement of documentation of Indigenous peoples circumstances in Nepal.

The process is not without its challenges. Implementing a global initiative across different cultures and contexts requires streamlining of indicators and processes that may not fit all situations. For instance, language is by far the most difficult component of the project. The fundamental presentation of the data has required translation into several languages prior to being available universally in English. Technical constraints of connectivity and skills required to implement the initiative have limited the effectiveness of using ICT solutions for data collection, processing, and sharing. Finally, time constraints to complete lengthy and complicated surveys has meant that very few datasets have been completed and made available. Additional critique of the process by those engaged highlights the extractive nature of information gathering in traditional top-down models that are driven by global and multilateral agendas rather than being locally driven.

Advocating for Indigenous data rights requires many multidimensional approaches across interdisciplinary fields. All stakeholders have a role to play within this agenda. Utilisation of IDS principles to guide implementation invests in purpose and meaning that empowers indigenous and ethnic communities rather than the divestment of power. Approaches across the Mekong are shifting gradually to take these principles into account, but greater articulation and representation of Indigenous communities within this space is needed to ensure greater data governance for Indigenous Data Sovereignty, of the people, by the people and for the people.


Participants from the Mekong participated in the RightsCon 2019 session on How can Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) be promoted and mainstreamed within open data movements? Read about the outcomes of this session here.

OD Mekong

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OD Mekong

Open Development Mekong and related country websites independently aggregate and provide objective data on development trends in the Mekong region. #opendata

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