This article examines discourses of indigeneity and rurality that define and classify different categories of resource users in the context of Mikea Forest environmental governance.
Many Malagasy peoples live in, have deep cultural ties with, and directly depend on the island’s forests, but Mikea people are the only to be legally recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’ as defined by Operational Directive 4.20 of the World Bank. In policy documents, scholarship, and media productions, Mikea people are represented as a small, culturally distinct population of primitive forest foragers. In contrast, other subsistence producers living in the region are represented as invasive and harmful to Mikea people and the Mikea Forest environment. However, there are significant incongruities between these representations and local history, cultural norms, and social – environmental realities.
While the intent of international norms for indigenous rights in conservation and development contexts is to mitigate risk of harm and improve democratic participation among historically underrepresented peoples, this case highlights how imposed notions of indigeneity can in some cases actually increase local vulnerabilities. Mikea Forest environmental policies should be amended to mitigate risk of insecurities faced by a broad range of forest residents, Mikea and non – Mikea, due to socio – political exclusions, restricted livelihoods, and reduced territorial rights.