Indigenous Data Sovereignty in Southeast Asia, with Pyrou Chung

As part of our Technology Solidarity research series, I was thrilled for the chance to speak with Pyrou Chung, who is Director of the Open Development Initiative (ODI), a project of the East West Management Institute (EWMI). We first connected with Pyrou through a shared interest in Indigenous Data Sovereignty and a commitment to supporting frontline communities to use simple tools they can manage themselves. On a video call with me in Washington DC and Pyrou in her current home in Melbourne, Australia, she shared her own journey and work on natural resource, land and data initiatives in Southeast Asia.

Read below for a shortened version of our conversation, and learn more about Pyrou’s work by visiting the Open Development Mekong portal.

Emily: Can you begin with telling me a little bit about yourself?

Pyrou: I am an ecologist by background and training. I love nature. I studied environmental science and always wanted to work in conservation. That was my every call and ambition in life.

It didn’t really work out immediately. I did work in environmental governance in Australia when I first graduated, but I left and went on this crazy adventure, where I worked in the private sector on marketing for industrial machinery. I traveled around for a very long time before I decided to go back to studies and eventually found my way back to Cambodia, which is where I was born. In 2006, my first posting was in a remote area in Preah Vihear where I was supposed to teach before I started working with a few conservation groups.

While posted in Preah Vihear I ended up not teaching very much but became very curious about logging trucks. Virtually nobody in the village had a car and yet there was huge machinery coming in and out on a massive road built in front of the school — all of this development going on in and around the area had nothing to do with the villages. So that piqued my curiosity and eventually led to me working for EWMI as a conservationist who helped strengthen grassroots and informal groups, particularly indigenous communities and networks, which wasn’t dissimilar to what I had been doing in Australia.

I quickly adapted to the work, and really loved it. I was able to investigate the mining activities that were going on in the region and it was my first exposure to ethnic communities in Cambodia. We were connecting the dots between the lack of information in communities about development in their areas and then raising community awareness around that. Fortunately for me, that position also allowed us to identify a broader, national need for more information and data on development. Back in 2007 the small area that I was focused on, Prey Lang was a place that nobody had been paying attention to for a number of reasons. One being that it wasn’t protected. Two, nobody thought it was of any biological significance. Third was the indigenous populace. Cambodia is a country where the nationalization of cultures assimilated a lot of the ethnic groups. Prey Lang was one of the areas that was affected. When you hear about indigenous peoples in Cambodia, you often think about the Northeast ranges or those living within the Cardamom ranges. But nobody really talks about central Cambodia, and that’s because of assimilation in the Mekong River basin. There are ethnic groups located all around Cambodia, but their identity is really mixed. That’s how I started this work which eventually evolved into the Open Development Initiative.

You and I are talking about communities and connectedness with digital technology. But back then it wasn’t about technology. It was just about information. Information to address questions such as; Who are these foreigners in my village that we have never seen before? What are these big machines doing here and why, all of a sudden, did that factory pop up? Who can answer our questions? Why can’t we know what’s happening in our own village?

Emily: As you’re telling that story, I’m thinking about our own examples from communities we’ve worked with in Guyana, Peru and Ecuador, where the same sort of thing happens and there’s no information from the government. What was that process like for them—what did they learn and how did having more information change the situation for them?

Pyrou: A lot of that research was done by a team. The first point of contact was always the local governing structure. The local village or community leader often knew something, so we needed to ask them the right questions.

Then we worked with the local community. The populations we were working with were illiterate. They would show us papers and say, “We were told to sign this” or “this was given to us.” And of course, when you read it, it was a contract or a land sale of some sort. Using this documentation, we could follow that chain up to the commune, district, and then provincial levels. Eventually, we were able to trace some of those land deals back to the National Gazette and see where they originated.

This pile of documents didn’t mean much to anyone at the time, but we were able to extract coordinates from them from which we could make maps. The communities were already primed to engage with the project because we had been thinking through ways to help conserve the biodiversity of the region and lobby for its protection. So we started working on a mapping project and biodiversity survey that included digitizing and mapping the land sale information we had compiled. We printed these maps on a satellite layer so the villagers could see where their villages were and the boundaries of land as well as the sites of development. We would go on long walks and roll out the maps. All the while contextualizing the issues we were focused on. It was so important for them to say, ‘Hey, we used to fish here, but the water is gone now,’ and confirm this on a map. They could connect the dots between their efforts to conserve their land, land rights, and the impact of this company coming in.

The process helped them understand the importance of documentation and of having that piece of paper to refer to during a meeting with a community leader. The maps gave visual evidence of their lived experience.

I think, to a certain extent, even with all of the technology in the world, this paper mapping process still needs to happen. There still needs to be some sort of physical aspect to help people understand what all of this data and information means and how it connects to them as individuals and a community. Phones are a great tool, but data points on a screen don’t seem to prompt the same kind of understanding.

Emily: What’s your current role, and what’s your current focus?

Pyrou: The data and information that we collected there went into a repository called Open Development on a platform that was specifically Cambodia focused, which has contributed to heightened awareness about land issues and provided reliable, objective data for policymakers, think tanks and others.

In 2015 we commenced regionalizing the platform and we took this concept of having data available online to other countries in the Mekong — Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. All of these countries intersect along the Mekong River and have a really fluid trans-boundary landscape. This is significant when you are looking at overall development in the region, for example, a hydropower project in one country connects to another country because the power lines traverse it on their way to China or elsewhere in the region.

They’re all interconnected. And I think that’s what we learned from the Cambodia approach. We knew this development was happening, but a lot of it was being driven by regional development and other global initiatives that were driving the agenda. And so regionalizing the platform allows us then to raise awareness about certain development issues across different countries that may be interconnected and specifically ASEAN or APEC driven.

We have national platforms making data available on all of the countries that I mentioned, as well as the Mekong regional site. I oversee the regional platform as well as a lot of the country-specific initiatives. Our focus has always been making data and information accessible. Although we have forward-facing online platforms, a lot of the work we do involves making connections on the ground with national teams and other partners that actually go out into communities to give them the piece of paper that says, this is what’s happening. There are so many layers of connections in how information gets passed along. And there are more tools now that allow that to be facilitated. But sometimes a piece of paper in a village can mean so much more.

Emily: For this research project we’re exploring the concept of technology solidarity. When you hear the phrase technology solidarity or data solidarity, what comes up for you?

Pyrou: What we’ve been lobbying for and working towards in the region is Indigenous Data Governance and in particular Indigenous Data Sovereignty, which has similar connotations to what you’re talking about in terms of data solidarity. Specifically, though, I think Indigenous data governance and data sovereignty is more focused around Indigenous rights, specifically concerning the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which focuses on preserving traditions, cultures, and ways of knowing. And then the ability to self determine is important to facilitate actual recognition of your indigeneity, your ethnicity and your rights as a community that is self-governing.

There is the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, which is a member group that came up with the CARE principles that outline a fundamental framework for how to ethically and responsibly manage indigenous data.

Emily: I want to dig into the work you’re doing around indigenous data sovereignty. Can you share any examples of what that looks like in practice for your community?

Pyrou: That’s the challenge. Globally, I think this has been driven by larger ethnic groups in America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and some groups in Europe as well. It has come from a need to combat and challenge national-level datasets that do not capture Indigenous peoples, which is true globally.

There are examples of effective indigenous data governance in places like New Zealand and Canada, where Indigenous people actually have a place in politics and governing structures. In the Asian context, a lot of solidarity work has been contributed through ethnic indigenous knowledge. They’ve not used the term data sovereignty, but they’re using terminology like cultural knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and traditional knowledge. And all of this knowledge is data & information.

There are many examples in Southeast Asia where communities are taking back control of their data and information. In Thailand, some communities are collecting their own census information, and the questions they’re asking are slightly different from what the national census would collect. We’ve seen an improvement in the way that data is being used to deliver funding to their communities. The data they’ve collected empowers them to say, we are X number of people, and we need X number of schools to cater to our X number of children.

Emily: Regionally, politics are complicated in Southeast Asia. What would you like people to know about some of the challenges and threats that are affecting the communities you’re working with, as it relates to how communities can better use information to fight for their rights?

Pyrou: It’s a really big question. I’ll start with the regional perspective. The Mekong region is a hotspot for conservation and biodiversity. It is lush and ripe with resources. Unfortunately, those resources are being overly exploited in a drive to alleviate poverty. And instead of investing nationally, internally within countries, the global drive and regional drive with free trade agreements and other policies at the ASEAN & APEC level, are directing the agenda in ways that doesn’t necessarily benefit the best interests of the people. The benefits from these developments so rarely reach the communities, but are captured at an elite level. There are many issues, but the drivers are the same.

A lot of conservation groups and ethnic communities are trying to promote more landscape-centric approaches. Going from one country to another without having an interconnected regional approach doesn’t work. One hydropower development in the middle of Cambodia may seem innocuous. But when you connect them up the chain along the Mekong river, for example, you can see a real global drive for power and electricity, and you can also see where those resources are going by mapping mining operations. These strong economic and trade drivers at the regional and global levels make it hard for national governments to challenge especially since they often also have weak governing structures. This drives a lot of the Indigenous policies as well — or really the lack of policy recognizing Indigenous peoples and lands.

The significance of this in the Southeast Asian context is even greater because of that lack of recognition in cases where national governments have imposed national identity. You can be ethnic, but you just can’t be Indigenous. And that has huge implications due to the definition of “indigeneity” within the UN conventions. Ultimately, the way Asian governments have interpreted identity has allowed them to bypass these international conventions. This effectively prevents Indigenous Peoples from accessing their right to self-determine, thus hindering their access to rights and justice as Indigenous People. Data and information can help to build stronger knowledge bases to provide evidence for self-determination but even more, progress needs to be made toward dissolving legislative barriers for Indigenous Peoples to do so safely.

Emily: As you reference, the interpretation of who is Indigenous affects how the government addresses specific communities. In the Mekong region, how many of the Indigenous groups are recognized? How strategic is it to try to get more recognition for Indigenous groups?

Pyrou: Fundamentally, I think that Indigenous Peoples have a human right to self-identify. That doesn’t mean that they need to be living within a context that’s fractured from the national system. It’s going to take years to change the national laws. It took Australia decades to recognize indigenous territories. It was profound and phenomenal that it was only within Australia’s recent history.

But in the Mekong region, we’re talking about countries that don’t uphold fundamental basic human rights, let alone Indigenous rights, so changing constitutions and policies within these countries is not going to be a small feat. We need to petition alongside Indigenous People and allies at national levels and change the national mindset because the majority of citizens are apathetic towards policies and may not recognize how they could be utilized to discriminate. I think Indigenous data sovereignty has the potential to allow Indigenous communities to have digital identities that could be self-governed. There are huge opportunities here to use the advancements of technology to progress an agenda that has remained stagnant for a long time. And maybe this approach is something that could flip the power dynamics so that Indigenous people are no longer asking to be recognized as indigenous but are recognizing themselves as indigenous and announcing it to others.

Emily: You mentioned some of the potential pitfalls of the technology. For technologists and particularly for people who are funding technology, what would you love to see them work on? What would you love to see come about that could actually be of use in the region?

Pyrou: A lot of people talk about the need to be design-centric and purpose-driven, but not many people know how to do that.

Too often, projects are rushed due to constraints of time, resources and personnel. The circumstances of COVID-19 highlight some of the issues with rash development of technical applications because they begin designing before clearly defining the problem and how the technology will solve it. I see this mindset across the data sphere. Researchers go into communities with a predetermined set of questions that they believe will solve the problems at hand.

To fundamentally flip this approach would mean having communities design and develop their own applications without intermediaries and contractors. This will not happen immediately. And Indigenous communities are always at the tail-end of design considerations. Most applications are already designed before women are considered, check, and then you think about indigenous communities, check. We need to stop treating marginalized communities like boxes that have to be checked. Instead, we need to think about the most marginalized communities first, and then work our way up because it’s easier to be inclusive from the get-go. What are the fundamental needs of a person with no literacy, no tech skills — and then build from there.

In Asia, the difficulty is the intermediary factor. There’s always some NGO or intermediate group that’s facilitating the communications. And I have to recognize that’s true for us as well — we don’t have a big field base so we’re working through intermediaries. But ideally, the focus should be around building capacity and infrastructure within the communities to self manage their systems. And the design will come. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of funders that want to invest in these systems because it doesn’t tick their boxes —funding boxes, development boxes. It doesn’t tick global agendas. There was recently a study that showed that funders award less money to organizations led by people of color, and that’s a fundamental part of the problem.