Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues meets from May 9 – 20 Indigenous Peoples: Conflict, Peace and Resolution

By Sister Margaret Mayce, OP

Indigenous peoples account for 5 percent of the world’s population, while representing 15 percent of those living in poverty. As many as 33 percent of all people living in extreme rural poverty globally are from indigenous communities. Those figures are particularly alarming given the fact that so much of the world’s natural resource base is located on lands within indigenous territories. This is where both governments and corporations wreak havoc on the lives of people, destroying their communities and their cultures, as they destroy water sources, forests and ecosystems at the same time.

One of the foundational pillars of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that of free, prior and informed consent, which declares that states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned…to obtain their free and informed consent  prior to the approval of any project affecting indigenous lands, territories and other resources. Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return. However, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Ms. Victoria Tauli Corpuz, there is rampant impunity on the part of corporations against Indigenous Peoples worldwide. She said that “A very crucial part of the problems which indigenous peoples face is that many of the things happening in their communities are happening because of the investments that are coming in from richer countries.”

The most recent example of this was the assassination of Honduran activist Berta Caceres this past March. Berta was a leader of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco who protested the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on their traditional lands. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. Between 2010 and 2015, at least 109 people were killed for taking an active stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects. Of the eight cases that were publicly reported in 2015, six victims were from indigenous groups.

The key findings of Global Witness’ latest report (2014) on global killings of land and environmental defenders include the following:

  • Globally, at least 116 defenders were killed in 2014 – most in Brazil (29), followed by Colombia (25), the Philippines (15) and Honduras (12).
  • 47 of the victims were members of indigenous groups, accounting for 40 % of the total.
  • 2014 saw an increase in murders relating to hydropower projects. Disputes over land formed the backdrop to most killings.
  • This hidden crisis is escaping public attention, both because it is not being adequately monitored and because many defenders live in remote, poor communities with limited access to communications and the media.
  • Scant data on killings in much of Africa and areas like China, Central Asia and the Middle East may be linked to poor civil society monitoring, and the suppression of media and other information outlets ( see Deadly Environment: The Dramatic Rise in the Killings of Environmental and Land Defenders).

It’s ironic that while it has never been more important to protect the environment, in some parts of the world it has never been more deadly to do so. Competition for access to natural resources is escalating, as is global inequality and the civil unrest that follows in its wake. Land grabbing, fracking, agribusiness, mining and logging are all taking place right here in our own back yards, and we enjoy the freedom to make our protests heard, generally at no real personal expense. I know I need to remember that the next time I fall into the trap of thinking it is not worth the effort.