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Threats. Violence. Criminalisation. Murder. The reality for Indigenous Peoples and local communities protecting lands and forests

A global crisis is unfolding. The rapid expansion of development projects on indigenous lands without their consent is driving a drastic increase in violence and legal harassment against Indigenous Peoples.

That’s Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in an open letter announcing the launch of a new report, “Attacks and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples defending their lands and rights”.

The report will be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council at a meeting next month, and is available here.

Private sector colluding with governments

The report documents a pattern of abuse. Tauli-Corpuz writes, “with the private sector often colluding with governments to force Indigenous Peoples from their lands by whatever means necessary to make way for infrastructure, agriculture, mining, and extractive projects.”

In a press release, Tauli-Corpuz says,

“I’ve been alerted to hundreds of criminalization cases from nearly every corner of the world. The rapid expansion of development projects on indigenous lands without their consent is driving a global crisis. These attacks — whether physical or legal — are an attempt to silence Indigenous Peoples voicing their opposition to projects that threaten their livelihoods and cultures.”

In 2017, according to Frontline Defenders, 312 human rights defenders in 27 countries were murdered.

67% of the total number of activists killed, were defending land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights, nearly always in the context of mega projects, extractive industry and big business.

Around 80% of the killings took place in four countries: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines.

2017 was the worst year on record

Global Witness documented 207 murders of land and environmental defenders last year, making 2017 the worst year on record. Agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with the killings.

Among the horrific attacks and murders in 2017, Global Witness highlights these three:

  • Hernán Bedoya was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group in Colombia. He was protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community. Since 2016, paramilitary forces have murdered nearly 200 social leaders in Colombia.

  • UPDATE – 30 August 2018: Dr Glory Saavedra of the University of Brighton points out in a comment below, that the number of social leaders and human rights defenders murdered in Colombia is now 412, since the beginning of 2016, according to the Cumbre Agraria, Campesina, Étnica y Popular (24 August 2018).

  • Eight T’boli indigenous people in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land were murdered by the army. On 3 December 2017, a team of soldiers entered Datal Bonglagon village on the island of Mindanao. They shot eight people and injured two more.
  • In May 2017, Brazilian farmers in Maranhão state attacked members of the Gamela indigenous people with machetes and rifles. More than 20 people were severely injured. Some had their hands cut off. The Gamela lost their traditional land during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 to 1985). The land was divided up among local landowners and is now primarily used for cattle ranching. Since 2014, about 400 Gamela who didn’t move away are trying to reclaim their land.

Governments are failing to recognise rights

In her open letter, Tauli-Corpuz writes that,

At the root of this global crisis is systematic racism and the failure of governments to recognize and respect indigenous land rights. Indigenous Peoples and local communities customarily own more than 50 percent of the world’s land but only have legally recognized rights to 10 percent. This enables governments to declare them “illegal” on the lands they have lived on and protected for generations.

The report includes case studies from 20 countries.

In March 2018, Tauli-Corpuz brought together representatives of Indigenous People from around the world. A five minute video includes highlights of testimonies from Peru, Guatemala, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and several other countries.

UPDATE – 23 November 2018: The video is no longer available on Vimeo.

The video starts with Tauli-Corpuz talking about how the Philippine government labelled her as a terrorist earlier this year. Her name has now been removed from the list, but the others, including Joan Carling, Co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group on the Sustainable Development Goals, remain on it.

Why does this matter for REDD?

As well as “development” projects such as infrastructure, agriculture, mining, and extractive projects, conservation can also be a problem for indigenous peoples. One of the key messages in Tauli-Corpuz’s report is that,

Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life are also deemed illegal in the name of conservation, leading to arrests, forced evictions, and other human rights violations.

This is particularly relevant for REDD.

One of the problems with REDD is that it is inequitable. Indigenous Peoples and local communities end up paying the costs of REDD. People in rich countries are looking forward to continuing flying with their emissions “offset” by REDD projects, while some of the poorest people in the world are forced into changing their livelihoods to allow that to happen.

At the U.N. climate negotiations in 2009 Poznan, Indigenous Peoples and others protested under the slogan “No rights, No REDD”:

The protest was about the danger that rights were to be taken out of the REDD negotiations in the UNFCCC. (Some of the organisations protesting in Poznan hoped that safeguards would protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights. While a few of these organisations celebrated the safeguards outcome at COP 19 in Warsaw, the reality is that the safeguards are pathetically weak.)

The trouble is that the governments that are currently failing to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and are complicit in murdering Indigenous Peoples and local communities that protest against government and corporations’ “development” projects, are the same governments that are supposed to implement REDD under the Paris Agreement.

Anyone else see a serious problem here?

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  1. Hello Chris thanks for posting this. Btw the figure for number of social leaders and human rights defenders murdered in Colombia is now 412, since beginning of 2016. That’s 15 persons/month. Ivan Duque’s far-right government blames it on random inter-gang violence. But such systematic targeting of horrendous threats and assassinations, of capable leaders, are certainly only possible with government and business complicity, which the government does not seem in a massive hurry to investigate. Glory Saavedra, University of Brighton