By Chris Lang
9 August is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The date marks the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations that took place in 1982 in Geneva, Switzerland. Every year since 1994, 9 August has been the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme is COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience.
Indigenous Peoples are among the most vulnerable to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, put out a statement:
“I am receiving more reports every day from all corners of the globe about how indigenous communities are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it deeply worries me to see it is not always about health issues.
“States of emergency are exacerbating the marginalisation of indigenous communities, and in the most extreme situations, militarisation of their territories is taking place.
“Indigenous peoples are being denied their freedom of expression and association, while business interests are invading and destroying their lands, territories and resources.”
The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact Foundation organised a three-day webinar to mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. AIPP states that,
[D]uring this pandemic, we have seen that several states in Asia have become even more repressive. COVID-19 has been used as a trojan horse to intimidate, arrest, plan false charges and conduct military campaign. It has also been used to weaken or suspend safeguards and rights regarding Indigenous Peoples. It will not be surprising if we see more attacks on Indigenous human rights defenders and plunder our resources in the name of economic recovery for the sake of national interests following the pandemic.
Conflicts over Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their lands and territories continue around the world. Proposals to use vast areas of land as Natural Climate Solutions threaten to exacerbate such conflicts. Here are just two of many recent examples of abuses of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the name of conservation:
In Nepal last month forest officials and soldiers evicted families from the indigenous Chepang community in Chitwan National Park. On 22 July 2020, a Chepang man died from injuries inflicted by soldiers after he was caught inside the park. Raj Kumar Chepang and six of his friends, including two women, were detained by an Army patrol inside the park. They were collecting snails. The four men were beaten by the soldiers, forced to carry heavy logs, and to do 100 pushups.
In Kenya, the Kenya Forest Service is evicting forest-dwelling indigenous communities from their ancestral lands. In July 2020, about 300 families of Ogiek Indigenous Peoples were evicted, their houses demolished or burned down. This is despite a 2017 ruling by the Africn Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights that the Ogiek have the right to live in the Mau Forest. A few days later Kenya Forest Service guards burned down 28 homes belonging to the Sengwer Indigenous People in the Embobut Forest.
Fortress conservation is not the only threat to Indigenous Peoples. Industrial “development” is also a severe threat. In its annual report of killings of land and environmental defenders, Global Witness reports that in 2019 the number of murders was the highest in a single year, with 212 land and environmental defenders killed. 40% of victims belonged to indigenous communities.
Global Witness notes that,
indigenous communities also suffer a highly disproportionate number of the attacks on defenders. Insecure land tenure, irresponsible business practices and government policies that prioritise extractive economies at the cost of human rights are putting these people, and their land, at risk.
Here are three recent examples of threats to Indigenous Peoples from industrial “development”:
On 18 July 2020, a dozen heavily armed men wearing police uniforms pulled five men from their homes at gunpoint in the village of Triunfo de la Cruz in Honduras. Four of the men are Garifuna, an Indigenous and Afro-descendant group. They are still missing. Garifuna territory includes pristine Caribbean beaches and fertile agricultural lands. Their lands are under threat from international tourism developers and palm oil companies. Global Witness reports that last year 14 land and environmental defenders were killed in Honduras, making it the most dangerous country per capita for environmental activism.
In May 2020, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced that the country should see the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to achieve economic self-reliance. Modi aims to boost the economy by opening up 40 new coalfields in some of India’s most ecologically sensitive forests. About 80% of the new coalfields are home to indigenous communities. “Why cannot India be the world’s largest exporter of coal?” Modi asked when he announced the 40 new coalfields. One of the companies hoping to cash in on India’s coal is the Adani group. Gautum Adani, the billionaire who runs the Adani group, has close ties to Modi.
Indigenous Peoples in Brazil are facing catastrophe under the Bolsonaro regime. Before he was elected as Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro said, “If I become President there will not be a centimetre more of indigenous land.”. COVID-19 is making matters worse. When he was asked about the thousand of deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil, Bolsonaro replied “So what?”. There are currently an estimated 20,000 illegal goldminers in the territory of the Yanomami. They are bringing illness and destruction to the Yanomami. The only thing that can save the Yanomami is the removal of the illegal goldminers. The Yanomami have set up a campaign to get the miners out. Sign the petition #MinersOutCovidOut here.
On 5 August 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that Bolsonaro’s government must protect Indigenous Peoples during the COVID-19 pandemic. But on the following day, the government suspended enforcement actions against illegal miners in indigenous lands in the state of Pará.