Systematic racism and the failure of governments to recognize and respect land rights are at the root of violence leading to the murder of Indigenous peoples around the world, said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples on Tuesday.
“These murders are often the last step in a long line of threats, smear campaigns and unjust legal prosecutions – what we call criminalization,” she said during deliberations emceed by actor and activist Alec Baldwin on the sidelines of the U.N. 18th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues.
“These threats and attacks are intended to silence Indigenous peoples’ protests against unwanted development projects on their land, and their leaders are often the ones targeted,” Tauli-Corpuz said.
A report released in 2018 by human rights watchdog Global Witness said that almost 1,000 environmental defenders have been killed since 2010 and at least 207 land and environmental activists – almost half of them Indigenous – have been targeted and murdered for defending their forests, rivers, wildlife and homes against destructive industries in 2017 – the worst year on record.
Tauli-Corpuz, whose report on attacks and criminalization of Indigenous peoples was also released in 2018, said that 80 percent of murders took place in just four countries – Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines, where she is from.
“Perpetrators often act with impunity and are likely not brought to justice,” said Tauli-Corpuz, who was labelled a terrorist by the Philippine government while she was conducting research for the 2018 report. “At the root of this violence 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 are only legally recognized on 10 percent of that land, enabling governments to label communities illegal in areas they have lived in and protected for generations, she said.
A surge of authoritarian political movements now threatens to make matters for Indigenous peoples worse, she added.
Indigenous peoples are increasingly recognized for having preserved the world’s few remaining forests, which are vital for the conservation of biodiversity and all life on earth.
“Maps show an overlap between the best kept forests in the world and Indigenous territories, especially territories where the rights of Indigenous peoples are recognized,” Tauli-Corpuz told Landscape News during an interview on the sidelines of the event.
“There is a direct correlation between forests that are kept in a better state and the respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples,” she said. “Evidence shows that Indigenous peoples are the stewards and custodians of the forests.”
Rights must be recognized so that they can continue in this role, she added. “People violating rights should be brought to justice to prevent deaths and the destruction of communities.”
Baldwin, whose work with the U.N. focuses mainly on the protection of forests and defending the rights of Indigenous peoples, stated his commitment to raising the profile and visibility of the struggle.
“I recognize – as does anyone that is paying attention – that Indigenous peoples across this planet are on the front lines of the fight to protect forests and deserve and need the support and protection of the international community,” Baldwin said.
“I’m an American, and I love my country,” he said. “I’m very proud of my country but I also recognize that the United States is built on a core of building blocks and those are: political resources; friendly and manageable borders; hard work; innovation; ingenuity, but also slavery and the enslavement of Indigenous peoples.”
Fletcher Harper, executive director of Greenfaith, also spoke at the event, which was jointly hosted by UN Environment and the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), an alliance formed to protect tropical forests and Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Peru.
“Forest protection is a human rights issue, a social justice issue and an environmental justice issue,” Harper said. “Everywhere we go, not just some places, but everywhere we go, we find one thing is very clear: if you want to protect tropical forests, you must protect the rights of Indigenous people.”
UN Environment and IRI are launching a sanctuary program with five interfaith organizations, supported by the government of Norway, as a rapid response system to protect environmental defenders from threats.
Through IRI, the faith community could help provide legal support, sanctuary and advocate for Indigenous peoples by speaking to powerful players in corporations or governments, Tauli-Corpuz told Landscape News.
Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, president of the Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said that it is vital to combat corruption.
“In order to clean up the planet we have to start with ourselves,” he said. “No more bloodletting, no more murders.”
Sonia Guajajara, national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous peoples (APIB), said that President Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t just represent displacement, but ecocide, referring to new government policies.
In January, Bolsonaro put Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture in charge of land claimed by Indigenous peoples, an act widely seen to be for the benefit agribusiness, or “Big Ag.”
“We’ll show that we’re not fearful,” Guajajara said. “We’re not going to go back. We’re going to resist. We’re calling on all of society to join us in a fight, which isn’t just for Indigenous peoples, but for all of us — it’s a humanitarian cause; we have to go together and join the fight for Mother Earth.”
The problem is that Indigenous territories hold the resources that mining operations want, said Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa indigenous leader from Sarayaku, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“People think that the problem of Indigenous people is an isolated one, but the Amazon is vital for everyone,” Gualinga said. “Our struggle is a global one, and that is how it has to be seen, not as an isolated struggle of Indigenous people. Destroy the Amazon and the world will be destroyed.”
In Indonesia, Indigenous people protect 40 percent of the country’s 75 million hectares of forests, said Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Indonesia.
“The cheapest way to save the life of the planet is to recognize and to let Indigenous peoples keep on protecting the forests,” she said. “Give the titles and the rights to the forest to Indigenous peoples.”
The 18th Session of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues is at the United Nations in New York from 22 April – 3 May 2019.