“Each year sets a new record for the murder of people defending their lands and the environment,” says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples. “And thousands more are victims of violence or criminalization.”
But while threats and violence occur in tropical forest countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the reasons behind them differ from place to place.
Studies show that forests in Indigenous territories are generally well protected, making them important for protecting biodiversity and water sources and buffering the impacts of climate change, as well as providing livelihoods for villagers.
Ironically, however, people who are defending their rights to land and forests are threatened not only because of their opposition to industrial projects – particularly those that raze trees, such as mining and ranching – but threats also come from environmental groups that support conservation projects that displace Indigenous people and other communities who have traditionally relied on forest resources to survive.
THOSE WHO KNOW
“We understand how to care for our forests, our soil, our water, and because of this our forests are less likely to be destroyed when we have secure rights,” says Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the Philippines’ Kankana-ey Igorot people.
“If the world is to successfully mitigate the climate crisis, our rights need to be recognized,” she adds. “Yet while Indigenous peoples and local communities customarily own more than half the world’s land, we only have legal rights to 10 percent.”
Worldwide, more than 200 people were murdered in 2017 for defending the environment, according to the London-based watchdog group Global Witness. Latin America was the deadliest region of the world, with 60 percent of those deaths. Of those, 57 occurred in Brazil, followed by Colombia with 24 and Mexico with 15.
Those figures could be low, however. In Colombia, for instance, the Indigenous leaders and farmers killed while defending their land rights might be recorded as crimes against human rights defenders or grassroots leaders – and only half of the 330 of these crimes reported in Colombia between 2016 and 2018 were solved, according to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office.
WEB OF CONFLICT
In Colombia, conflicts over land rights have increased despite peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group. Large swaths of land that were once under FARC control are now opening up to large-scale agriculture, mining and oil exploration.
Drug traffickers and armed organized crime groups are also expanding the production of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, into new areas. In addition, people who were forced off their land during the armed conflict and seek to return to the homes they abandoned often find other occupants living in these places now.
All of those factors combine to create a complex web of conflicts, putting leaders of Indigenous groups and farmer associations in the crosshairs, says María del Rosario Arango, project coordinator for the FFP in Colombia.
“There will always be conflicts and companies” seeking to operate in rural areas, Arango says. “We need mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully. We need to rebuild trust, but they are killing the very people who are working toward that.”
Some organizations of Indigenous people, small farmers and Afro-Colombians have set up their own unarmed security patrols, which have successfully fended off some attacks. Nevertheless, repeated death threats, especially targeting family members, can force leaders to flee, derailing efforts to resolve conflicts peacefully.
In addition, many threats and murders are not investigated, so the killers go unpunished, Arango says.
ROWS OVER ROWS
Regions of Indonesia, such as Borneo, are well known for having been targeted for plantation development in the past, but as land there becomes scarcer, companies are looking farther afield. As a result, oil palm plantations are on the rise in West Papua, where villagers are fighting to keep their forests from being razed for oil palm plantations.
When a company moves in, representatives approach village residents, often with the support of government officials, police and soldiers, says the Rev. Anselmus Amo, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who heads the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission in the Catholic archdiocese of Merauke, in West Papua.
In one case he experienced, a company seeking to establish an oil palm plantation signed an agreement with the head of the Mahuze clan. The entire clan was not in agreement, however, and following the clan leader’s death, other members began opposing the deal.
The company is now trying to enforce its claim, which would strip the clan of the forests that provide food, building materials, firewood and a place for small-scale agriculture, says Amo.
Since 2015, members of the Mahuze clan have told the government that they would be willing to give up land for public uses, such as a school or health center, but not for a private enterprise. Turning 5,000 hectares into an oil palm plantation would force the clan into a space too small for farming and without access to forest resources that they can use for subsistence and income, Amo says.
The Mahuze clan’s land is also the gateway to territory inhabited by other clans, he says. If a company gains a foothold with a plantation there, it will be hard for the other clans to resist the pressure.
“This is about human rights, rights to life, rights to land, rights to live free with no threats from soldiers and police, to live in peace on their land,” he says.
TREADING CAREFULLY WITH CONSERVATION
Forest dwellers also face displacement elsewhere in the world, not because of corporate plans, but because of pressure from conservation organizations.
In India, a planned overhaul of the 1927 Forest Rights Act could force as many as 10 million people from their land, says Gladson Dungdung, a human rights activist in Ranchi, in the Indian state of Jharkhand.
The revision, which is supported by Indian environmental groups, would cut Indigenous peoples off from places where they traditionally have planted crops, hunted and gathered fruits and other forest products for family use and for sale, as well as from sacred places.
It would also give government forestry officials full control over forest management, allow guards to shoot violators on sight and make it more difficult for Indigenous peoples to file complaints about human rights violations, Dungdung says.
Proponents of the reform say it is necessary to prevent the destruction of forests by local communities as their populations grow. But the policy changes would also open up forest land to mining and commercial timber concessions, says Dungdung.
“Ninety-one percent of Indigenous people still live in forests – 90 million people,” he says. “Their livelihoods will be in question because they cannot enter into forests. So how will they survive?”
In various African countries including Mozambique, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, the creation or expansion of protected areas is displacing Indigenous and tribal people from their traditional lands.
Batwa people in Uganda were displaced from their traditional territory in the 1990s for creation of the protected areas including Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki national parks and the Echuya Forest Reserve. The creation of Mt. Elgon National Park, which reaches into Kenya as well, stripped the Benet people of land-tenure rights.
“Across Uganda government policies and laws focus on settled farming as a preferred agricultural land use pattern and fail to account for the traditional livelihoods and land use patterns of many Indigenous peoples, including hunting, gathering and nomadic pastoralism,” representatives of 51 indigenous groups in Uganda wrote in a joint statement presented in 2018 to government officials and U.N. agencies.
The statement decried threats “from companies, individuals, investors and government agencies grabbing land without consultation or consent, both for mineral exploitation and for conservation purposes.”
RIGHTS FOR THE FUTURE
Government leaders sometimes complain that too much land is allotted to Indigenous peoples, and that those territories stand in the way of their countries’ economic development.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has used that argument to justify efforts to allow mining and industrial-scale agriculture in Indigenous territories. A similar claim by former Peruvian President Alan García resulted in an Indigenous protest that ended with a crackdown by government security forces that left 34 people dead.
“There is a false impression that we must choose between protecting forests and forest guardians, and advancing development,” Tauli-Corpuz says. “But the truth is that the ‘development’ that comes with destroying forests and perpetrating human rights violations against Indigenous peoples only serves a privileged few. Recognizing rights can advance both climate and development goals.”
More research and awareness is needed around the underlying causes of violence against people defending their territories, says Helen Tugendhat, projects and operations lead and policy advisor at the London-based non-profit Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), as well was more protective actions from governments and international agencies.
“Indigenous people and others with collective tenure are already active in finding solutions to global challenges that we’re facing, but they are suffering great attacks and great danger from undertaking that role,” she says. “It’s incumbent on all of us as a global community to understand how we can better support and put in the forefront their role in addressing those challenges.”