Imagine that your survival depended on defending the right to live where you are standing right now.

At any moment, the government could decide to start extracting oil or constructing a highway, exactly where your family goes to sleep every night, without consulting you. Just picture the mine or highway polluting the water you drink and poisoning the soil up to a point that crops can hardly grow. On top of this, you are pushed to speak a foreign language in a country that endangers your culture and way of life.

This scenario is not fictitious. It is reality for many of the 370 million indigenous people worldwide. Simply defined, these people are the living descendants of the pre-colonised inhabitants living in lands now dominated by others.

Indigenous peoples gathered at a communal assembly, Peru. Photo Credit: Vlad Dumitrescu / IWGIA.

Earning Recognition

It was only 10 years ago that indigenous peoples around the globe achieved the most substantial victory in a century of demands: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This introduced the concept of collective or group rights into international law, that is to say indigenous peoples possess rights that are indispensable for their existence, well-being and integral development as peoples. This is perhaps the reason why many find it difficult to relate to their struggles, since dominant societies base policy making on the protection of individual rights, such as the right to property or privacy.

Representing 5% of the world’s population, today many indigenous peoples are still excluded from societies and deprived of their rights as equal citizens of a state. Living in 70 countries and speaking more than 4,000 native languages, they have gained increasing visibility for raising their voices on aggressive development policies.

As the world moves quickly to explore and exploit new territories to meet increasing consumption, indigenous peoples are at the top list of those murdered for defending their land. Almost 130 environmental activists have been killed so far in 2017, and indigenous communities are the ones suffering most from the expansion of mining. Four activists defending their lands or natural resources die every week, with indigenous communities hardest hit.

This is not a coincidence. Indigenous territories are the richest in biodiversity and today more than ever, they are becoming the new battleground for human rights.

“Even though violence against indigenous peoples is increasing, the Declaration should be celebrated. Without this Declaration, indigenous peoples wouldn’t have a chance to fight”, describes Julie Koch Director of International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). This global struggle for indigenous peoples takes different shapes in each continent.

Photo Credit: Tony Suárez.

Latin America: Extractive agenda threatens indigenous achieved victories

Even though in Latin America the indigenous land struggle has a favourable legal framework to rely on, it continues to be the most dangerous continent for environmentalists.

Brazil is where the highest number of environmental defenders have died on Earth. Since 2013, 900 indigenous leaders have been killed for defending their lands, despite legally owning 12.2% of the country’s territory and living peacefully in 704 collective territories.

Even in Bolivia, a country with an indigenous man, Evo Morales, as president, environmental destruction continues apace. Morales recently gave the green light to construct a highway on indigenous land. This development project has been opposed by environmentalists and the indigenous movement since it cuts through Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory.

Mapuche people in Argentina, November 2011. Photo Credit: Alejandro Parellada / IWGIA.

The construction is part of a bigger plan. The highway aims at adding to the existing Brazilian-led effort commonly known as IIRSA (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America). This entails a network of 531 mega-projects that seek to ease the flow of transportation of soybeans and coca across the region. But the impacts are not only economic. The highway will considerably affect the traditional way of life of three indigenous groups: the Tsimanes, Yuracarés and Mojeño-Trinitarios.

But the fight back seems promising. Indigenous autonomous governments represent much more than a trend in the region. Self-governance is one of the most significant claims made by indigenous peoples in this part of the world and it seems to be on its peak of realisation with the two first indigenous governments settled in Peru and Bolivia. The Wampís Nation’s Parliament and the Charagua government took office last year and made clear their goals: control on how to administer the future of their ways of life within the territory they inhabit.

Asia: Persisting discrimination paired with militarisation

Asia is home to 260 million indigenous people, and is thus the most culturally diverse region in the world. The land disputes in the region have worsened due to heavy assimilation pressure and violent repression by state security forces. Like indigenous peoples in other countries, they face the denial of self-determination, loss of control over their land and extreme discrimination.

One of the clearest examples of lack of implementation of the right to land and territories is the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region in Bangladesh, where approximately 600,000 indigenous people live. Ever since the creation of Bangladesh the elected representatives of the CHT have demanded regional autonomy. Being trapped between demilitarisation and displacement, gross human rights violations have been committed and documented in the last 10 years. The most affected by the conflict are indigenous women.

The situation in Nepal follows this course of aggressive development. During 2016, protests against road expansion and electricity transmission lines intensified. The common picture that local indigenous communities paint is of bulldozer entering their land to ensure infrastructure construction goes ahead. Indigenous demands are ignored.

Perhaps the most illustrative case of the systemic nature of much of the discrimination against indigenous people comes from Japan. A national survey released by the government in 2016 showed that 72,1% of Ainu people agreed that “discrimination against the Ainu people exist”, meanwhile 50,7% of the general public stated that “discrimination does not exist”.

Africa: Evictions driven by the conservation and agribusiness agenda

Laws protecting indigenous peoples are weak or nonexistent in Africa. With very little political support and space for critical NGOs and media to effectively report on human rights violations, conservationists and agribusiness agendas push indigenous people from their homelands.

In Loliondo village in Tanzania, indigenous communities suffer from a systematic destocking aiming at reducing their number of livestock, which is vital for their survival. Increasing tensions and clashes with farmers and ranchers are usually driven by the recurrent drought. Another common tactic used by the military is to burn houses, which speeds the illegal evictions.

Just last month, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority rangers, with the support of Loliondo police, burned down about 185 Maasai bomas (homesteads). The evictions left approximately 6,800 people homeless, with most of their property destroyed.

Evictions are also a current challenge for indigenous peoples in Kenya, where the definition of community lands is not in place. Earlier in the year, drought caused traditional herdsmen to steal pasture from landowners, burning down tourist lodges and grabbing the attention of the world media in the process. Laikipia has experienced unprecedented grazing pressure and Maasai people have seen a limited access to water.

The other side of the coin is that indigenous peoples are gaining recognition in the courts. Against all odds, 2017 has seen a historic land ruling in Kenya in the hands of the Ogiek peoples before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Setting a vital precedent, the court recognised that as indigenous people the Ogiek have the right to reparations from the Kenyan government for the suffering they have endured by forced evictions.

A shared struggle

Leaving indigenous peoples unprotected will have an impact on how the planet will look like, especially if extraction keeps expanding. The protection of indigenous rights is directly tied to protecting the environment.

As such the fight for indigenous peoples’ land rights is not just about rights, but about securing a sustainable future for everyone. Indigenous peoples have demanded environmental justice way before climate change became a mainstream issue. Ten years after their biggest victory, it is time to take their land rights seriously.


Over the last 50 years, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) has documented and supported the participation and strategic development of indigenous peoples in international processes with the objective that no decision is taken without their participation.


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