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Violence and Persecution of Indigenous Protesters Is on the Rise

A new report from the United Nations finds that there has been a sharp increase of instances of physical violence and legal prosecution against indigenous peoples in countries across the globe.
Fulani people protest during a silent march in response to a massacre in Koumaga, Mali.

Fulani people protest during a silent march in response to a massacre in Koumaga, Mali.

After the Seko indigenous peoples of Indonesia rejected a plan to build a hydropower plant on their traditional lands in the province of South Sulawesi, the company behind the plant and the local government responded with intimidation and violence, according to the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN).

Eventually, 14 Seko community members were arrested and served time, while 14 others are still on a "wanted list." At one point, the police reportedly threatened to arrest all of the men in the Seko village if protests continued. Women and children have also experienced violence as a result of the community's opposition to the hydropower project, AMAN said.

The Seko are certainly not alone in being portrayed as criminals and targeted with violent reprisals after standing up for their rights and lands. Indigenous peoples are facing criminalization and violence the world over, tactics employed by private businesses and governments seeking to use indigenous lands for their own gain through economic development projects.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, submitted a report with that finding to the U.N. Human Rights Council on August 27th. Tauli-Corpuz said she has seen firsthand a sharp rise in instances of physical violence and legal prosecution against indigenous peoples in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines since her appointment as special rapporteur in 2014.

"I've been alerted to hundreds of criminalization cases from nearly every corner of the world," Tauli-Corpuz said in a statement. "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."

Tauli-Corpuz's findings on violence against indigenous activists are consistent with those of a report released in July by the non-governmental organization Global Witness that found indigenous peoples make up a disproportionate number of those killed in retaliation for their activism—a number that has continually risen in recent years. In 2017, 25 percent of the murders of land and environment defenders recorded by Global Witness were indigenous activists, though indigenous peoples represent just 5 percent of the global population.

A Pattern of Criminalization

According to the special rapporteur's report, criminalization of indigenous peoples usually follows an established pattern. The report states: "While the killing of indigenous defenders represents the worst human rights violation, such attacks tend to occur in the context of violence and threats against them and their communities, including enforced disappearances, forced evictions, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, limitations to the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, stigmatization, surveillance, travel bans, and sexual harassment."

Tauli-Corpuz found that, before criminal charges are brought, defamation and smear campaigns are often directed at indigenous communities and leaders through channels such as social media, casting them as anti-development and accusing them of acting against the national interest. "Defamation campaigns are often developed by business actors, with the overt or covert support of corrupt government officials whose financial interests are affected by indigenous peoples' defense of their lands," Tauli-Corpuz writes.

When criminal complaints are officially brought against indigenous activists and leaders, they are usually "broad and ill-defined" charges such as trespassing, aggravated usurpation, conspiracy, kidnapping, coercion, public disturbance, and incitement. "It is widely reported that states of emergency are declared to suspend judicial guarantees and justify the suppression of peaceful social protests," per the report.

Arrest warrants are repeatedly issued for indigenous peoples—or even whole communities—despite a lack of evidence, the report adds. Meanwhile, the prosecution of indigenous individuals frequently ignores procedural norms, leading to abuses like pre-trial detention of the accused lasting for several years and indigenous defendants having no access to legal counsel or even interpreters in order to adequately mount a defense.

Lack of Land Rights a Root Cause of Violence

The special rapporteur identifies lack of official recognition of indigenous peoples' land rights as one of the root causes of violence, sometimes even leading to indigenous communities being treated as trespassers on their own traditional territories.

The World Resources Institute reported earlier this year that addressing the lack of land title for indigenous communities is often impeded by the fact that the process to formalize their land rights is so costly and complex that it can take as long as 30 years—yet companies can secure long-term rights to land in as little as 30 days.

The non-governmental organization Rights and Resources International estimates that indigenous peoples have legally recognized rights to just 10 percent of the world's land, though they control as much as 65 percent through customary, community-based tenure systems.

Anne-Sophie Gindroz, RRI's facilitator for South East Asia, said that the law isn't only failing indigenous communities when it comes to awarding them title to their traditional lands. Perpetrators of violence are rarely brought to justice, she said, as there is widespread impunity for those who commit violence against indigenous peoples.

"At the same time, justice systems can be used against indigenous human rights defenders," Gindroz added. "In Indonesia, for example, people have been arrested for remaining on their land after it was granted to palm oil companies by the government."

As the special rapporteur's report shows, violence and criminalization are not reserved solely for the indigenous activists standing up to protect their people's lands. Lawyers and civil society advocates who work with indigenous peoples are often targets as well. Gindroz herself was expelled from the Lao People's Democratic Republic for her advocacy work.

It's not just economic development that is being used as an excuse to criminalize indigenous protest either. While the majority of the cases documented by the special rapporteur involved opposition to business interests, in some instances conservation efforts were used to justify the criminalization of indigenous communities living traditional lifestyles, leading to arrests, forced evictions, and other violations of human rights.

For instance, "Conservation has been given as an excuse for escalating violence against the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples living within their ancestral lands in the Embobut forest in Kenya," according to Yator Kiptum, executive coordinator of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme. "Some have even been killed. The Kenyan Forest Service has repeatedly forcefully evicted and burned Sengwer homes and arrested community members—in spite of the fact that the court issued an injunction to prevent such evictions."

Andrew Anderson, executive director of the Front Line Defenders non-governmental organization, said in a statement that "What is happening now across the world is nothing less than a systematic attack on peasant communities and indigenous peoples." Front Line Defenders documented 312 murders of human rights advocates last year, 67 percent of which were in response to people defending their lands, the environment, or indigenous rights from private sector mega-projects and extractive industries.

"In their insatiable greed for wood and oil and gold, corrupt elites, who have no ambition beyond their own enrichment, risk not only destroying the lives and culture of indigenous peoples, but also destroying the environment on which our collective future survival depends," Anderson said.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.