Our Perspectives

Despite global climate pledge, indigenous activists are under attack


Historically indigenous peoples have assumed an important role in the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems. Photo: UNDP Venezuela

Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was the main promoter of the campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Honduras. In 2015, her work won her the Goldman Environmental Prize, the highest international recognition for environmental advocates. On 3 March 2016, her dedication to her people and the environment likely got her killed.

In a recent report entitled “How many more?” Global Witness analyzes 116 murders of environmentalists in 2014 and confirms that three-quarters occurred in Latin America. The report states that Honduras is the most dangerous country per capita for environmental activists, with 101 killed between 2010 and 2014.

Equally disturbing is that the percentage of indigenous victims like Berta rose to 40 percent in 2015. Among the deadliest occupations are fighting the hydroelectric industry, mining companies and agribusinesses.

These numbers illustrate a serious paradox. 177 countries have signed the Paris Climate Agreement in which they commit to reducing carbon emissions and curbing climate change. Yet those who are leading the fight to protect the environment are being killed almost on a daily basis.

This contradiction exists because the number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that depend on natural resources for their economic and social development is growing. And this trend is having a negative impact on indigenous peoples, who often live in areas with important natural reserves and is directly related to the significant increase in social conflicts in the region. We can in fact say that land rights and self-determination are the two issues that are at the basis of most conflicts affecting indigenous peoples.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that "indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources". Still, concessions on indigenous lands continue to be granted to mining companies without good faith consultations that seek the free, prior and informed consent of the affected peoples.

The theme selected for the 15th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues "Conflict, peace and resolution" could not be more timely and inspiring. Timely because the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda has just been approved, with countries committing to "leave no one behind", including indigenous peoples, and to promote "peaceful, just and inclusive societies". And inspiring because of the desire of indigenous peoples to live in peace with society and the environment amidst great dangers that threaten their lives and livelihoods.

The assassination of Berta Cáceres is part of a recent series of brutal acts committed against indigenous leaders who fight for the rights of their peoples. To contribute to the prevention of conflicts arising from the fight over precious natural resources, UNDP facilitates dialogue and spaces for the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making processes that affect them.

In Peru we have supported the Multi-Sectoral Commission for the Development of Loreto, securing the participation of indigenous leaders and advisors in the Commission’s meetings. Loreto is a large territory in the Amazon region traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples. Forty years of oil extraction have produced life threatening pollution, with indigenous peoples bearing the primary social and health costs. This has generated growing protest and social conflict in recent years. Indigenous peoples’ demands include proper clean-up of their territories, land titles, compensation, and consultation for any future oil activities.

As we have seen, responsible environmental stewardship occupies both the global and the indigenous agenda. Historically indigenous peoples have assumed an important role in the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems. Without any doubt, this does not hinder development; it rather guarantees it.

Indigenous people Blog post Governance and peacebuilding Rule of law Political participation Laurence Klein

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