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Land rights

Loss of land and natural resources undermine economic security, sociocultural cohesion and human dignity of indigenous peoples around the world. Territorial self-governance, mobilisation, rights-awareness and legal strategies are helping to protect indigenous peoples and their land.

Indigenous peoples worldwide share connectedness with nature. The culture and identity of indigenous peoples are rooted in their land. Losing it means loss of identity.

Therefore indigenous peoples have long stood at the frontline of resistance against land grabbing caused by for example deforestation; mineral, oil, and gas extraction; and the expansion of plantations, national parks, agribusiness, dams and infrastructure.

By uniting and organising themselves, indigenous peoples are protecting their territories from the influx of businesses, settlers, other dominant or armed groups. However, indigenous peoples’ resistance has in many cases been answered with brutality and even murder.  

Indigenous peoples are being uprooted

The global race for economic growth and the increasing material consumption and trade have consequences for indigenous peoples. Their lands and territories have been appropriated, grabbed, sold, leased or simply plundered and polluted by governments, private companies and powerful individuals.

Many indigenous peoples have also been uprooted from their land through discriminatory government policies or armed conflict.

With the loss of land and natural resources follows a loss of traditional livelihood practices. With that the inter-generational transfer of traditional knowledge, the undermining of social organisation and traditional institutions, and of cultural and spiritual practices. All of which causes poverty, social disintegration, and loss of human dignity.

Land grabbing and lack of recognition

Land grabbing causes forced evictions and other forms of gross human rights abuses, which happen on a large scale in Africa and Asia. Land grabbing is driven by very strong forces and is exacerbated by the fact that many indigenous peoples suffer from a weak legal protection of their lands.

In Africa and Asia, very few countries have ratified ILO Convention 169, and almost no countries have legal frameworks providing for the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ lands. Where legal frameworks exist, the implementation is very weak or non-existent.

Indigenous peoples in many cases share collective land rights, but this ownership of the lands is not properly documented or officially recognized. Therefore indigenous peoples’ lands are often seen as fertile ground for natural resource exploitation since there is no ‘visible’ use or occupation of the land – or simply because the use of the land is not seen as profitable/adequate.

Almost all countries in Latin America have ratified ILO Convention 169, but real consultation based on the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent rarely occurs. 

Due to their political and economic marginalization, indigenous peoples have in general little control over their lands and territories and the way these are being governed by the states.

Watch IWGIA's Senior Advisor on land rights, Marianne Wiben Jensen, talk about some of the issues related to land grabbing:


Strong and resilient indigenous peoples

While huge threats and land dispossession is one side of the coin, the other side is that indigenous peoples have proven to be strong, resilient and able to organise and defend themselves.

This agency is demonstrated by the fact that indigenous peoples are still there. They still occupy many of their ancestral territories, they maintain to a large extent their unique cultures, and they are the guardians of much of the world’s cultural and biological diversity.

Indigenous peoples are no longer struggling alone but have organised themselves in a joint global movement. They have secured their rights in international law and play active roles in major international processes affecting their rights and livelihoods.

Territorial self-government and legal victories

In Latin America, indigenous peoples have in countries such as Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia won territorial self-governance building on the fundamental principle of self-determination within the international indigenous peoples’ rights legal framework.

Greenland's self-rule has been an important source of inspiration for the self-governing territories. In Africa, Asia and Russia, there are discussions on decentralisation, local governance and political representation of indigenous peoples.

Within the regional human rights systems such as the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Inter-American Human Rights system, indigenous peoples have won historic victories of the right to land.

Tags: Land rights

Indigenous peoples’ rights key in stemming Amazon fires

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest are on the front line of defending themselves and their land from the rapidly spreading fires. A majority of the tens of thousands of fires are happening in Brazil, though fires are also raging in Bolivia where 10,000 km2 of forests (an area the size of Lebanon) have burned, as well as large areas in Paraguay and Peru.

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Five alarming land grabbing cases

Extractive industries remain a concrete threat to indigenous communities and this year's The Indigenous World 2018 describes many cases of land grabbing from indigenous peoples. In this article we take a closer look at some of the examples.

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Putla: A 75-year-old woman indigenous rights defender

The global rush for natural resources is one of the biggest threats against indigenous peoples’ as they often live in remote areas which are still rich on natural resources. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples are increasingly being criminalised – or even killed – when defending their rights. In Cambodia, a collective effort and a courageous act by a 75-year-old woman helped the Souy people defend their land against an invading company with ties to the President.

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Indigenous peoples in Latin America claim territorial self-governance

Having their own indigenous local governments is one of the most significant claims made by indigenous peoples in Latin America.

IWGIA fully supports this demand and together with regional partners and local institutions strengthened the momentum through a two-day international seminar in October 2016. The seminar was held in the Bolivian Chaco and brought together indigenous representatives from Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Contact IWGIA

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DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
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