The Indigenous World 2020: Editorial

Constituting just 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.1 Globally, many of the remaining standing forests are on Indigenous lands and territory. At least 24% of global carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests, or 54,546 million metric tons of carbon, are managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.2 This is a result of the historical stewardship of Indigenous Peoples in the sustainable management of forests.

Indigenous Peoples are guardians not only of forests, but also of rivers, seas, oceans, ice, peatlands, deserts, prairies, savannas, hills and mountains. They have cultivated Indigenous knowledge systems that are nature-based and honour the complex interdependence of all life forms which is the root of success for the sustainable management of their resources and ecosystems in which they live. Consequently, for countless generations, they have observed climatic changes for a long time and have developed effective solutions and practices for biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

At the UN Climate Summit in New York in September 2019, Indigenous Peoples from around the world made a firm commitment to contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with their knowledge and actions.

Indigenous Peoples have also clearly stated that in order to be able to adhere to this commitment, they need the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to be fully implemented, global commitments to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius to be honoured, and financial support3 in place.

In a statement at the Climate Summit, Inuit and former Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist, stated: “The Inuit have been bringing forth warnings about global warming to the international community since the first Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992”.

It took the world a long time to start listening.

Finally, the tide began to turn in recent years and the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and contributions to climate action were recognised by the international community.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Land4 released in August 2019 underlines the crucial role of Indigenous Peoples and how their knowledge systems contribute to the implementation of the Paris Agreement objectives. Indigenous Peoples and local communities customarily manage over 50% of the global land mass, but legally own just 10%.5 Securing their land rights is a key component to increasing carbon storage, reducing emissions, improving food security, diminishing the likelihood of climate-related conflicts and enhancing ecosystem resilience.6

In some countries, international recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ contribution to climate change actions has translated into national steps.

Peru, as part of its national commitment under the Paris Agreement, held a participatory consultation in 2019 for the implementation plan of its national Framework Law on Climate Change. Adopted in 2018, the law itself had been criticised for not having been based on proper consultation from civil society, including Indigenous Peoples. The government compensated for this by conducting a broad consultation for the implementation plan leading to the adoption of measures proposed by Indigenous Peoples, including the creation of the Indigenous Climate Platform. This platform was set up to recognise the work of Indigenous Peoples and their ancestral knowledge in biodiversity conservation. In November, the platform was tasked with developing its functions as well as a plan for the participation of Indigenous Peoples in climate action activities.

In June 2019, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the national representative organisation for Inuit in Canada – released the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, the only comprehensive Arctic-focused climate change strategy in Canada. Inuit developed the four-year strategy to respond to the rapid changes in the Arctic climate and to set out coordinated policies and actions with Inuit in mind, rather than unilateral federal policies that would have side-lined the Inuit. Upon the release, the federal government announced CAD$1 million to support its implementation.

Despite some key positive developments in 2019, there were also setbacks. The COP25 in Madrid has been considered disappointing at the least, by many civil society actors, as well as Indigenous Peoples.

Language related to human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights was rejected and negotiations failed on key elements for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, including increasing ambition to curb emissions. There will be a lot of hope and pressure placed in Glasgow for COP26 (postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19) to ensure Indigenous Peoples voices are heard and rights-based language is employed.

While the important role of Indigenous Peoples in the protection and conservation of the environment is becoming increasingly recognised internationally, Indigenous Peoples themselves continue to be marginalised and discriminated against in many countries, resulting in discriminatory policies and legislation. Part of this legislation, which has had dire consequences for the livelihood and socio-cultural practices of Indigenous Peoples, is directly related to environmental protection, biodiversity conservation and climate action.

In the case of REDD+, for example, Indigenous Peoples’ traditional livelihood practices are still seen as one of the drivers of deforestation, despite increasing scientific evidence to the contrary. Many countries in Asia have declared shifting cultivation an illegal practice, thereby criminalising Indigenous Peoples’ traditional practices with serious consequences for Indigenous communities.

In Laos, as reported in this edition, the government is formulating a new Forest Strategy 2030 which categorises shifting cultivation fields as fallow lands, considered degraded forest, and would allow private companies to plant industrial tree species on the lands, which could lead to food insecurity for Indigenous Peoples. Further, the Decree on Ethnic Affairs being revised by the government has an article that directly condemns shifting cultivation and other traditional, sustainable practices and aims to replace them with modern practices that focus on increased productivity for profit-making production. These measures will not only affect Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods but will also detrimentally impact their identity and disrupt their spiritual and cultural calendar that is deeply rooted in their relationship to the land and farming cycles.

Another environmental protection measure taken by many governments is the declaration of conservation areas on Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories, including the establishment of national parks and protected areas. Such ‘green grabbing’ has led to a reduction of available resources for Indigenous communities and increased pressure on livelihoods, and in the worst cases to their eviction from these areas, as has happened in India and Kenya in 2019 and are covered in this edition. Access to these lands and restricted movement are then exacerbated by the effects of climate change which deplete pasture lands and water sources, leaving Indigenous Peoples limited opportunities to maintain their livelihoods without running into conflict with authorities as they have to venture farther for food and water for their livestock, as has happened in the Central African Republic, Kenya and Tanzania in 2019, among other countries.

Policy instruments and other initiatives seeking to mitigate climate change tend to be developed in a hurry, with no or only very limited participation of Indigenous Peoples and concern for their rights. It is already well documented how top-down mitigation actions, such as renewable energy projects or REDD+ can cause displacement and violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights when not complying with international rights standards such as the UNDRIP and ILO Convention 169. In some cases, however, such as in the Republic of the Congo, the government has signed a letter of intent in 2019 for funding a REDD+ strategy that would implement projects encouraging sustainable forest management and recognising traditional land rights. However, there are also plans to develop agroforestry and renewable energy projects, which is precisely where the rights of Indigenous Peoples often and historically become compromised.

Indigenous Peoples worldwide experience climate change impacts

The global climate crisis poses an existential threat for the world today. Despite having contributed the least to climate change, Indigenous Peoples are among the first to face its direct effects. Many live in particularly sensitive ecosystems, such as the Arctic, arid and semi-arid regions, and tropical forests, and are heavily reliant on their natural resources.

Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon rainforest were on the front line of defending themselves and their land from the rapidly spreading fires throughout 2019, which are covered in several chapters in this edition. A majority of the tens of thousands of fires happened in Brazil, though fires also raged in Bolivia where 10,000 km2 of forests burned, as well as large areas in Paraguay and Peru.

In 2019, there were almost 90,000 fires recorded in the Amazon, 30% more fires than in 2018 and in comparison with the last 10 years, 2019 was the fourth highest year for number of fires.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office proved to be a steep and quick decline for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. He and his government turned a blind eye to these rights to pursue logging, mining, hydroelectric and other economic interests, which led to the deforestation of an area the size of Jamaica in the Brazilian part of the Amazon in 2019 alone.

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself an Indigenous person, has, like Bolsonaro, also come under fire for his policies that have undermined Indigenous Peoples’ rights. His 2016-2020 economic plan for Bolivia aimed to expand the country’s available agricultural land by 12,000 km2, equating to the clearing and burning of 2,500 km2 of land per year, including Indigenous forest lands.

The Amazon fires burned 4.5-5.1 million hectares of Bolivian forest, 35% of which was on Indigenous land. The fires, coupled with Morales’ handling of the crisis and the economic, extractivist development plan expanding the agricultural frontier were all key factors, among others, that fuelled protests in late 2019 that led to Morales’ resignation, after which he fled the country.

The Amazon fires affected other countries as well. In one week in September, over 4,500 wildfires were reported in the eastern region of Paraguay on the shared border with Bolivia and Brazil, and the fires also affected the Amazonian biomass in Peru, which re-ignited national debates on illegal mining and logging, and deforestation.

The Amazon wasn’t the only place where forest fires directly impacted Indigenous Peoples. Beginning in January 2019 and throughout the year, more than 130,000 km2 of land and forest burned in Siberia, which has had detrimental effects on the lives and livelihood of the Indigenous Peoples who depend on the forest and have traditionally protected it.

The fires have come on top of the damage caused by logging, driven especially by Chinese demand, which leaves ancestral land damaged. Further environmentally concerning is that these biomes cover 33% of the planet’s land surface and store 50% of the world’s soil carbon. This massive amount of carbon is stored in permafrost and thus decomposes at a slower rate, however as the Siberian Taiga burns, the permafrost melts and more carbon is being released into the atmosphere. Additionally, soot from the fires falls back down to the ground and embeds into ice and snow, turning it dark, which diminishes its ability to reflect heat and accelerates melting.7

Fires were not the only dangerous climate change impact Indigenous Peoples had to contend with in 2019. Many Indigenous Peoples across Africa, as evidenced in several chapters in this edition, were challenged by unpredictable rainfall, droughts and floods forcing them to be resilient in the face of natural disasters, but also led to food and personal insecurity.

Pastoralists in East Africa in Kenya, Tanzania  and Uganda, had   to travel farther to seek out grazing pastures and water sources as droughts led to plant loss and ecosystem degradation. In some cases, particularly in Tanzania, they ended up in conflict with authorities as they moved across conservation park lands and other areas with their livestock. Additionally, as rain resumed in the form of heavy rainfall, apart from the ensuing flooding, it also brought on the spread of livestock diseases, thus impacting their livelihoods.

Droughts also negatively impacted Indigenous Peoples in Botswana, the Central African Republic, Eritrea (which experienced its lowest rainfalls since 1981), Namibia and Zimbabwe (which was also severely affected by Cyclone Idai that left half of the population food insecure). High temperatures have intensified desertification in Algeria, Morocco and Niger, increasing land conflicts as more people compete for less viable land for crops and grazing, or are forced to emigrate.

Mining, logging, agribusiness and other large-scale projects continue unabated, putting Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders (IPHRDs) at risk

Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world have paid and are still paying a high price for recent decades of unsustainable development. The insatiable global rush for economic growth has led to an increased demand for land and natural resources with Indigenous Peoples’ land being a primary target for illicit acquisitions. As a result, Indigenous Peoples are at a risk of losing their remaining lands and territories.

Initial data from the global campaign against Indigenous Peoples’ rights defenders8 presents a very grave and disturbing situation for Indigenous Peoples with nearly 500 Indigenous people killed since 2017 in just 19 countries, over 400 arbitrarily detained, over 200 illegally arrested and over 1,600 threatened and intimidated. Simply put, defending one’s land and human rights is dangerous.

The Indigenous World 2020 reports that in 2019, in Mexico, at least 14 IPHRDs were killed across seven states, all in the process of defending lands from large infrastructure, extractive and energy projects, some of whom had already alerted authorities they were receiving threats. According to the 2019 Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman report, in the first six months of 2019 alone there were 327 attacks on human rights defenders, including 12 murders, 18 attempted murders and 61 cases of criminalisation in the country.

In a 2019 Global Witness report, the watchdog organisation called the Philippines the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders with 30 killed in 2018.9 Much of the violence against Indigenous Peoples and defenders is related to their work in investigating and protesting mining, logging and agribusiness projects that pollute and encroach on protected land, or land that should be protected. In 2019, IWGIA actively engaged in the Zero Tolerance Initiative10 to engage companies in pledging zero tolerance toward the killing and criminalisation of IPHRDs in their business practices and supply chains.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, two large dam projects and the development of the Philippines first green, smart city – all projects backed by China – will displace and have already displaced tens of thousands of Indigenous people and have led to various protests and actions in 2019. Indigenous Peoples continue to organise themselves against the myriad unrestricted mining projects that continue and will continue to cover tens of thousands of hectares of ancestral lands.

The attack on rights activists and stigmatisation of Indigenous Peoples, criminalisation and outlawing of their activities – with responses such as illegal surveillance, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearance by state security and paramilitary forces, travel bans, threats, dispossession and killings – reflects a shrinking democratic and civil space.

The example from Bangladesh in this edition shows that hundreds of activists and IPHRDs have been targeted, especially those affiliated with Indigenous political parties in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and many are forced to remain on the run out of fear of being prosecuted on trumped-up charges or killed. Local authorities continue to use propaganda to label rights defenders as “armed terrorists” and a permanent, special force called a Rapid Action Battalion has been deployed in the region.

However, the intimidation is not limited to just within a country. The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has also noted in 2019 that many Indigenous people have received reprisals for their human rights work and appearances at UN events.

Defending their lands

Indigenous communities are often located in remote areas far from protection networks and support systems. Consequently, violations are less prone to be discovered. Additionally, Indigenous communities typically have inadequate access to the justice system. One of the reasons for this is that many communities do not have formal titles to their lands or land tenure security. Political marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples, racism and disrespect for their traditional use of natural resources, and the criminalisation of their traditional livelihoods in some countries adds to their vulnerability.

Where legal frameworks exist, the implementation is incredibly weak or non-existent. Indigenous Peoples’ collective lands are often perceived as ‘empty’, ‘unused’ or ‘fallow’ by state and government authorities – as we see in Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar, for example – which paves the way for easy (often violent) and widespread land grabbing by government authorities, political elites, dominant groups, and national and international business enterprises.

Safeguarding the land tenure security of Indigenous Peoples is a key foundation for the future of Indigenous Peoples and is one of the key rights and demands of the global Indigenous movement, including in the current climate change context.

Formal legal community land titles can go a long way in making the land tenure situation of Indigenous Peoples more secure. However, they do not always provide sufficient land tenure security, as evidenced by numerous cases in Latin America, North America, the Arctic and Pacific. In Latin America and Russia, despite substantial achievements in the legal frameworks recognising Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land, as well as advancements in land titling, extractive industries are continuing their relentless advance onto the Indigenous territories in search of resources. Almost all countries in Latin America have ratified ILO Convention 169 but real consultation (not to speak of Free, Prior and Informed Consent) rarely occurs.

The Indigenous World 2020 includes several examples of dispossession and evictions of Indigenous Peoples from their land.

Beginning in July 2019, Ogiek hunter-gatherers in Kenya were caught up in the government-sanctioned forceful eviction of 60,000 people from the Mau Forest. No proper vetting was implemented to identify illegal land settlers from the Ogiek, who have been the traditional custodians of the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya’s Rift Valley and have guaranteed rights to be there as per a 2017 African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruling.

In neighbouring Tanzania, conservation and wildlife protection continue to be the key rationale for the eviction and human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples. In July 2019, the Babati District Commissioner ordered the evictions of Barabaig and Maasai pastoralists and fishers from several villages, which led to the burning of over 300 houses. The story is much the same in neighbouring Uganda where the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) continues to claim territory for conservation, thus continuing to restrict pastoralists from pastures and water. These expansions are often done without consultation and lead to conflict between pastoralists and the UWA.

In February 2019, India’s Supreme Court issued an order to 21 state governments to evict more than a million tribals and forest dwellers whose forest land claims were rejected under the current Forest Rights Act. Additionally, the potential adoption of a new National Forest Policy would have created a new legal framework that would allow private entities and corporations to set up and run commercial projects in forest lands and would remove language that carefully addresses Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Further, revisions to the India Forest Act were being done without the inclusion or consultation of Indigenous people and would dramatically expand the powers of the central government and forest officials, including their policing powers. And finally, the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in December 2019, passed to provide citizenship to religiously persecuted people from neighbouring countries, proves problematic for millions of Indigenous people in India who fear that in the process of implementing the act they will be rendered stateless, evicted and forced to live in detention centres as they will not be able to prove their Indian citizenship.

In Myanmar, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Land Management Law, a controversial law that was criticised by seven UN Special Rapporteurs and was met with widespread protest, nevertheless went into effect in March 2019. The law requires anyone who uses or lives on VFV land to apply for a 30-year permit or face eviction, a fine and up  to two years in prison. This law disproportionately affects Indigenous Peoples as approximately 75% of such land is in the seven ethnic states where Indigenous customary land systems prevail. Forty-seven million hectares have been officially designated as VFV land, which if left unclaimed will be handed over to business interests.

A land bill was also drafted in Indonesia in 2019 that does not recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their customary lands by stipulating that such land must be registered within two years of when the bill is passed. Additionally, that land must also be occupied, a clear threat to Indigenous Peoples who don’t occupy large swathes of customary land and rather leave it untouched to be conserved under customary law or unused as part of rotating farmland practices. The draft bill has also drawn criticism for not being carried out with open consultation.

Social unrest sparked in many countries around the world

Popular demonstrations around the world are forcing us to realise that global solutions to the climate crisis require us to also address growing inequality and people’s – including Indigenous Peoples’ – lack of access to education, health, food and water. Climate initiatives are part of the solution, but these initiatives must have a rights-based approach. In Chile, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Hong Kong and Nepal – which experienced its largest popular protest since 2006 for attempting to abolish an Indigenous customary self-government system – popular demonstrations have garnered concessions from the elite in power. The reasons for the protests are many, but they all stem from a requirement to address inequality-creating structures. The world’s richest have become richer in recent decades, while the poorest have become poorer. And the growing inequality is happening despite the fact that in 2015 the world agreed on a plan to improve the lives of the world’s population, leaving no one behind.

These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified 17 areas of action that together will create sustainable development for both people and the planet, including eliminating poverty, reducing inequality and better stewardship of the environment.

However, after five years, little progress has been made on the 17 areas and a large proportion of the world’s 476 million Indigenous Peoples11, 12 are often discriminated against or even criminalised and, in the worst cases, killed when defending their land rights – contrary to the objective of SDG goal 16: to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Nevertheless, July 2019’s SDGs evaluation meeting was marked by congratulatory speeches and government presentations focused on progress and launched initiatives. Chile was presented as an SDG example and their reporting was met with roaring applause. Fast forward three months where millions of Chileans took to the streets protesting growing inequality and a lack of basic necessities in the country.

How can there be such disparity between the narrative presented internationally and what people experience nationally? Part of the answer is that by focusing on one of the SDGs, governments can avoid being held accountable for the other 16.

Although Chile has managed to reduce the number of people living in poverty over the past decade, it remains one of the countries with the most inequality. Additionally, many people struggle to access basic necessities. The Mapuche people are some of those affected by such changes, and when they have opposed this development by defending their rights, they have been criminalised and arrested.

In Chile, the popular protests forced the president to move COP25 to Spain so that he could “put the problems and interests of Chileans, their needs, their desires and their hopes first”, implying that Chile’s government cannot focus on solving the climate crisis when other priorities are more acute.

However, it is important to understand that “social inequality and the climate crisis arise from the same root cause” as the Climate Action Network wrote in a press release after the relocation of the COP.13 We cannot therefore solve one problem by turning a blind eye to the other.

Indigenous women persevere despite odds

Indigenous women all over the world suffer from triple discrimination as they are not only discriminated simply for being women or for being Indigenous, but also for being Indigenous women. Indigenous women are often not only left out of local and national political processes but are also excluded from decision-making processes and structures within Indigenous communities.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst, reported in March 2019, that there is a backlash against human rights defenders in the current political climate, and women defenders are often the first to come under attack. The Special Rapporteur called on the international community to recognise the specific issues, challenges and risks that women human rights defenders face and to ensure that such defenders are recognised, supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights.14

Throughout 2019, Indigenous women, against great odds, made their voices heard. In December, Indigenous women from 15 countries across Africa and Latin America met in Cameroon in preparation for the Commission on the Status of Women Beijing+25 meeting in 2020 (since postponed due to COVID-19). They noted that since 1995 Indigenous women have made significant progress in advocating for their rights and increasing their political participation, however the change is slow and limited and many dangerous hurdles remain.

Despite the achievements, the group also noted that Indigenous women and girls are still being discriminated against and marginalised, lack access to education, lack access to land ownership, and most dangerously, suffer gender-based violence – including sexual violence, gender-based killing, traditional harmful practices, domestic violence, violence in the context of conflict and human trafficking.

In one disturbing report in this edition from Bangladesh, dozens of cases of violence against Indigenous women were reported in 2019, which included the killing of five women, the sexual and physical assault of nearly 100 women, the rape of seven women and girls, gang rape of three women and girls and attempted rape of seven others.

In another disturbing report in the India chapter, the National Crime Records Bureau indicated that 1,008 tribal women, including 399 children, were raped in 2018.

Indigenous women and girls, however, should not only be seen as victims. In reality, they are active change agents in society and champions of sustainability, standing at the forefront of promoting Indigenous Peoples’ rights and women’s rights, as well as playing an essential role in safeguarding and passing along Indigenous knowledge, tradition, culture and language.

In Chile, Indigenous women were present and part of the protests in the country and emphasised that the government’s extractivist policy was a daily form of violence not just damaging their lands, but also their way of life, which they, as women, are responsible to pass on to new generations, including not only culture and traditions, but also environmental protection, the protection of medicinal plants and maintaining food sovereignty.

The chapter on Chile also notes that Mapuche women have been mobilising Indigenous organisations to fight land dispossession, protect water sources, revive languages and protect the environment. They are also building broad alliances across sectors through the country to amplify their voices that the current system of governing must change. The Central African Republic chapter describes how the government and NGOs organised workshops throughout 2019 with Indigenous women to identify the causes of deforestation and ecosystem degradation, as well as to build capacity among communities on techniques to restore degraded areas and protected and sacred areas.

The chapter on the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples begins by highlighting an important panel at their 2019 annual meeting that featured seven Indigenous women from around the world who had overcome great odds to become part of their national political conversation by holding elected public positions in parliaments, ministries and other offices.

Indigenous Peoples defend themselves and win cases

While huge threats and land dispossession is one side of the coin, the other side is that Indigenous Peoples have proven to be very strong, resilient and able to defend themselves and their biodiversity. This agency is demonstrated by the fact that Indigenous Peoples are still surviving, which is impressive given the many attempts of assimilation and extinction. They still occupy many of their ancestral territories, maintain to a large extent their unique cultures and traditions, and are the guardians of much of the world’s cultural and biological diversity. They are no longer struggling in isolation but have organised themselves in local, national and global movements, they have secured their rights in international law, they play active roles in major international processes affecting their rights and livelihoods, they have managed to get favourable concluding observations from several international human rights mechanisms and they have won important legal cases nationally and internationally. This is a unique and important window of opportunity – and the point of departure for the fight against land dispossession.

At the national level, The Indigenous World 2020 can also report some victories, albeit some of them bittersweet.

The Truku people in Taiwan won a court battle against the Asia Cement Corporation, thus revoking their 20-year mining extension on Truku lands, as the company did not conduct proper consultation. The company, however, has appealed the decision and is continuing to carry out mining activities.

Throughout 2019 the Majhis, Baram, Newa, Magar, Kiratis and Santhals in Nepal have been raising the issue of establishing Special, Protected and Autonomous Areas to reclaim ownership and control over their lands, territories and resources. Their actions were inspired by a Directive Order issued by the Supreme Court of Nepal on 31 December 2018 that stated that laws should be passed to establish the Baram Special, Protected and Autonomous Area as stated in the constitution. Baram are one of the 59 Indigenous Peoples formally recognised by the government and are a highly marginalised group.

After years of fighting, the Montagne d’Or gold mining project planned in French Guiana was officially halted. The Organisation of Guianese Indigenous Nations in its communications to various UN bodies stated that the mine would be operating on ancestral lands, create a risk of pollution and that a proper consultation process was never conducted. After widely consistent and strong opposition from Indigenous Peoples in the territory, environmentalists and the general public, the French Environmental Minister announced the project would not go ahead, which echoed statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron. The decision was further confirmed at the UN Climate Summit in September 2019.

In November, the world’s first industry-wide benefit-sharing agreement was launched between the Khoikhoi and San, and the South African Rooibos industry, after nine years of negotiations. The agreement finally gave the Khoikhoi and San people recognition as the traditional knowledge holders to the uses of Rooibos, the leaves of which are commonly used for tea. The agreement delineates the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits resulting from the use of Indigenous biological resources and traditional knowledge, and includes the free, prior and informed consent when accessing and using traditional knowledge.

While some court cases regarding Indigenous Peoples continue to go unheard in Argentina, one historic decision was made concerning the Pilagá people in Formosa Province and a massacre that happened in 1947. The judge in this case held the Argentine state responsible and in the legal framing declared the action a crime against humanity in violation of the Rome Treaty, making this the first time the state’s extermination policies were classified as such and that the justice system verified these tragic historical events.

In 2019, Australia’s High Court ruled that the Government of the Northern Territory pay AUD$2.53 million in compensation to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples for the loss of Native Title in Timber Creek, a case that began in 2011 when the peoples sued the government. The significant judgment may set a precedent for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for future compensation claims and has legally recognised the peoples’ spiritual and cultural connection to the land.

International Year of Indigenous Languages

2019 was the International Year of Indigenous Languages, putting a sharp focus on the fragility of the thousands of languages spoken in the world today. At least 40% of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered. Many of these languages belong to Indigenous Peoples, and if something does not change soon, UNESCO predicts that humanity will lose up to 3,000 of them by the end of the century.

For example, fewer than one in five Indigenous people in Canada are fluent in their traditional languages and many languages are on the verge of dying out. In June 2019 the federal government passed an act respecting Indigenous languages that would ensure that the government provides long-term, sustainable funding of Indigenous languages, establishes an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages and facilitates collaboration between federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments to support Indigenous languages.

In Morocco, the government passed a law, after several years of discussions, making Tamazight an official language of Morocco, which goes a long way in establishing the Amazigh identity in the country officially and sets a legal framework for their linguistic and cultural rights. The African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution in 2019 urging African countries and the African Union to promote and preserve Indigenous languages, including allocating funds to do so.

Looking forward, the UN in January 2020 announced 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to continue to put a global spotlight on Indigenous languages to support and promote them. 

Promote, protect, defend

Indigenous Peoples are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in the world, fighting adverse socio-political and business interests, as well as being some of the first to face the consequences of climate change. And yet, despite these challenges, Indigenous Peoples have proven to be strong, resilient and able to organise and defend themselves.

They still occupy many of their ancestral territories, celebrate and struggle to maintain their unique cultures, and act as the prime guardians of much of the world’s cultural and biological diversity. Indigenous Peoples are an integral part of sustainability and sound natural resource management; their knowledge and understanding of our world are a key part of the solutions we need to achieve a more just, equal and sustainable future for all of humanity.

We all have an obligation to listen to the experience and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and do our best to stop the injustices happening every day against them. With this edition of The Indigenous World, we are honouring their lives, struggles, history and expertise by giving space for their stories to be told.


Dwayne Mamo
General Editor


Kathrin Wessendorf
Executive Director Copenhagen, April 2020

Notes and references

1.         The World Bank. “The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation: The Natural but Often Forgotten Partners.” May 2008: pdf/443000WP0BOX321onservation01PUBLIC1.pdf

2.         Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) Land Mark & Woods Hole Research Center.

“Towards a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands.” November 2016: Global-Baseline-of-Carbon-Storage-in-Collective-Lands-November-2016-RRI- WHRC-WRI-report.pdf

3.         Climate Action Summit 2019 Statement, “World Indigenous Peoples Initiative

to the United Nations Secretary General Climate Action Summit.” Accessed 19 March 2020: Tuntiak_Katan_statement_UK Es.pdf

4.         Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2019. “Climate Change and Land: IPCC Special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.” Accessed 19 March 2020:

5.         The Land Portal. “Unprecedented Wave of “Criminalization” Sweeping the Globe to Silence Indigenous Peoples”. 28 August 2018: news/2018/08/unprecedented-wave-criminalization-sweeping-globe-silence- indigenous-peoples

6.         United Nations Environment Programme. “Indigenous Peoples’ Proposed Action on Nature Based Solution Climate Summit.” Accessed 16 April 2020: rights.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

7.         IWGIA. “Siberian fires having catastrophic effects on indigenous peoples and livelihoods.” 15 October 2019: fires-having-catastrophic-effects-on-indigenous-peoples-and-livelihoods. html?highlight=WyJzaWJlcmlhIiwic2liZXJpYScuIiwic2liZXJpYSciLCJzaWJlc mlhJ3MiXQ==

8.         Indigenous Peoples Rights International. “A New Initiative to Prevent Criminalization and Impunity Against Indigenous Peoples is Born.” Accessed 25 March 2020:

9.         Global Witness Report, “Defending The Philippines.” 24 September 2019: defending-philippines/

10.       Zero Tolerance Initiative. Accessed 25 March 2020: https://www.

11.       International Labour Organization (ILO). “Urgent action needed to tackle poverty and inequalities facing indigenous peoples.” 3 February 2020: https://www.ilo. org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_735575/lang--en/index.htm

12.       International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “Indigenous Peoples.” Accessed 15 April 2020:

13.       Climate Action Network. Press release: ”Climate Action Network reacts to the decision by Chile to withdraw as host of COP25”. 30 October 2019: http://www. withdraw-host-cop25

14.       Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). “Situation of women human rights defenders Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.” 40th session HRC 2019. A/HRC/40/60. Accessed 25 March 2020: G19/004/97/PDF/G1900497.pdf?OpenElement


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Tags: Global governance, IWGIA Report



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

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Indigenous World

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

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Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
CVR: 81294410

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