The Indigenous World 2019: Editorial

Juana Raymundo from Guatemala was only 25 years old when her life was cut short. Juana was an indigenous rights defender, a nurse and a coordinator at CODECA, a human rights organisation promoting the rights of indigenous farmers - in particular to their lands. She disappeared on the evening of 27 July 2018. Her body was found the next day.

Billy’s body has never been found. He was arrested in 2014 after collecting honey in one of Thailand’s national parks, Kaeng Krachan. Billy and his wife are Karen, a group of indigenous peoples who live along the borders of the park. Billy was a well-known indigenous rights activist, who passionately documented injustices against his community.

Before his disappearance, Billy had photographed camp guards burning down the houses of the Karen peoples. His 32-year-old wife Phinnape, a mother of five, believes that his photographs, documenting the violence against his people, are the real reason that he was arrested. No one has been held responsible for Billy’s disappearance.

Billy and Juana are just two of the hundreds of indigenous rights activists who are killed or disappeared every year.

Over the last 33 years, The Indigenous World has documented an increasing trend towards harassment and criminalisation of indigenous peoples and communities. While the situation varies considerably between regions and countries, many indigenous peoples around the globe face similar issues, including: lack of recognition as collective rights holders; exclusion from decision-making processes; overall dis-crimination by mainstream society; lack of tenure security and therefore loss of land and resources; gross human rights violations; lack of access to justice; lack of institutional capacities; and lack of freedom of expression and/or access to media.

Throughout 2018, there has been an increase in the documentation and reporting of illegal surveillance, arbitrary arrests, travel bans to prevent free movement, threats, dispossession and killings. We have witnessed instruments which are meant to protect indigenous peoples being turned against them, through the use of legislation and the justice system, to penalise and criminalise indigenous peoples’ assertion of their rights.

The collection of events compiled in this edition demonstrate the continuation of increased violence, criminalisation, harassment and lack of justice that indigenous peoples experience as they continue to defend their lands and identity.
Indigenous rights defenders at risk

Indigenous rights defenders are attacked and criminalised at an unprecedented rate all over the world. Often this is the result of conflicts over land and human rights violations that take place in the context of large-scale development or extractive projects. In 2017, the deaths of over 400 environmental and human rights activists were recorded. It is nearly impossible to know the real number of deaths as data is limited; however, from the data that is available, tragically, an estimated 40-50% of these killed defenders are indigenous leaders or community members.

Every day new reports surface on disappearances, threats, acts of violence and different types of harassment, and all too often the perpetrators of these crimes against indigenous peoples continue to act with impunity.

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, paid particular attention to these issues in her 2018 report, Attacks Against and Criminalisation of Indigenous Peoples Defending Their Rights. That report addressed indigenous rights defenders and the availability of prevention and protection measures. It documents a worrying escalation in the criminalisation and harassement of indigenous peoples, in particular when they are defending and exercising their rights to their lands, territories and natural resources. The report assesses the root causes and drivers of the current situation, which has been termed a “global crisis” and maps global trends.

To further analyse these issues IWGIA organised an international conference entitled “Defending the Defenders: New Alliances for Protecting Indigenous Peoples’ Rights”, which took place 5-6 September 2018 in Copenhagen. The conference gathered a broad range of relevant actors to get a better understanding of the key drivers behind this alarming trend, and identify possible actions at the international, regional and national levels that could help change the situation and protect indigenous rights defenders at risk. The conference resulted in a number of action-oriented recommendations on how to enhance the protection of indigenous rights defenders at risk.

The Indigenous World 2019 augments these efforts by chronicling many of the most egregious assaults on the rights of indigenous peoples, creating a global snapshot of the types of organised destruction that are perpetrated against indigenous peoples. Though access to da-ta is an ongoing challenge, abuses against indigenous peoples are clearly greater in magnitude than what can be documented here, and the toll being extracted on these peoples and communities in terms of the loss of human life is horrific. The annual reports contained in this yearbook stand as testimony to the ongoing struggles faced by indigenous peoples around the world.

Indigenous peoples and their lands

Indigenous peoples worldwide share a deep and essential connected-ness with their lands, territories and natural resources. Loss of these lands and resources not only jeopardises their survival as distinct peoples, but threatens their economic security, sociocultural cohesion and human dignity.
Indigenous peoples are recognised for their role as protectors of biodiversity and key actors in the implementation of sustainable development and land management. This connection is a central component of their collective identity as peoples. However, at the core of many of the threats they face, is that indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their lands are seldom recognised or secured. The intensification of the exploitation of natural resources to feed global consumption pushes indigenous peoples away from their land often in the name of “development” or “progress”, be it to realise large-scale development projects, establish conservation areas or parks, or implement extractive activities. The election of populist leaders who support those land grabs, like Bolsonaro in Brazil adds to the growing problem. Renewable energy projects are also increasingly targeting indigenous peoples’ lands, leading to forced relocations without adequate compensation, such as the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project highlighted in the Kenya country report.

By uniting and organising themselves, indigenous peoples seek to protect their territories, livelihoods and knowledge from the influx of businesses, settlers and other dominant or armed groups. Strategies including territorial self-governance, mobilisation, rights-awareness campaigns, documenting human rights breaches and taking cases to court, among other initiatives, are helping to protect indigenous peoples and their rights. However, indigenous peoples’ assertion of those rights has, in many cases, been answered with brutality and even killing.

Power relations are skewed, institutional challenges remain and many private companies are drivers of human rights offences committed against indigenous peoples, all too often with the complicity of the state. It is in this context that we see indigenous leaders and human rights activists, who are seeking to defend their land rights, presented as a threat to the economic development of their country, portrayed as enemies of the state, or even officially persecuted as criminals and terrorists.

Hydroelectric development projects

Hydroelectric developments radically reshape the ecology and environment of their surrounding areas. When done improperly they can destroy food chains and result in the mass displacement of indigenous peoples and communities. Moreover, when they fail, the resulting flooding is disastrous.
Over the course of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), the southwest region became a major “hydropower hub”. Giant hydropower projects have been constructed in some of China’s most biologically primaeval and culturally diverse river basins, often on indigenous territories and lands. The mountains and water in this area are spiritually linked to the local communities and form the material basis of indigenous peoples’ distinctive way of life.

While official statistics on the displacement and relocation of these peoples are not available, fragmented reports on protests against these projects have been issued throughout 2018.

In Colombia, government policies supporting the Hidruituango hydroelectric project in Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, endanger indigenous communities. The project includes a dam 225 meters high, which would create a reservoir 70 kilometres long. Alongside the environmental consequences, there have been failures in the structures in the past, fore-warning the potential for floods that could destroy Senú, Embera Chamí and Embera Katío communities located on the banks of the Cauca River.

Standing in opposition to such large-scale projects also leads to severe effects. In Honduras, Berta Cáceres was killed in 2016 because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam. In the Philippines, Ricardo Mayumi of the Ifugao Peasant Movement, who was known for leading the opposition against Santa Clara Power Corporation’s hydropower project in his home town in Ifugao province, was shot dead on 2 March 2018.


Mining projects have devastating effects on indigenous communities. Environmental damage lasts long after the projects are concluded, but the fringe effects on indigenous people’s social norms, cohesion and agricultural practices may also suffer from the presence of these mining projects.
By the end of the year, 230 of the 447 approved large-scale mining permits in the Philippines were located in ancestral territories. These projects cover 542,245 hectares of ancestral lands and comprise 72% of the total land area covered by all of the approved mining applications in the country. Alongside these extractive projects, the construction of mega-dam projects in indigenous territories continues to threaten indigenous lands and resources. Coal extraction is particularly worrisome, as coal operating contracts in the Andap Valley Complex and several provinces throughout Mindanao - which are issued by the Department of Energy - encroach upon hundreds of thousands of hectares of ancestral lands.


While tourism has become a major and lucrative business, as evidenced from the creation of national parks and establishment of conservations areas and hunting grounds; the expansion of these areas often involves significant land grabs that force indigenous peoples off their lands.
In Tanzania the encroachment on indigenous peoples’ land continued in 2018, especially around the Serengeti National Park. This was driven by a range of different forces, but most notably by the conservation and tourism industry. National parks and other conservation areas already make up a large part of Tanzania’s land mass - and they continue to expand - often into indigenous peoples’ lands, which prevents their access to and utilisation of their traditional lands. Maasai houses in Loliondo, Tanzania were burned to give way to the expansion of the neighbouring wildlife park.
Viewed from a distance, these cases often seem to represent a larger debate on whether to prioritise human rights and indigenous peoples’ livelihoods over the protection of wildlife. However, in some cases it is clear that the protection of wildlife is not the main concern when indigenous peoples are accused of poaching at the same time that big game hunting concessions are awarded.


Access to, and protection of, traditional fishing grounds and fisheries, including the serious ecological threats created by pollution from mining and agriculture, have been a recurring struggle for indigenous peoples. In 2018, indigenous peoples continue to experience encroachment on their hunting and fishing rights, and ecological challenges, despite recognition of their rights and the protection of these areas by law.

In Russia, indigenous hunters and fishers had their tools and food stores confiscated, critically endangering their food security. In Thai-land, the Chaoley peoples who live along the coastal areas have lost their access to traditional fishing grounds; no longer able to practice their sustainable and traditional approaches to fishery management. Many of their fishing areas are now considered protected areas, where fishing is prohibited. Although there is an argument for ensuring that these areas are preserved, many of these coastal areas are now occupied by hotels, resorts and private houses, calling into question the mo-tive behind their new designation. To survive, Chaoley peoples must venture further and further away in the deep-sea area, a practice to which they are not accustomed, resulting in them having to dive deeper and venture into more dangerous currents, leading to some getting de-compression sickness, becoming fully or partially paralysed, or worse, suffering death.

Framed as anti-development

As global consumption increases, the global demand to explore, exploit and develop new areas, especially in relation to land and access to natural resources, seems to be never-ending. In this context, indigenous peoples are left largely unprotected, defending their lands on the front line. Their defence and assertion of their rights often leave indigenous peoples accused of being anti-development or anti-modern, simply because they have a profoundly different approach to development where land, water and forest are not goods for sale.

As numerous studies have shown, indigenous peoples’ way of living is environmentally sustainable and climate-aware. Indigenous peoples have protected the lands and territories they live in, maintaining them in trust for future generations, much more effectively than external groups. These studies have shown, for example, that forests managed by indigenous peoples have been preserved more efficiently than protected forests.

Nevertheless, in Thailand, the practice of shifting/rotational agriculture in the uplands resulted in the arrest of villagers by state officials during preparation of their rice fields. The villagers are being penalised for “causing deforestation and a rise in temperatures”, despite scientific studies proving the opposite. Under the cover of conservation, the government has made a false equivalency: capitalising on the social capital and goodwill behind climate change to add a new dimension (environmental degradation) to the nature of the so-called “crime”.

The role of government in perpetuating indigenous rights abuses

In many countries, state authorities are the most common perpetrators of violations against indigenous rights defenders, even though they bear the primary responsibility for ensuring their protection. Laws failing to recognise or protect indigenous rights defenders, combined with a global trend towards a shrinking civic space, pose a threat to indigenous communities around the world.

In 2018, Tanzania continued to witness decreasing freedom of expression and a shrinking civic space. A number of oppressive laws and policies made it difficult for indigenous peoples and human rights activists to operate freely, including the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015; the Statistics Act of 2015; the Media Services Act of 2016; the Access to Information Act of 2016; and the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Contents) Regulations of 2018. In this new, limited reality, it became increasingly difficult for indigenous rights defenders to operate and assist indigenous communities in need, which faced increasing challenges related to land grabbing, land conflicts and violations of human rights.

In Myanmar, the Unlawful Association Act, for example, sets out prison terms of up to three years for being either a member of, assisting or making contributions to, an “unlawful association” and was used during Myanmar’s decades of military junta rule to detain those linked to rebel groups.
In Vietnam, at least 246 people who participated in rallies against the draft laws on the creation of Special Zones and on internet security were arrested and imprisoned in 2018. These arrests were carried out under judgements and criminal convictions of a variety of violations, including “dissemination of propaganda against the state”, “activities to overthrow the government” and “breaking the solidarity”. These convictions have carried tough penalties, with most resulting in sentences of 10-20 years of imprisonment. Among these were some 30 indigenous people from the Central Highland who were convicted on charges of “breaking the solidarity” and served with 6-12 year sentences.

Physical violence and arbitrary arrests

Reports received throughout 2018 indicate that police and other security forces have carried out arbitrary arrests, illegal searches and physical violence against indigenous peoples. Non-state actors such as armed groups have also been reported to use killings, abduction and death threats, among other acts, as regular tactics to silence indigenous rights defenders.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated in a press release dated 31 October, that at least 20 indigenous leaders had been murdered in Guatemala during 2018, largely activists defending their lands, territories and other rights.
In Bangladesh, the Kapaeeng Foundation documented a total of 117 indigenous rights defenders who faced false charges, 75 of whom were arrested in 2018. They further documented the illegal search of about 90 homes by security forces, who carried out their exercises in the middle of the night without any prior warrant or complaint.

Additionally, at least 53 indigenous women and girls in 47 incidents were reportedly killed, raped, assaulted and violated in 2018, according to the foundation’s findings. The violence that indigenous women and girls face is often political and connected to power relations; violence, especially sexual violence against women, is connected to stig-ma, humiliation and fear. This politicisation of violence is particularly evident in the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, especially when they are connected to the interests of the state. To date, not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted for the violence against indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

A similarly bleak picture of violence and impunity can be seen in the Philippines where the state has leveraged judicial actions against 31 activists advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights. These activists were named in a petition by the Department of Justice, which essentially accused them of being terrorists. The KATRIBU national alliance of indigenous peoples documented 183 cases of the illegal arrest of indigenous peoples in the Philippines since July 2016. Of this number, 42 remain in detention for crimes they did not commit. The trumped-up charges filed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines against indigenous peoples include killing and the illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Violence against indigenous peoples also continued on a large scale in Africa throughout 2018. In Uganda land rights actors who tried to defend the land rights of the Karamojong people in northern Uganda were criminalised and accused of promoting insecurity in the area. The situation was extreme in the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Niger, Eritrea and Burkina Faso. These countries experienced widespread and brutal violent conflicts that had serious consequences for indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and survival.

Indigenous peoples continue to mobilise and stand up to claim their rights

On 21 November 2018, about 10,000 tribal farmers in India marched from Thane to Mumbai in the State of Maharashtra demanding loan waivers and land rights. They called off the protests on 22 November after Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis assured them there would be redress for their grievances, including drought compensation and the transfer of forest rights to them by the end of December

  1. It is reported there were as many as 231,556 cases where land ownership was not given to tribal farmers cultivating the land or having it in their possession. Earlier, in March 2018, more than 35,000 farmers, mostly tribals, marched from Nashik to Mumbai to press for their demands, including land rights.

In Nepal, an aggressive road expansion project executed by the government in the ancestral land of the Newa indigenous peoples adversely impacted more than 150,000 people and caused gross human rights violations, including mass-forced eviction, demolishing of symbols of identity - such as cultural and religious sites and heritages - and intimidation. After mass mobilisation, protests, documentation and litigations they won a Directive Order from the Supreme Court that prohibited any work that adversely affected the security of a house, unless there are no alternative solutions; ordered that rights to relocation and rehousing of the displaced be dealt with equitably; provided benefits and compensation as per the Land Acquisition Act and the Land Acquisition Regulations; and that there should be a focus on conservation of the environment and archaeological sites while implementing any development project. Further, on 11 June 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) decided to set up a tripartite committee to examine alleged non-observance of ILO Convention 169 in response to a complaint lodged by the Nepal Telecom Employees’ Union related to the project.

In Uganda, the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda trained Batwa women in rights defence, and for the first time, some Batwa were elected during the village council elections as representatives for their villages.

In Bolivia, the process of autonomy for the Multi-ethnic Indigenous Territory (Territorio Indígena Multiétnico/TIM) in the southern Amazonian department of Beni has advanced. Multiple meetings took place throughout 2018 between the state and local offices of the Multi-ethnic, Movima and T’simane territories to consolidate a significant part of the Chimanes Forest in favour of the TIM, incorporating the territorial jurisdiction of the nascent indigenous autonomy. The government also agreed to sign a Titling Agreement, thus guaranteeing collective title to the area claimed through the agrarian procedure, along with a continuation of the process of autonomy with this area in the TIM territory.

In Costa Rica great progress was made thanks to indigenous peoples’ fight for their rights. The executive decree which was issued on the consultation mechanism and the adoption of the Charter of Rights on Access to Justice for Indigenous Peoples. Another important accomplishment was the incorporation by the General Comptrollership of the Republic of an intercultural approach to evaluate public policy, as well the participation by the National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica in var-ious forums on environmental policy and climate change.

In Peru, in 2018, the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination indicated its concern at the growing signs of vio-lence against human rights defenders and recommended that the state take action to protect them. In February 2018, the National Human Rights Plan 2018-2021 was thus enacted, committing the relevant authorities to: develop a mechanism to protect Human Rights Defenders (HRDs); approve the Protocol for Intersectoral Action (2018); and create the Registry of Attacks during 2019 and the Comprehensive Protection Policy by 2021. In January 2019, the National Human Rights Coordinating Body launched a campaign entitled #MeLaJuegoPor (I’m championing HRDs) with the aim of recognising the work of individuals and organisations who defend the rights of all, encouraging a change in society’s somewhat preconceived notions of defenders and pressuring the Peruvian state to meet its commitment to enact the Protection Proto-col for HRDs.

Progress for indigenous peoples at the international level

Over the last 40 years, indigenous peoples have made a major impact on the international political arena and have created new spaces, in the form of legal provisions and institutional mechanisms, for the promotion and protection of their rights. Concrete outcomes of indigenous peoples’ struggle to gain recognition as subjects of international law have been the adoption of the UNDRIP (2007), the establishment of institutional mechanisms within the UN and regional human rights bodies dealing specifically with indigenous peoples’ rights, and, at the national level, the adoption of laws and policies for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. Further, an international focus on defining effective ways and measures to document performance and progress made through adopted laws and policies is needed. The implementation gap remains a major concern, and the lack of disaggregated data and indicators which assess indigenous peoples’ rights remain an urgent priority. Progress was made in this area through the pilot of the Indigenous Navigator project. Designed as a global portal for indigenous communities, the Indigenous Navigator provides a framework and set of tools for and by indigenous peoples to systematically monitor the level of recognition and implementation of their rights. It specifically monitors implementation of the UNDRIP, and state obligations as enshrined in core human rights conventions as they pertain to indigenous peoples; essential as-pects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and the outcomes of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

In 2018, indigenous peoples achieved two significant milestones under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. First, a Facilitative Working Group was established to fully operationalise the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and, second, the Green Climate Fund adopted an Indigenous Peoples’ Policy. These are ground-breaking achievements for indigenous peoples fighting for their rights and recognition of their role in climate action.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EM-RIP) also took considerable action in 2018, including initiating a focus on its new country engagement mandate, including its first two missions, to Finland and Mexico City; an annual session (from 9-13 July 2018); and an annual study that focussed on free, prior and informed consent and strengthened engagement with UN Human Rights treaty bodies, Regional and National Human Rights Institutions.

Indigenous peoples are central to achieving the SDGs but are too often ignored. During the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2018 significant efforts were made to highlight indige-nous peoples’ rights through a series of events.

Indigenous governance systems

Indigenous governance systems have proven resilient for centuries despite colonisation, attacks and attempts to undermine them in the name of nation building and the state’s territorial integrity. These indigenous governance systems, which often include customary laws, dispute resolution and adjudicative mechanisms, are essential in ensuring the well-being and rights of indigenous peoples today, especially in regard to self-determination and self-identified development.

Therefore, in 2019, the three UN mechanisms dealing with indigenous peoples’ rights will pay particular attention to the implementation of indigenous peoples’ rights to self-governance.

In January 2018, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs organised a three-day international expert group meeting on the theme “Sustainable Development in the Territories of Indigenous Peoples”, as recommended by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Is-sues at its 2017 session.

EMRIP conducted a study on free, prior and informed consent, which was submitted to the Human Rights Council in September 2018. In that study, the Expert Mechanism argued that the right to self-determination is the fundamental human right on which free, prior and informed consent is based, with strong links to the right to autonomy and self-government.

In October 2018, the Special Rapporteur presented her report to the 73rd session of Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on the theme “indigenous peoples and self-governance”. The Special Rapporteur's report provides an initial overview of the international legal framework on the right to autonomy and self-government of indigenous peoples and reviews concrete examples of the broad diversity of indigenous governance systems that exist across the world.

Promote, protect, defend

Despite being one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in the world, 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 do our best to stop these injustices. We need to act. With this edition of The Indigenous World, we are honouring the lost lives, indigenous leaders in prison, harassed defenders and at-tacked indigenous women by giving space for their stories to be told to the world.

David Nathaniel Berger

General Editor
Julie Koch
Executive Director

Copenhagen, April 2019

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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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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