The Indigenous World 2018: Editorial

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. This legendary quote accurately describes the stages that movements and social conflicts often go through and indigenous peoples’ struggle and resilience is no exception.

While the quote’s origin remains uncertain, it provides a good image with which to sum up the events that impacted on indigenous peoples during 2017. The collection of events compiled in this book shows that indigenous peoples are meeting the highest ever recorded levels of criminalisation and violence. Again and again, the local insights in the book illustrate that indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, territories and resources remain at the core of social and environmental conflict, which is currently on the rise across the globe. As the world moves fast to explore and exploit new territories and meet increasing consumption demands, indigenous peoples are left largely unprotected on the frontline, defending their lands.

A call to respect indigenous visions of sustainable development

This increase in land conflicts is taking place as the world forges ahead with the common framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). This global framework of action calls upon leaders to develop alternative solutions to sustainable development by ensuring they “leave no one behind”. In this context, indigenous peoples have voiced a strong call to respect their distinct visions of sustainable development. In particular, indigenous peoples have highlighted over and over again that, for them, land is not merely an economic resource but a vital element of their survival as peoples. In fact, 73 out of the 169 global targets of the SDGs relate directly to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Within the UN context, the coordination of indigenous peoples’ engagement with the SDGs moved forward in 2017. The Global Coordinating Committee (GCC) of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group on Sustainable Development (IPMG) was established in April, involving 63 organisations as affiliate members. The efforts made by IPMG in 2017 have resulted in improved cooperation, collaboration and participation of indigenous peoples in the High Level Political Forum (HLPF).

The inclusion of indigenous peoples in the 2017 Ministerial Declaration significantly contributes to their further visibility and hopefully places more attention on them in the implementation of the SDGs. Additionally, the Ministerial Declaration also repeated the need for data disaggregation by ethnicity, which is critical for indigenous peoples to be visible in monitoring the achievements and gaps in the implementation of the SDGs.

The first 10 years of upholding the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

First they ignore you. Overall, 2017 was shaped by the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), an endpoint of more than 20 years of discussion at the United Nations. The anniversary offered a window to take stock of and assess existing gaps in the implementation of the UNDRIP. Many of the articles in this edition showcase the different ways in which the anniversary was commemorated around the world. “In spite of the commitment to the UNDRIP, reiterated by UN Member States, the implementation situation of UNDRIP is one of limited progress,” concluded the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, in July 2017.

In 2017, the Declaration was referenced 1,000 times in the first two cycles of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This shows that the Declaration has become a well-recognised international human rights instrument which States and other relevant stakeholders increasingly refer to when reporting on implementation of human rights obligations.

After a decade of experiences and lessons learned in using the UNDRIP to fight for land rights, the Declaration remains key to ensuring that indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent is respected with regard to development activities affecting the well-being of indigenous communities and their future generations. Nonetheless, to succeed in this implementation, a paradigm shift is required: “racism and discrimination are prevalent mindsets and attitudes that prevent the establishment of equal relationships between indigenous peoples and States,” noted the Special Rapporteur in her assessment of the current status of UNDRIP. For this, rhetorical claims of reconciliation need to be met with effective public policies, developed in close collaboration with indigenous peoples.

On the immediate horizon, the challenge is to find effective ways to measure performance and progress made through the laws and policies adopted. Disaggregated data and indicators that assess indigenous peoples’ rights are urgently needed to reduce the gaps and align national policies with UNDRIP. This task is without doubt a universal responsibility.

Indigenous peoples’ rights to land at the centre of a paradigm shift

Then they fight you. Indigenous peoples are one of the marginalised groups that are most exposed to violence and suppression for asserting their rights. Rising tensions between States and indigenous peoples are reaching a tipping point and The Indigenous World 2018 adds to the documented records highlighting an increase in attacks on and killings of indigenous peoples while defending their lands.

The escalation of violence recorded in 2017 and its increased visibility has placed indigenous peoples right at the centre of a global conversation, pushing for a paradigm shift based on the recognition of their rights. In this sense, last year can be read as the beginning of an era that offers substantial opportunities for the world to change its relationship with indigenous communities, and their ancestral land and identities.

States –while not necessarily the perpetrators– are unwilling or unable to protect indigenous peoples and are even, in some cases, collaborating with these forces to push their survival to the edge. The 56 country reports and 13 reports on international processes in this edition underscore this global trend, as the following examples highlight.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2017, Brazil was among the four most risky countries for activists, especially triggered by large-scale mining. There are now 37 million ha reserved for exploration and exploitation on indigenous land in the country. In Peru, the second largest area of Amazonian forest after Brazil, 49.6% of indigenous land is affected by concessions granted by the government.

The pressure exerted over individual and collective control of land is evident in Nepal, where 150 thousand indigenous peoples are affected by a national road expansion project, paired with forced evictions, torture and the destruction of countless religious, spiritual and sacred sites. In Ecuador, 50,000 ha of land are under mining concessions in breach of the right to participation and to free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous communities affected.

Mining is also driving violence against indigenous peoples in the Philippines, where large corporate mining operations for gold, copper and nickel continue to wreak havoc in indigenous territories. As of June 2017, 229 mining applications had been approved on indigenous ancestral territories.

In Chile, 2017 showed an intensification in the use of the anti-terrorist law against indigenous peoples, which was enforced against 23 indigenous Mapuche in the context of an upturn in mining activities on their territories. As Paraguay registers the highest rate of deforestation, indigenous communities have held the State accountable in land-related conflicts through three cases brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, although the rulings thus far remain unfulfilled.

Recording the toll of violence

As a countermeasure, indigenous organisations are gearing up to track the toll in terms of deaths and harassment. In Colombia, the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) reported in 2017 alone: 45 murders, 122 threats, 827 unjust incarcerations and 3,800 indigenous peoples displaced.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, KATRIBU in the Philippines recorded 37 cases of extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples, 62 illegal arrests, 21 political prisoners, 20 incidents of forced evacuation affecting 21,966 indigenous peoples and more than a hundred people facing trumped up charges since President Duterte was elected in July 2016. The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Indonesia also recorded 21 land-related cases faced by indigenous peoples in relation to infrastructure development projects on indigenous territories.

Heavy militarisation of indigenous land in Asia continues to have devastating effects for indigenous communities, especially indigenous women. In Bangladesh, a total of 141 indigenous human rights defenders were reportedly arrested or detained, while 161 people were harassed with false charges throughout the year. According to the Kapaeeng Foundation, an increasing number of indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh are being raped in land-related conflicts. An estimated 56 indigenous women were sexually or physically assaulted by 75 alleged perpetrators, most of them non-indigenous. What is more, most of the rape victims were children and girls under the age of 18.

Eritrea’s crimes against indigenous peoples are especially concerning. Since the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) reported accusations of crimes against humanity, pastoralists’ rights to land continue to be unrecognised. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea reported that the government had destroyed indigenous livelihoods through killings, disappearances, torture and rape. Complaints alleging ethnic cleansing including substantial eyewitness testimony and analysis of 21,000 interviews had been sent to the UN Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and await follow-up.

Land grabbing under cover of investments and conservation

Extractive industries remain a concrete threat to indigenous communities. In Africa, forced evictions and land grabbing in the name of conservation, development and investments continues its encroachment with impunity. This was thoroughly documented by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in its report on extractive industries and their impact on indigenous peoples published in 2017.

In Kenya, the US$25.5 billion Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Project bridging Kenya’s coast to Cameroon cuts across indigenous peoples’ territories. This large-scale infrastructure project will potentially affect small farmers, hunter-gatherers, fishing and pastoralist communities, who have consistently raised concerns regarding implementation of the project, which is taking place without due regard for tenure or resource rights.

Land grabbing and land conflicts in Tanzania continued to be related to the expansion of national parks. In 2017, protests continued against the invasion of rangelands in West Kilimanjaro by the Tanzania National Parks Authority, which in 2016 left maasai without their entire territory of 5,500 acres, upon which they and their livestock depend heavily for their survival.

The forced evictions in Loliondo (northern Tanzania) were also a clear example of land grabbing in 2017. These attempted evictions, carried out in the name of “wildlife conservation”, gained international attention when the Ngorongoro District Commissioner issued an order to evict legally-registered village lands in the vicinity of Serengeti National Park. Maasai houses were burnt to the ground and most of their property destroyed, leaving families without any shelter, food or water.

In Ethiopia, the government continues to lease vast fertile farmlands to foreign and domestic companies, directly affecting indigenous peoples along the Ethiopian lowlands-Gambela, Benis-Hangul-Gumuz and the Lower Omo Valley. With the aim of increasing agricultural investment, indigenous land is unfairly labelled by the government as “underutilised” and indigenous peoples are thereby being dispossessed of their lands and their food security seriously undermined. These lands comprise an estimated 11 million hectares and are the source of livelihood for about 15 million indigenous peoples – pastoralists, small-scale farmers and hunter-gatherers – whose customary land rights are being constantly violated.

Large-scale investment continues to expand in Laos, especially due to a dam-building spree, including 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in the advanced stages of planning. These hydropower development plans give rise to the forced removal of indigenous peoples, with 100 families reported as victims in 2017.

In Cambodia, the largest hydropower source was carried through to near-completion in 2017 with total opposition from indigenous communities. In December 2017, the government redoubled its lack of respect of their rights by announcing that more than 30,000 hectares around the dam would also be converted into economic land concessions.

In 2017, Mexico ranked as the fourth most dangerous country for activists to defend land rights. This fact is directly linked to the 29,000 mining, hydroelectric and wind power concessions currently active in the country, over 35% of its national territory. Half of the operations on this area run on indigenous territory.

Suppressing indigenous peoples’ demands will have an impact on how our planet will look if natural resource extraction keeps expanding. If States and business fail to protect those last standing on the world’s remaining natural diversity, what else remains to be exploited? 

Environmental human rights protection gains momentum

At the time of writing this editorial, violent accusations hit the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who, along with other indigenous human rights defenders, has been labelled a “terrorist threat” by the Government of the Philippines. These accusations come at a crucial time when, as part of her mandate, the Special Rapporteur is collecting input for a thematic report on the criminalisation of indigenous human rights defenders.

The outbreak of violence against indigenous human rights de- fenders proven by this act and many others contained in this book is, however, also met with policy changes aimed at improving the safety of environmental defenders. As this edition goes to press, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is launching a new policy for the protection of environmental defenders. In Latin America, where most land rights defenders are killed, States are moving towards a regional agreement specifically targeted at protecting environmental defenders. This shows that environmental demands, including indigenous peoples’ claims, are finding their way into the development of systemic responses.

Formally recognising the right to a healthy environment would contribute to protecting those who are increasingly putting their lives at risk to defend natural ecosystems.

What is working?

Then you win. Some encouraging developments in this edition also show that the indigenous movement has placed itself at the core of a paradigm shift, pushing for a more inclusive and sustainable development. Indigenous peoples, in partnership with civil society and other human rights defenders, have strengthened their resilience on all fronts, increased their capacity to advocate for their demands and to lead a global wake-up call to respect and abide by indigenous traditional knowledge and worldviews.

In Bolivia, 36 indigenous territories have started the procedure to become autonomous governments in a country where 21% of the land is collectively owned by indigenous peoples. These game-changing autonomous processes are also strong in Peru, where the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW), established in 2015, is working on guidelines and roadmaps aimed at re-establishing their own institutional structures and attaining better conditions for a dialogue with the Peruvian State. Other indigenous communities such as the Shawi, Kandozi and Shapra in the Peruvian Amazon have also expressed their desire to establish an autonomous government to represent them as a people.

Significant progress has been made in Costa Rica in establishing an indigenous consultation mechanism, which will be discussed in 2018. The mechanism is described as promising because it takes into consideration the fact that each indigenous people takes its own decisions differently and that different issues require different consultation procedures.

In an unprecedented move, Mexico witnessed the first candidacy of an indigenous woman for the presidency in 2017. Her nomination still requires the support of 1% of the electoral roll to run, in the face of discrediting campaigns and personal attacks. Against all odds, in Kenya, indigenous women performed impressively in the general elections, with five indigenous women elected. This signals a shift towards more inclusive competitive political contests in the country.

On the protection of indigenous women’s rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) emphasized the need to act upon the violence encountered particularly by indigenous women in the Americas during armed conflicts, the implementation of development, investment and extractive projects and militarisation of their territories. In 2017, the IACHR published a legal tool to defend their rights, and this offers guiding principles with which to urge States to acknowledge indigenous women’s agency. Tools such as this are meaningful, as they focus on promoting guiding principles and good practices that can be used by indigenous organisations, lawyers and human rights defenders in general.

In the Pacific region, through the support of non-indigenous allies and Reconciliation Action Plans, Australian media has increased its coverage from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective. In 2017, indigenous peoples’ water rights were at the centre of the debate. As more Australian land is handed back to its traditional owners through Native Title, water management policy is gaining a place at the policy-making table.

The Inuit in Canada won a historic Supreme Court victory in June 2017 when a unanimous decision overturned Petroleum Geo-Services Inc.’s plans to collect more than 16,000 km of seismic data in their search for oil. Inuit are also awaiting new national indigenous language legislation, which Prime Minister Trudeau has announced will be developed in partnership with indigenous peoples.

Following a national apology to indigenous peoples, Taiwan moved forward in setting up the “Indigenous Historic Justice and Transitional Justice Committee” composed of representatives from the 16 indigenous groups and three from the Pingpu groups. Besides strengthening transitional justice, Taiwan’s Parliament addressed the impact of extractive industries by amending the Mining Act. The law amendment proposed would require more stringent impact assessments, stricter monitoring and a suspension of the operating license if serious violations are found. What is more, the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) announced guidelines on the delineation of traditional indigenous territories, with the participation and consultation of 800 indigenous peoples.

At the United Nations, 2017 was an exciting year for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which welcomed 12 new experts and held the first-ever Indigenous Media Zone. This space proved to be a driver in improving information flows on indigenous peoples’ issues and a vital meeting point for different opinion makers, editors and journalists covering indigenous peoples’ issues.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2017 and started to implement its new mandate. Among the changes is a specific and enhanced collaboration with National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and considerably higher country-level engagement. In this regard, EMRIP held three inter-sessional meetings in Canada, the Russian Federation and Chile throughout the year and launched new online forms to request technical assistance. Such requests can be made by States, indigenous peoples and other stakeholders, including the private sector. Overall, in 2017, EMRIP reaffirmed its efforts to build capacities and trust, while easing tensions between States and indigenous peoples.

“Nothing about us without us” 

The increasing emergence of platforms for dialogue in which high-profile indigenous leaders play an active role in decision-making was remarkable in 2017, especially in the area of climate action. Being disproportionately vulnerable to climate change because of their strong traditional ties with their lands and natural resources, indigenous peoples made their voices heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in November 2017 in Bonn. The engagement of indigenous representatives showed a renewed commitment under the motto of “nothing about us without us”, highlighting the fact that, apart from being victims of climate change, they are the best observers and key actors to effectively combat climate hazards.

Among the 31 decisions taken at COP23 was one of key significance for indigenous peoples: the decision on the operationalization of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge-Sharing Platform (LCIP). This platform was lauded by many as a step forward in enhancing indigenous peoples’ engagement in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes. However, many others considered it insufficiently strong to ensure that indigenous peoples can negotiate or inform decision-making on an equal footing.

Without a doubt, the platform’s operationalisation was a highlight of 2017, and the main focus for most indigenous peoples’ representatives. What is clear is that the adoption of the platform opens up a new space to bring to and share indigenous knowledge, positive contributions and lessons learned with the climate conversations, and it thus presents an opportunity for strengthened engagement between indigenous peoples and the climate change community.

Following the decision to develop an Indigenous Peoples Policy in December 2016, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) prepared a final draft in December 2017 based on consultations with and inputs from indigenous peoples and board members. The GCF has been functional for three years now and the Indigenous Peoples Policy was one of the key areas of focus in 2017. The policy’s objective is to include adequate safeguards, participation and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples.

Given that indigenous peoples were not significantly engaged in the early days of climate change policy-making back in the 1990s, these developments are promising. They show that persistent advocacy work is rewarded and that indigenous peoples are steadily becoming a recognised part of the solution to the challenges climate change poses to the world.


Pamela Jacquelin-Andersen
General Editor

Julie Koch
Executive Director


Copenhagen, April 2018 


This article is part of the 32nd edition of 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 2018 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.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

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

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

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

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand