The Indigenous World 2010: Editorial

The right to self-determination is at the heart of indigenous peoples’ struggles worldwide. In 2009, some major steps were taken towards this goal, especially in Greenland and Bolivia.

In 2009, Greenland entered a new era after some years of internal deliberations followed by negotiations with Denmark, when on its national day of June 21, Danish Queen Margrethe officially handed over the Self-Government Act to the President of the Greenland Parliament. This Act gives Greenland greater autonomy and, for example, makes Greenlandic the only official language and obliges the Danish Government to hold prior consultation with the Greenland Self Government before presenting bills that affect Greenland. The new Greenland-Denmark relationship began 30 years ago with the establishment of Home Rule in 1979 and has been further developed by the principles laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In Bolivia, another kind of indigenous self-determination was achieved when, in January, a long and difficult process was concluded with the approval of the new State Constitution that declares Bolivia to be a plurinational and communitarian state and improves the rights of indigenous peoples with regard to, among other things, electoral representation and language, and which stipulates the framework for improved autonomy for indigenous territories. On December 6, the indigenous president, Evo Morales, was reelected and the governing party won a two-thirds majority that will enable the government to speed up the implementation of the new Constitution. Although not nearly as far reaching, the Indigenous World 2010 reports on various other achievements for indigenous peoples in 2009. For example, although the government of Cameroon is still only considering a draft law on Marginal Populations, it this year officially engaged in celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time and took steps towards further dialogue with indigenous organisations. In the Republic of Congo, hopes were raised for the future of indigenous peoples when the year ended with the adoption of a Law on promoting and protecting indigenous peoples. It covers all the rights contained in the UNDRIP and thus represents a huge step forward in the endorsement of indigenous rights in Africa.

It should also be mentioned that, in April, Australia finally endorsed the UNDRIP, leaving New Zealand, Canada and the US as the only remaining states to object to its adoption.

In spite of the positive developments achieved in 2009, the articles in this year’s edition of The Indigenous World show once again a frighteningly clear picture of the situation of indigenous peoples as of 2010 as one of an uphill struggle for physical and cultural survival in a world dominated by environmental insecurity, development aggression and continuous criminalization of indigenous lifestyles and social protests.

It is noteworthy how many of this year’s articles refer to the UNDRIP, ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people as key legal tools and human rights mechanisms used by indigenous peoples. However, it is also clear that international agreements and human rights mechanisms are far from enough to safeguard indigenous peoples from abuses of their fundamental rights.

The situation for indigenous peoples in Latin America in 2009 was for example characterized by the huge implementation gap between the law and actual practice. When national economic interests are balanced against the indigenous peoples’ rights to consultation and free, prior and informed consent, the latter systematically lose out. An example of this is the Brazilian President’s high-profile “Growth Acceleration Plan”, which contains plans for the building of hundreds of hydroelectric power plants on indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest, none of which have been presented for consultation with the affected indigenous peoples.

The issue of indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted, as well as their right to participate in decision-making processes, was also given particular attention by the UN Special Rapporteur and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In his 2nd report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, the Special Rapporteur devoted the second half of his report to an analysis of the duty of states to consult with indigenous peoples on matters affecting them. Also in September 2009, the Human Rights Council requested the Mechanism to carry out a study on indigenous peoples and the right to participate in decision-making.

Climate change 

2009 will be remembered for the heightened focus on climate change and the enormous challenge we all face in safeguarding the planet. Although 2009 ended with disillusion over the outcome of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which resulted in a disappointing and inconclusive Copenhagen Accord, it also left a trace of hope that the renewed alliances between indigenous peoples and global civil society might bear fruit in the new decade, as expressed in many of this year’s articles. Not since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 has so much hope and determination to find common solutions to a global problem been expressed by governments and civil society alike. During 2009 the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) worked hard to secure recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. In this process they succeeded in getting a reference to the UNDRIP in the draft decision on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

The devastating effects of climate change on indigenous peoples

and their livelihoods is reflected in many of the country reports. Indigenous peoples are, moreover, at risk of falling victim to some of the mitigation measures suggested by the international community, including “green” sources of energy, such as soybean and oil palm plantations for biofuel production and the construction of dams for the production of hydroelectric power. Likewise it remains to be seen whether REDD schemes will respect indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted and their free, prior and informed consent, or if they will merely scale up industrial rubber and oil palm reforestation schemes, as experienced in e.g. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia or, alternatively, form another incentive to create old-fashioned forest reserves and thus an excuse to evict indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.

Development aggression

 The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is going to discuss Development with Identity in 2010 but, as can be seen from the 64 country reports contained in this volume, events occurring in many parts of the world are better described as development aggression: the imposition of large-scale development schemes supposedly in the interests of national development, which lead to large-scale dispossession and human rights violations. In Russia, where the implementation of the Federal Law of 2001 on territories of traditional natural resource use is still pending nearly a decade after its adoption, indigenous peoples are increasingly competing with commercial interests for access to their traditional fishing and hunting grounds, which are being put up for tender. In Asia, large-scale development schemes include industrial tree plantations such as rubber (Laos, Cambodia) and oil palm (Indonesia, Malaysia), mining (e.g. Laos, Cambodia, India) and dams (e.g. Malaysia, Burma, India).

In Tanzania, development of the tourism industry once again led to gross human rights violations, when in July eight Masaai communities were violently evicted by private security guards together with the local police to make way for a foreign hunting and tourism company, despite the fact that the villages in question held non-derogable rights to their village lands by national law.

Over the summer, Peru also witnessed the military backing of development activities which led to one of the worst social conflicts between indigenous peoples and the government in the recent history of the country, now known as the Bagua Event. This event resulted in the death of 34 persons when an indigenous occupation of a road in Utcubamba Province, sparked by Awajún and Wampis concern over ongoing mining activities on their territories, was violently cleared by military police.


The social unrest in Peru was rooted in a national indigenous mobilisation against a new law that would allow mining and oil companies to enter their territories without consultation and without their free, prior and informed consent. Instead of following the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, to set up an independent commission to investigate the incident, the Peruvian Government has attempted to cover up the event and criminalize the indigenous organisations.

Forceful evictions of indigenous communities to make way for oil and mining as well as agribusiness took place in e.g. the homelands of the Mapuche people in both Chile and Argentina and were followed by a systematic criminalisation of the people who dared to protest. When organising to claim their lawful rights, the Mapuche movement in southern Argentina was faced with false accusations of separatism from the traditional political elite, along with accusations of violence and links to foreign terrorist organisations.

Threats and intimidation against indigenous community members trying to protect their land and natural resources were also reported from Asia. In Cambodia, indigenous community representatives have reported being repeatedly told by government officials that they have no rights and that indigenous peoples must make way for rapid economic development.

While it is well documented how the global fear of terror since 2001 has been put to use to criminalise social protest, a case from Thailand this year indicate a frightening new scenario in which climate change is being used as a weapon to combat the traditional slash-and-burn land use practices of indigenous peoples, as indigenous farmers have been charged with causing a rise in temperature. A heavy, and by all standards unfair charge, considering the scale of emissions from small-scale farming compared to commercial logging, soybean plantations etc.

Development with identity 

Nowhere has the concept of development with identity been more relevant in 2009 than in Bolivia and Greenland.

A draft amendment to the Law on Hydrocarbons of 2005, (which devotes a whole section to the rights of indigenous peoples, highlighting consultation and participation and legal guarantees) was submitted to the Bolivian Parliament. According to the article from Bolivia in this volume, the draft amendment “proposes the virtual disappearance of indigenous titles, considering them an affront to ‘national development’, in a vision that is in complete contradiction with not only the Constitution but the very basis of the new development model that is supporting this process of change, the motto of which is ‘living well’ or ‘good living’ (buen vivir), and which includes principles of balance and harmony with nature, complementarity and reciprocity in social relations and respect for the environment.”

At IWGIA, we cannot help but be cautious with regard to the increasing use of references to good living and the rights of Mother Earth within a human rights framework. Although such language may better reflect an indigenous worldview than the language of human rights, it is important to be wary as to the potential implications. As many of this year’s articles show, the sympathetic rhetoric of governments on festive occasions is one thing but the cold facts when “development” projects are being implemented on indigenous territories is quite another. As the right to be consulted is often disregarded, the one recourse open to indigenous peoples is the courtroom, where in 2009 indigenous peoples won various battles against national governments with reference to international human rights instruments such as ILO 169 and the UNDRIP.

With the 2009 achievement of Self Government for Greenland, the question is now what kind of development the Greenlanders want. The Greenlandic Self Government surprised many with their proposal to increase Greenland’s CO2 emissions over the coming years in order to develop its industry, including the mining resource extraction sector. This issue has been the focus of heated debates throughout the year and the consultation regarding the new legislation on subsurface resources adopted by the Parliament in November has been criticized for being inadequate and for not complying with the right to free, prior and informed consent, or the right to participation in decision-making. The major challenge for countries where indigenous peoples are in control of the government is thus to balance the need for securing financial resources with that of respect for indigenous human rights – not least the right to free, prior and informed consent.

Let us hope that 2010 will show indigenous governments taking a lead in the promotion, and not least the implementation, of this central right of indigenous peoples, as stipulated in ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


Cæcilie Mikkelsen

Lola García-Alix

April 2010


This article is part of the 24th 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 2010 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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