Fighting for Their Lives, Indigenous People Rise Up Around the World
Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of its poor.
More than 3,000 miles south of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, deep inside the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, Native women are rising up.
Hueiya Alicia Cahuiya Iteca, a 39-year-old indigenous woman whose ancestral territory is in the Amazon, is fighting the Ecuadorian government over oil drilling on native land. When she decided to become involved in activism, she felt shut out from the all-male organizations that already existed.
“I said we could form a Waorani women's association to manage our territory, doing handicraft projects, tourism, reforestation, planting for handicrafts and environmental education,” Iteca told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. in 2015, about how she created the Women Waorani Association of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“When I started in ANWAE I heard the voice of the elders,” she said. “They left their voices in me.”
In the Philippines, 10,000 miles away from the Ecuadorian rainforest, Michelle Campos has taken up the leadership role once held by her father, Lumad leader Dionel Campos, who was killed in 2015 for defending the group’s ancestral land from mining companies. Michelle Campos now campaigns to the United Nations for help in protecting indigenous people and land.
Back in Latin America, Berta Cáceres fought the Honduran government over a dam being built on the Gualcarque River, a sacred site for the Lenca people. Cáceres succeeded, but in March of 2016 was killed by gunmen in her home in the middle of the night.
Across the world, thousands of indigenous groups are fighting against colonial governments to maintain their land and culture and improve their lives — though they make up just 5% of the world’s population, indigenous communities account for 15% of the world’s extreme poor, according to the World bank.
Leading those fights for existence and improvement, frequently, are women.
“Women are more likely to be community leaders, particularly in regard to environmental and land rights and indigenous rights,” said Tarah Dement, Amnesty International’s senior director of Identity and Discrimination.
The activism that captured the world’s attention at Standing Rock, this year helped highlight how global the indigenous rights movement has become, as tribes from all over the world pledged their support to the Standing Rock Sioux and called on the United States government to respect the tribe’s right to land and water.
The United Nations estimates that 370 million people around the world are part of indigenous communities across some 70 countries — though more than 75% of indigenous people live in China, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. And globally, they are disproportionately impoverished, with poorer health and education outcomes than any other group, according to the World Bank.
In 2007, the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which codified the rights of indigenous people to their own culture, identity, language, health, education, and employment, and prohibits discrimination.
Yet throughout the world, indigenous communities small and large are still fighting for those rights.
Female indigenous activists who lead those fights are more likely to receive death and rape threats by those they oppose, Dement said, including, for example, individuals who don’t want a gas or oil project halted and the police who are supposed to be there to protect them.
The nonprofit group Global Witness said in a study released last year that 2015 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, and that of the 185 activists who were killed that year, about two-thirds were indigenous.
Women also more likely to be targeted by government policies; Dement cited the Peruvian government’s decision in the 1990s to forcibly sterilize thousands of indigenous women. In 2014, as the women fought for justice through the court system, the public prosecutor closed the case, deciding that the sterilization was history and nothing could be done about it.
While certain policies meant to strip indigenous people of their culture, like sterilizations, boarding schools, and forced relocations, have waned in response to activism in recent decades, governments still block avenues of justice and safety for indigenous women.
“So you have this double whammy, where you have this past-tense wrong done against women but also the present-tense government refuses to deal with and perpetuates the problem,” Dement said.
In Southeast Asia, the region with the highest proportion of trafficking of indigenous women, many governments have made native women more vulnerable by has located them in places far from police protection and justice and enacted policies that left them impoverished.
Women in indigenous communities face discrimination on multiple fronts: their class, their gender, their ethnicity, and their culture.
“In the US they are as an ethnic identity the poorest and the most likely to suffer from violence and the least likely to get justice, and that bears out across the globe. They are almost always least likely to have justice,” Dement said.
Some governments have, as the UN Declaration suggests, begun work to restore rights to indigenous people in recent years. In Canada, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology to First Nations people over the country’s use of boarding schools for indigenous children, a policy that tore apart families, eradicated native languages and culture, and led to widespread abuse that has had decades’ of effects on the community.
Current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on and then launched a government inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in the country to try and understand the endemic violence against native women and lack of justice for them there.
Australia has also taken steps in recent years to correct past injustices against native people, including through reconciliation processes and a national day of apology (National Sorry Day).
Of course, discrimination persists in the US, Canada, Australia, and around the world, whether governments have acknowledged past wrongdoing or not.
“Standing Rock gives us a really clear picture of where we are and where we are not,” Dement said. “There have been gains but we are backsliding on them in ways that are more insidious and less obvious.”
Dement cited the decision by lawmakers there to move the location of the Dakota Access Pipeline from its original route through the white community of Bismarck down to the edge of a Native reservation.
“Do I think the DAPL people are sitting somewhere hating indigenous people? No, I think they think they’re disposable, they just don’t matter in the same way white people matter,” she said.