Indigenous communities of varying sizes, regions, and cultural traditions are under attack. Faced with displacement from ancestral lands, loss of cultural traditions, and structural racism and discrimination, these groups often face serious threats to their lives and livelihoods simply for being native.

In fact, Indigenous people make up just 6% of the global population but account for 19% of those living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.

Despite the reality of extensive harm that Indigenous groups experience, more are becoming human rights and environmental land defenders to protect their territories and cultures from being lost forever. In doing so, the targets on their backs have become larger.

“Our lore is that we’re the caregivers to the world, but to the rest of the world we’re seen as criminals,” Sandra Creamer, chairperson of the Board of Directors at Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), told Global Citizen. “The presumption of innocence does not exist for Indigenous land defenders.”

To support Indigenous activists who are falsely labeled as criminals and persecuted for their human rights work, IPRI was launched in 2019 by former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and Indigenous activist, Joan Carling. As the only international, Indigenous-led organization focused solely on issues facing native communities, IPRI regularly tracks and communicates human rights violations to the wider world with the hope of bringing justice to the forefront of their work.

“It’s very clear that human rights violations against Indigenous people are happening with impunity,” Joan Carling, executive director of IPRI, told Global Citizen. “We need to amplify the voices of Indigenous people who are being criminalized on the ground because [these cases] are not known globally.”

The challenges Indigenous groups are facing

There are roughly 476 million Indigenous peoples spread across 90 countries around the world, each representing a diverse cultural background. Despite their regional differences, similar cases of human rights violations link these groups in a twisted manner.

In Nepal, a business complex was hurriedly completed in 2018 on land belonging to the Newar community, despite widespread protests and legal efforts to delay construction. The Al-Huwaitat tribe experienced a similar land grab in Saudi Arabia, as have Native American groups across the United States, particularly in relation  to the construction of oil pipelines on native land

As these cases play out, the Indigenous leaders advocating for fair processes and a respect for free, prior, and informed consent are targeted, harassed, and even counter-sued by the corporations or government actors illegally taking their land. Globally, Indigenous people are overrepresented within the carceral system and experience widespread discrimination within the system, as well.

“What’s happening in developing countries is also happening in developed countries, so we want to make sure that these similar trends build a stronger solidarity [between Indigenous peoples around the world],” Carling said.

Carling and Tauli-Corpuz, Indigenous activists from the Philippines, utilize their own experiences to understand and manage cases of human rights violations against Indigenous groups. Both have been subject to dangerous labeling for their activism and found themselves on a list of “terrorists” identified by the Philippine government in 2018.

Because of the similar trends happening around the world, IPRI can target its resources where they are most useful. By raising funds, organizing petitions, providing legal and security support, and increasing access to global justice mechanisms — such as the UN — IPRI amplifies cases of human rights violations so the rest of the world understands how violence against Indigenous people is coordinated, sustained, and linked.

“Partnership, brotherhood, sisterhood — it’s very important to have. There are Indigenous people who have no understanding of the legal system, why they’re being arrested, what the legal processes are, and they need someone to fight for them,” Creamer told Global Citizen.

When Indigenous people become human rights and environmental land defenders

In the Philippines, Indigenous activist Beatrice "Betty" Belen was arrested in 2020 by government officials for possession of illegal explosives, uncovered during a shady operation without independent witnesses or the participation of village officials. Belen had been subject to harassment and intimidation for years because of her environmental advocacy; in particular, the environmental land defender was responsible for leading a barricade against the Chevron Energy company's geothermal project in the Kalinga province in 2012. 

Pranab Doley, an Indigenous human rights defender in India, experienced similar targeting at the hands of government officials. Since 1973, the Indian government has organized the forced displacement of thousands of Indigenous people in the name of animal conservation, dismissing valid claims of harassment and intimidation relating to Project Tiger, which is dedicated to restoring the Tiger population in India.

Doley emerged as a leader in the Indigenous rights movement in India, organizing protests and amplifying cases of murdered Indigenous people who were accused of being poachers. In retaliation, he has faced intimidation, faulty charges, and harassment at the hands of his government.

In both cases, IPRI offered support to the activists through the organization’s Legal Defense and Sanctuary Fund, which provides emergency legal and security support for Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders.

“Indigenous people are participating in legitimate actions, particularly in the climate fight, but they’re being criminalized and harassed,” Carling told Global Citizen. “Governments are not engaging with us; instead, they are holding passports and denying people the right to leave the country.”

As climate change accelerates and the planet’s temperature gets hotter, more governments have ramped up efforts to invest in renewable technology, limit carbon emissions, and utilize Indigenous ecological knowledge in policy decisions. But when these advancements are used without respect to human rights, governments and wealthy corporations can claim Indigenous territory and exploit ancestral knowledge without being held accountable.

“There’s a recognition that Indigenous people have traditional knowledge of conservation and biodiversity, but when [environmental efforts violate Indigenous rights], we’re treated as enemies of development and obstructionists,” Carling said. “We can only sustain and enhance our knowledge if they respect our rights.”

How governments can work with Indigenous groups 

A major aspect of IPRI’s work is accountability, but often, fighting for justice is a huge effort that requires years of advancement and planning.

IPRI raises awareness about violations, improves access to justice mechanisms, and bridges the knowledge gap about legal processes for Indigenous groups. Without support from government administrations, however, they cannot prevent future human rights violations from taking place.

“We’re ready to collaborate and partner [with governments], but no efforts to collaborate will work if we’re treated as inferior,” Carling said. “There’s an opportunity here for states to work with us, reform policies, engage in a constructive dialogue, and find solutions together.”

Looking forward, IPRI is fighting for Indigenous peoples to not only have a seat at the table but also a leadership role when making decisions that affect Indigenous lands, culture, and people. That way, Indigenous knowledge can be used in conjunction with modern climate planning to ensure environmental actions are human rights advancements instead of setbacks.

“When you look at us together, Indigenous people are the largest group of land defenders in the world. It’s very important that our partnership is respected because we have the traditional knowledge of the land, and we’re here to make sure the next seven generations have fresh water and good soil,” Creamer told Global Citizen.

How can Global Citizens support IPRI?

IPRI’s work takes time, effort, and funding. Global Citizens everywhere can be part of the incredible work that IPRI is doing for Indigenous activists and groups around the world.

To stay updated on cases concerning Indigenous rights, visit IPRI’s website and follow them on social media. To support Indigenous activists and IPRI’s Legal Defense and Sanctuary Fund, donate to the organization here.

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By Jaxx Artz