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Indigenous Rights: A Cornerstone to Sustainability

In 2015, more than three people a week were killed for protesting land theft and the development of ecologically destructive industries, such as mining, agribusiness, damming, and logging. In 2014, 116 environmental activists were killed, with 47 coming from indigenous communities (a far larger proportion than their share of the population). Since 2000, at least 38.9 million hectares of land – an area the size of Germany – has been bought or leased in developing countries, often leading to the illegal, sometimes violent displacement of communities, a fate that also disproportionately affects indigenous groups.

Image Courtesy of The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, © 2016

Image Courtesy of The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, © 2016

Granting indigenous groups the right to remain on and manage their lands as they have done for generations is not only important for purely ethical reasons, but also for their capacity to foster sustainable economic growth and mitigate climate change. In light of the ongoing crisis, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision in September to “give particular consideration” to crimes of environmental destruction, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and land seizure is a crucial step in the direction of international recognition of the rights of indigenous people to their land.

The ICC’s decision was spurred by a case filed in 2014 against Cambodian officials and businessmen. The prosecution alleged that business interests were colluding with corrupt government officials to engage in systemic land seizures. Rather than making such land seizures illegal, the ICC’s new declared priority opens the door for mass, forcible evictions being tried as a crime against humanity.

Poor and rural communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America lack legal rights to their land – a gross ethical failing of the modern-day legal system. In many cases, particularly for indigenous groups, they have lived on and cultivated their land for longer than the legal system of their country has existed, and their claims have not always been formalized. Even where it does not, these are communities that have exercised de facto ownership over their land for generations. However, when there is an economic incentive to repurpose the land for mining, logging, or large-scale agriculture, indigenous communities can often be evicted without legal recourse or compensation, and they often face violence if they attempt to assert their claims through protest.

This lack of legally protected tenancy leaves these communities fundamentally insecure in their livelihoods, undermining their potential to rise out of poverty. The legal inability to protect or manage their land, along with the possibility of eviction by government-backed corporate interests, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for rural, indigenous communities to invest in their future. The 370 million indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the world’s extremely poor.

Compounding this abuse of human rights is the loss to sustainability. Besides the oceans, the world’s large forests, many of which are home to indigenous groups, are also the world’s largest carbon sinks. In fact, indigenous groups have claims on an eighth of the world’s forests. Indigenous communities generally practice livelihoods that help preserve the forests. When their land is claimed for agriculture, logging, or mining, these forests are heavily degraded, if not outright cleared away, releasing that carbon into the atmosphere.

Empowering indigenous communities to manage their lands, on the other hand, can yield dividends that offset the benefit of converting their land to commercial uses. Accounting for the cost of carbon emissions reveals the savings offered by allowing indigenous groups to maintain their forests. Over 20 years, the savings could be as much as $1.165 trillion in Brazil, $277 billion in Colombia, and $119 billion in Bolivia.

Making good on these savings and climate benefits requires strengthening the legal claims of indigenous people to their land, towards which the ICC’s decision is a good step in the right direction. Other nations should follow suit and recognize traditional land claims of indigenous as a protection against forcible displacement.


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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