Virtual side event at the 20th UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues

On 26 April 2021, Franciscans International and ESCR-Net organized the side event, “Justice and Accountability in the Context of Extractive Industries: Indigenous Women Human Rights Defenders from Guatemala, Brazil, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.” The event was co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission to Finland, and civil society partners CIMI, Codeca, AIPP, Swiss Lenten Fund, and Sinode Gereja Kemah Injil (Kingmi). Alongside the human rights defenders, the panel also included Assistant Secretary General, Ilze Brands Kehris, and the Special Rapporteur on toxic wastes, Marcos Orellana.

The women indigenous human rights defenders highlighted some of the issues they faced in the context of extractive industries and the appropriation of indigenous lands for other commercial activities. One issue in common is the intimidation and harassment that women human right defenders face.

Additional issues noted by the speakers included:

  • Guatemalan indigenous women are marginalized and kept in poverty despite working on agriculture lands owned by transnational companies.
  • Indigenous women in Bangladesh are exposed to sexual exploitation and other threats as their lands are confiscated for the tourism industry.
  • Lack of demarcation of indigenous territories in Brazil and the imposition of megaprojects including hydroelectrics and nuclear energy projects has put in risk livelihoods along the San Francisco river.
  • The new Omnibus Law in Indonesia will adversely impact indigenous peoples in West Papua, including by likely prioritizing commercial interests over the protection of forests and local livelihoods.

Assistant-Secretary General Brands Kehris underscored the role of businesses in human rights abuses, and the need for States to take action to monitor and hold corporations accountable.

Background of the side eventIndigenous peoples face numerous challenges in their quest for justice. From a lack of meaningful consultation and consent to inadequate or absent mechanisms that should guarantee their participation in decision-making processes, they are not only left behind but usually left outside.

As the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has reported, “extractive activities within indigenous peoples’ lands and territories undertaken without adequate consultation or consent are the main source of serious violations of their human rights, including violence, criminalization and forced displacement.” Such situations have not only continued during the current Covid-19 pandemic, but States have also moved to facilitate and expedite the enactment of laws detrimental to indigenous peoples and their territories, while rolling back legislation related to environmental protection.
For example, in November 2020, while struggling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indonesia’s President officially enacted the job creation law, widely known as the Omnibus Law. The Omnibus Law is projected to negatively affect the ways in which indigenous peoples living in West Papua and around forests can access their land, and puts them at a disadvantage in relation to corporations with commercial interests. In Bangladesh, due to the lack of effective laws and policies, Indigenous peoples land has been used or taken away in the name of development including tourism without free, prior and informed consent. Non-implementation of the CHT Accord 1997 has also been leading to a destruction of the land, forest and natural resources, as well as an insecure situation to the rights activists in CHT Bangladesh.
Similar situations are seen globally, where private actors also increasingly resort to physical violence and crimes in order to take control over and exploit land and territories for their private interests. In most cases, States have been unwilling or unable to hold them accountable.
The pandemic has also revealed and amplified severe social inequalities, structural racism, prejudice, and gender violence. This situation has been more evident in countries such as Brazil where the government has also dismantled public health policies, while instituting other policies, which exacerbated the pandemic’s effects.1 During the pandemic, the federal government in Brazil declared mining an essential activity that should continue during the lockdown. Mining companies kept up production levels even while putting their workers and neighboring communities and indigenous peoples at risk. This has proven to be especially true in areas where mines are isolated with little infrastructure and services and far from the oversight of any environmental authorities.2
Based on documentation from 2019, Front Line Defenders found that “land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights remained the most dangerous sector of human rights defense due to the profit-driven exploitation of natural resources, combined with rampant corruption, weak governments and systemic poverty.” This situation is particularly alarming in Latin America where in recent years it has registered the highest number of attacks and murders against environmental human right defenders, indigenous leaders and members of indigenous peoples. In Guatemala – in 2020 alone, and while Covid-19 measures were imposed – 1,034 aggressions have been registered, 53% of these were against male defenders, 33% against women defenders and 14% against human rights organizations, institutions and/or communities, in addition to 17 murders and 22 attempted murders.3
In order to ensure full respect for and protection of human rights, and implementation of SDG 16, there must be equal access to justice for indigenous peoples and full and equal participation in public affairs. Indigenous leaders and human right defenders must be able to challenge the policies of both State and non-State actors that impact them, and their land and resources, without fear of reprisal.
Moreover, as Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted indigenous and other already marginalized groups, States must consider how recovery plans take into account and redress prior discriminatory policies and practices, including those that have served to benefit extractive and other industries, and ensure inclusive, equitable societies with accountable institutions. State obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights are an essential foundation for the implementation of the SDGs and at the core of recovery plans.

  1. CONIC. “Um Brasil sufocado e orientado para uma política de morte: nota do Conselho Nacional de Igrejas Cristãs do Brasil” (A Brazil suffocated and oriented toward a death politics: a note from the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil), 16 January 2021. Available here.
  2. Franciscans International Statement, “COVID-19: Extreme poverty and environmental justice”, Available here.
  3. UDEFEGUA (Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala), 2021.

Photo by Tomas Munita/CIFOR under CC license