More precious than gold: 10 years of indigenous land rights under the UN Declaration
en years ago today, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
After personally witnessing decades of injustice for the world’s Indigenous Peoples, I welcomed this global commitment to our rights. The lack of secure rights to own and manage our lands has been at the heart of our struggles for centuries now. The forests and rivers we rely on and have managed for generations are prime targets for either destruction - through mining, logging, and dams - or conservation. Either way, the fact that we live there has almost always been seen as an obstacle.
Beyond the utilitarian benefits of community land ownership - indigenous management results in better environmental outcomes than even protected areas - we are peoples, and our rights must be respected. Indigenous Peoples suffer disproportionately from poverty despite living on the world’s most resource-rich lands in large part because we lack secure rights to those lands.
My own indigenous community, in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, has had to fight to keep our home. When I was a teenager, the Marcos dictatorship and the World Bank planned a massive hydroelectric dam that would have displaced 300,000 Indigenous Peoples in my region. Then Marcos granted a logging concession to his crony that would have deforested large areas of pine forest, including those in my community. We protested - even when our activities were declared illegal by the government - and eventually these two projects were cancelled.
Since then, we have faced enormous pressure from mining companies seeking the gold beneath our soil. Yet we have always refused. The land is our past, present, and future; it is far more valuable to us.
These problems are not unique to my community, or to the Philippines. After decades of appeals and pleas to the United Nations, negotiations on the Declaration began, but Indigenous Peoples were told that we could only “observe” the debate on our rights. We walked out, refusing to let our presence serve as tacit approval of decisions made about us without our participation. Indigenous resistance moved a powerful institution, and we won the right to have our voices heard.
The final Declaration was a resounding victory for Indigenous Peoples: a global statement that recognized the unique historical circumstances we face in terms of colonization, dispossession, and discrimination. In the end, only four states voted against the Declaration, and all have since reversed their position.
Ten years later, much has changed. The Declaration strengthened Indigenous Peoples’ movements, giving them a widely recognized and respected international standard to use in their advocacy and new hope that things could change. Indigenous Peoples are increasingly standing up for their rights, and in some cases, winning.
It used to be difficult to make indigenous land rights part of the global discussions on human rights, development, and climate change. Now, indigenous land management is recognized in the Paris Agreement and included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Indigenous Peoples are also winning cases in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, with the Declaration often cited in jurisprudence.
In May 2017, the African Court referenced the Declaration in its ground-breaking ruling recognizing the land rights and indigenous status of the Ogiek Peoples in Kenya, who were evicted from their lands in the name of conservation.
We have seen the Declaration embedded in constitutions, laws, and high court decisions in Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Belize, Colombia, Mexico, and Kenya, among others. In my own country, which already had an Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, titling of our lands has increased since the passage of the Declaration.
But ultimately, its promise remains unfulfilled. Only 10 percent of the world’s lands are recognized as belonging to Indigenous Peoples and other rural communities, despite the fact that these communities have customary ownership rights to over 50 percent. Even where laws respecting indigenous rights exist, governments often ignore them and instead protect the rights of investors and corporations, who proceed with extractive projects on our lands without our consent.
I saw this firsthand when I visited the United States earlier this year. The struggle of the Sioux to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from threatening their water sources is well known, but I also found a pattern of government approval for energy projects on reservation lands without the tribes’ consent. This exacerbates Native American poverty, which in many cases is a legacy of colonialism and insecure land rights. I also received concerning reports that Native Americans standing up for their rights have sometimes been met with violence—a problem faced by Indigenous Peoples around the world.
What I have seen - be it in the Philippines, US, Brazil, Honduras, or at the UN - tells me that Indigenous Peoples will never give up defending their rights and their lands. The Declaration was a step forward for Indigenous Peoples, certainly, but our rights are not yet fully respected and protected. We will continue to fight for our lands, which will always be more precious to us than gold.
Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino