This week, Pope Francis will meet with indigenous peoples in Peru and Chile contending with poverty, conflict, discrimination, and environmental destruction.
They hope the Pope, who has been a powerful ally to the world’s indigenous peoples, will amplify their message that to overcome these struggles, governments and corporations must respect their rights to the lands and forests that have sustained them for generations.
Francis, the first Pontiff in history to hail from Latin America, made history last year when he called for the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and their right to free, prior, and informed consent.
The Pope has also shown grave concern over environmental degradation taking place across the world and in particular in Latin America, calling the deforestation of the Amazon a “sin.” He understands that indigenous peoples are best equipped to care for their customary lands and forests, and must be key players in the global struggle against climate change.
His visit comes at a moment, and to a place, where the struggle to protect indigenous land rights is as urgent as ever. Indigenous peoples in Chile and Peru face illegal settlements, wildcat mining, and even the outright seizure of lands for plantation agriculture or other forms of exploitation.
In Chile, the Mapuche people have faced a violent crackdown for resisting the appropriation of their lands for timber and logging. And in the region of Madre de Dios in Peru, which the Pope will visit on Friday, mining has devastated large swathes of indigenous land.
Rather than bringing prosperity to these fragile regions, such projects often rob indigenous peoples of the lands they traditionally hunted, farmed, and fished, destroy their sacred forests and pollute their waters, and fail to deliver jobs or other economic benefits.
Their struggles are mirrored by indigenous peoples around the world, who are too often at risk of being pushed aside when their lands and waters are taken over by states and corporations for plantations, dams, highways, or mineral, oil, and gas exploitation.
They understand the stakes of this struggle better than anyone: they depend on the recognition of their lands for their livelihoods, their cultures, and their very identity.
Indigenous peoples and local communities have customary rights to at least half the world’s land, yet have legal ownership to just ten percent.
But these rights are not only essential to the survival of indigenous peoples — they are central to preserving humanity’s common future. Indigenous peoples are the proven best stewards of their lands—when they have secure legal ownership and management rights, deforestation rates drop and carbon storage increases.
These lands have enormous benefit to our environment and hold the key to preventing a climate crisis: at least ten percent—and likely far more—of the world’s aboveground tropical forest carbon is in lands where communities have customary rights but lack formal legal recognition.
This puts these lands at risk of deforestation and environmental devastation, particularly in the Amazon basin, often referred to as the “lungs of the earth”, where “development” comes at the expense of the world’s most environmentally valuable forestland.
I have seen firsthand that communities will go to great lengths to protect these lands. As a member of the Kankana-ey Igorot in the Philippines, I joined my fellow community members in protesting moves to grab our lands for dams and development projects.
On the basis of our customary land rights, my community turned down numerous miners seeking the gold beneath our communities and loggers wanting to cut down our forests.
And as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I have seen that indigenous peoples around the world will not give up defending the lands that are rightfully theirs, even as those who are on the front lines of this struggle face increasing persecution and violence.
In 2016, hundreds of land rights and environmental defenders died defending these rights; 40 percent of them were indigenous.
In my role as UN Special Rapporteur, I have traveled the world to document the concerns of indigenous and local communities and bring attention to their struggles and contributions.
I know that the right kind of international attention, dialogue, and understanding over the longstanding and courageous struggle of indigenous communities can create change on the ground.
The Pope’s visit allows these communities to have their voices heard and their struggle better understood. His visit, and his continued vocal support for their land rights, presents him with an opportunity to show that he understands what is at stake—for indigenous peoples and for the world.To spark change in this urgent struggle, the Pope must continue to be a powerful voice of support in the efforts of indigenous peoples in Chile and Peru — and the rest of the world — to secure and defend their rights and protect the integrity of Mother Earth.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
This was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation