The world today is marking 10 years since the formal adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the General Assembly. Forest Peoples Programme celebrates and supports the many gains made for indigenous peoples in the last 10 years, in legal advancements, key legal cases fought and won, increasing global respect and recognition and increasing, strong solidarity and collaborative work across the globe. This 10-year anniversary is also a moment to reflect on what has yet to be achieved, and where the struggle for equality and equity, for self-determination and cultural survival, will need to be fought in the future.
At an international level, progress has been made. The Sustainable Development Goals directly reference indigenous peoples – in the context of doubling the income of small-scale food producers (Goal 2), and eliminating gender disparities in education and training (Goal 4). Indigenous peoples are formally engaged in tracking implementation through a regionally representative caucus, the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, providing international political access that can overcome national barriers to participation.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change also acknowledged human rights obligations and specifically the rights of indigenous peoples. The Green Climate Fund, set up to finance the implementation of the agreement, recognises the importance of indigenous participation in its own governance, and has declared it will require consent from indigenous peoples in the projects it funds.
Indeed, free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is now recognised as a core standard for indigenous peoples and other peoples who access and transfer lands subject to customary law. Private sector initiatives and public sector financing institutions alike have developed policies and guidelines on the process, content and aim of FPIC, and the circumstances in which it is essential. Although implementation remains patchy and inconsistent, and the policies themselves vary in quality, this emerging consensus around the principle that indigenous peoples must consent to actions that will impact their lives, rights and interests is a significant step forward.
Nationally, there have been some causes for celebration. In Peru in 2015, the Wampis declared themselves an autonomous indigenous government in order to better defend the 1.3 million hectares of their ancestral territory. As a government, they prioritise wellbeing, food security and the promotion of economic options that respect their vision for a healthy and harmonious relationship with the natural world. In Kenya last year there was progress with the long-awaited adoption of the Community Land Act, which legally recognises community tenure. There have been positive emblematic court decisions which have advanced understanding of indigenous rights: the Constitutional Court decision in Indonesia recognising the existence of indigenous peoples’ customary territories, including in forests; the Inter-American Court of Human Rights judgment against Suriname highlighting the rights of the Saamaka; the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights decision for the Ogiek in Kenya, and the earlier decision of the African Commission for the Endorois, also in Kenya, highlighting the advance of indigenous rights recognition in the African continent; the Awas Tingni verdict of the Inter-American Court and the Caribbean Court of Justice’s ruling on the land rights of 38 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities in April 2015. All of these reference the Declaration, supporting the view that large parts of that instrument restate existing law.
Indigenous peoples have been working hard to protect their lands and resources, with participatory and community-led mapping emerging as an increasingly important and popular skill to demonstrate and claim land. Official recognition of community-generated maps is growing in Thailand and Indonesia.
Alongside the progress, however, there have been notable backwards steps. International standards and conventions are often not implemented, and national laws not harmonised with international ones.
Discrimination against and violence towards indigenous peoples continues to grow, with communities fighting for their land rights facing ever-increasing danger. The murder of Berta Caceres was one of the most reported indigenous deaths in recent years, but was far from an isolated case. In 2014, four Asheninka leaders were killed in the Peruvian Amazon after they tried to prevent illegal logging on their lands; in 2009, a youth was killed in Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal; and this year Piaroa indigenous leader Freddy Menare was killed. Global Witness’ Defenders of the Earth report lists 200 land and environmental defenders – almost 40% indigenous – from 24 countries who were killed in 2016 alone. Alongside death, indigenous people risk violence, disappearance, harassment and threats to their person and their family. This year, the Sengwer, who live in Embobut Forest, Kenya, have noticed an increase in violence and in one specific incident, a man documenting violence was shot at.
Progress on territorial rights has been limited to a few countries. In Nicaragua, there was full implementation of the legal rulings stemming from the Awas Tingni case, but similar examples are few and far between. Piloting a change in Presidential policies, some small but precedent-setting recognition has been achieved in Indonesia. These and other emblematic legal cases cited above face huge barriers to effective implementation. Indigenous lands are under increasing pressure, and indigenous peoples are experiencing evictions, land invasions and land grabs at a growing rate.
As we look ahead to the next 10 years of UNDRIP, it is clear that thorough, collective and determined strategies continue to be needed to secure better and wider-spread rights for indigenous peoples.
In the campaign to form and adopt UNDRIP, Forest Peoples Programme was proud to be supporting the many leaders who worked for so many years to bring it into being. For the coming years, we will continue to work towards UNDRIP’s full realisation, particularly at the local, community and national level where its implementation will make the most difference. We welcome increased international monitoring of implementation of the UNDRIP, the expansion of the mandate of the EMRIP, for instance, as well as further citation of its standards by the various international human rights tribunals and treaty bodies.
Our priorities are supporting and advancing the exercise of self-determination by indigenous and forest peoples and their communities through sustained partnerships, including carrying out partnered advocacy towards policy reform and development and adoption at all levels of legislation and standards consistent with indigenous and forest peoples’ rights and interests. As the impact of finance and conflicts over resources grows, we have prioritised developing or strengthening accountability and redress mechanisms in public and private institutions, and ensuring they are directly accessible to indigenous and forest peoples and communities. Central to all this is networking, sharing information and building solidarity, a key principle of our work.