Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is a terrorist — at least, according to the government of the Philippines. But Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the Kankanaey people indigenous to the northern Philippines, is also the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples to the United Nations.
Her story echoes hundreds of others of indigenous rights activists who are currently criminalized for their activism.
In a new report for the U.N. Human Rights Council, Tauli-Corpuz outlines how corporations and governments employ smear campaigns, legislation and even physical violence to stifle indigenous activists trying to protect their land and way of life.
“I’ve been alerted to hundreds of criminalization cases from nearly every corner of the world,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “The rapid expansion of development projects on indigenous lands without their consent is driving a global crisis.”
Tauli-Corpuz has been fighting for indigenous rights in her native Philippines for more than 40 years. But it was only after President Rodrigo Duterte took power that she was labeled a “terrorist” in a legal petition that included her and 600 other citizens. She believes it was in retaliation for her action to resist coal mining in Mindanao, an island in the south of the country.
“We are in a country where extra-judicial killings are taking place, and there is no rule of law,” she said, adding that seeing her name on the list was scary. Tauli-Corpuz felt forced to leave the Philippines for a few months. “Going through this experience gave even more meaning to this report I was making,” she said. “I experienced, myself, what those who are criminalized felt and feared.”
A few weeks before she released the U.N. report, Tauli-Corpuz’s name was removed from the list. But hundreds more remain.
Her 22-page report outlines a rising epidemic of indigenous activists treated as criminals by governments and corporations, especially in developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
“A crucial underlying cause of the current intensified attacks is the lack of respect for indigenous peoples’ collective land rights and the failure to provide indigenous communities with secure land tenure,” asserts the report.
Indigenous people have struggled for centuries to have their traditional lands recognized by their governments. In the last few years, this already-fraught struggle has been inflamed by a global commodities boom, which has seen a rush of investment into agribusiness, mining, fossil fuels, logging and other extractive industries. Investors are constantly seeking new areas, whether its primary rainforest in Papua New Guinea or wild rivers in Brazil, often encroaching on land that indigenous people have lived on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
“When they protest against big development projects, indigenous peoples are usually expressing a very realistic fear that they’ll be displaced,” said William Laurance, an ecologist with James Cook University, Australia, who studies how infrastructure projects affect the environment. According to Laurance, foreign governments and international businesses will often pay off local politicians to quickly rubber stamp massive projects, despite their impact on local people or the environment.
“The protesters often get labeled as criminals or foreign puppets — which is sadly ironic,” he said.
States are now employing various legal means to criminalize indigenous activists, according to the report. This includes establishing new national security or anti-terrorism laws that allow governments to easily target indigenous protesters. “The easiest way to weaken protests is to file trumped-up charges of trespassing, murder, kidnapping against the leaders and activists involved in these protests. The extreme approach is extrajudicial killings,” Tauli-Corpuz said.
Alfred Brownell, a lawyer who founded Green Advocates International, an environmental law organization in Liberia, told HuffPost that governments and companies are “waging wars against indigenous people ... by criminalizing their legitimate grievances and then threatening, arresting, intimidating and imprisoning those who dare challenge this.”
Indigenous rights activists are often charged with vague crimes and then held for months, sometimes years, without trial.
“It’s a lawyer’s nightmare. You are trapped in this vicious circle of defending your clients against criminalization, and there is hardly time to pursue their complaints in a judicial forum,” said Brownell, who spent years trying to aid indigenous communities fighting massive palm oil development in his native Liberia.
“The government and their business partners love to see us spinning,” he added, saying this is a deliberate strategy to break the will of the indigenous communities.
Such criminalization even extends to those who aid indigenous communities, such as NGO workers, journalists or lawyers like Brownell. After receiving numerous calls for arrest and even credible death threats, he fled Liberia with his family in 2016. He is currently living in Boston as a visiting scholar in the Northeastern University School of Law.
Governments and companies also employ smear campaigns that seek to turn indigenous activists into violent guerrillas in the public eye. In Tauli-Corpuz’s experience, corporations vilify indigenous people through the media, social media and by flyers labeling indigenous leaders as terrorists, then false charges are filed in court. “This usually happens when corporations want to enter into indigenous territories to extract mineral, oil, logs, or other resources,” she said.
“Defamation campaigns are often developed by business actors, with overt or covert support of corrupt government officials, whose financial interests are affected,” reads the report.
In some countries, no measure is considered too extreme to silence indigenous voices. During one bloody month early this summer, unknown assailants murdered seven indigenous activists in Guatemala. Then in July, 25-year-old nurse and human rights activist for the indigenous Mayan Ixil people, Juana Raymundo, was tortured and murdered. No one has been arrested.
“There is widespread impunity for those who commit violence against indigenous peoples,” said Anne-Sophie Gindroz with Rights and Resources Initiative.
Guatemala is not alone. Last year, government security forces and non-state actors (such as criminal gangs and hired assassins) across the world killed 207 land and environmental activists, according to a report by Global Witness. A quarter of those victims were from indigenous communities.
Brazil, as in years past, had the most killings.
“In this fight, many leaders have been murdered,” said Inaye Gomes Lopes, a spokesperson for the indigenous Guaraní Kaiowa people in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sol state.
The Guaraní Kaiowa have spent decades trying to get their land back from cattle ranchers, soy growers and sugar cane farmers.
”Women and children suffer. Children grow up suffering psychologically and also suffer violence,” Gomes Lopes says. “The killers are never punished.”
The situation is similar for many other indigenous tribes across Brazil who struggle against the current administration of President Michel Temer, which is viewed as anti-Indian.
“The government only thinks of growing economically and does not respect the rights that we have,” said Gomes Lopes.
Laurance believes that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global construction project designed to shore up China’s international interests – is likely only to worsen the global crisis. Kicked-off in 2013, the BRI is beginning to pour billions into some 7,000 infrastructure and extractive projects across 65 countries, including opening up some of the most remote areas of the planet.
“Aside from superficial lip service from the government, China doesn’t seem to worry about indigenous people or issues like the environment,” Laurance said, noting that China lacks basic laws to hold companies accountable such as the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
“There’s essentially no self-regulation coming from China,” he said.
But such regulations are desperately needed, according to the report, which urges nations and corporations to seek full, prior and informed consent of indigenous people before approving any project on indigenous land.
“Indigenous peoples are not against development but they reject ‘development models’ which have been imposed on them without their participation,” reads the report.
The report also recommends that governments stop stigmatizing indigenous groups, reform laws that make it easy to criminalize indigenous activists, and fully investigate and prosecute violence against indigenous people.
But the biggest hurdle remains land rights. “Trumped-up address the root causes of attacks and criminalization, collective land rights of indigenous peoples need to be recognized,” asserts the report.
Currently, indigenous people and other local communities communally live on about 50 percent of the world’s land, but they have only been legally granted around 10 percent. Granting lands to indigenous people doesn’t just protect them: A slew of recent research has found that investment in indigenous communities helps ecosystems, such as forests, and provides protection from worsening climate change and mass extinction.
“I want the government to respect our rights, to respect the Guaraní Kaiowa people and to demarcate our land,” said Gomes Lopes. “We only demand what is ours by right.”
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