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Earth Day: End the Global Attacks on Indigenous Environmentalists

April 20, 2023
United States Institute of Peace

By: Binalakshmi Nepram; Emmanuel Davalillo Hidalgo; Mona Hein; Chris Collins

Humanity observes our 53rd annual Earth Day this week while worsening our assault on our planetary home. Arguably our most critical protectors against this self-harm are Indigenous people who, only about 6 percent of us, protect 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. Yet powerful elites, armed groups and business interests attack and kill politically marginalized Indigenous environmentalists to continue clawing wealth out of ecosystems from the Amazon and Congo basins to the Himalayas. Any real hope of reversing our environmental degradation will require U.S. and international policymakers to strengthen protections for Indigenous environmentalists.

A woman of Nicaragua’s Indigenous Miskito community mourns her brother, who was kidnapped and decapitated in 2016 by settlers seizing protected Miskito forestlands. Such violence continues in Nicaragua and worldwide. (Oswaldo Rivas/The New York Times)

The Global Assault on Environmentalists

Earth Day arrives only weeks after the main U.N. body on climate change cited the work of many hundreds of scientists in this grim consensus: Climate change is now so grievous “a threat to human well-being and planetary health” that our “window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all” is “rapidly closing.”

Those most endangered include Indigenous people, over 475 million, who safeguard their ecosystems and the bulk of Earth’s remaining biodiversity with their traditional, generations-old expertise. Communities such as the Amazon’s Yanomami and Karipuna, or northeast India’s Khasi, are attacked as governments, industries and other powerful interests seize lands to mine, drill for oil, clear-cut timber or dam rivers. Attackers kill four environmental defenders every week — 1,733 of them since 2012 — and this murderous pace has accelerated, reports the human rights group Global Witness. In 2021, 40 percent of those killed were Indigenous, with most attacks in Latin America and Asia. [...]

In Latin America: Not Just the Amazon

As moneyed, powerful elites slash Latin America’s globally vital forests for more farmland, minerals and timber, international attention — via books, films, protests, even lawsuits — has focused heavily on Brazil. But most Latin American states continue to allow the dual assault on Indigenous peoples and their biodiverse homelands.

A struggle often overlooked is Nicaragua’s. Indigenous and campesino communities led protests to halt an attempt by President Daniel Ortega’s government to build a massive Chinese-funded canal that would have smashed through pristine forestlands of Miskito, Rama and other Indigenous peoples. In 2018, Nicaraguans protested what they said was the government’s poor response to massive fires across the Indio Maíz biological reserve. The reserve is Nicaragua’s second-largest lowland rainforest, part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and home of the Rama-Kriol people. Those protests energized the years-long civic uprising against Ortega’s rule.

More than 260,000 Nicaraguans have fled violence and oppression as refugees, mainly to the United States and Costa Rica — and violent struggles over resources have embroiled Indigenous people and their lands. Farmers clear Indigenous forestlands to raise cattle; settlers illicitly clear forest for its timber. Ortega’s government has allowed such incursions and has promoted gold extraction by issuing mining permits — some within legally protected reserves, according to reports from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the nongovernmental Oakland Institute and the Nicaragua-based River Foundation. Whether passive or active, official facilitation of encroachment has fueled killings, rapes, forced displacement and other violence against Indigenous peoples by armed gangs aligned with land-grabbers, environmental activists and independent analysts say.