14 Watershed Moments for Indigenous Rights in 2017

by January 3, 2018
 

Indigenous Peoples may still be locked out of nearly every alternative and mainstream media sphere; but even with the startling lack of media coverage, we saw numerous watershed moments for indigenous rights in 2017.

Perhaps most notably, we saw more and more Indigenous Peoples literally take their rights into the own hands. In Guatemala, the Maya weavers movement introduced a new bill in Congress to have their collective intellectual property rights recognized. We saw the world’s first constitutionally-based Rights of Nature lawsuit in Ecuador, a case that was brought on by two of IC’s partners, the Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Communities of La Chiquita and Guadualito. Meanwhile, in Canada, we saw the advancement of Bill C-262, a bill sponsored by NDP MP Romeo Saganash that calls for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). On the other side of the planet, in northern Iraq, the Yezidi Peoples established the Provisional Government of the Autonomous Nation of Ezidikhan.

Of course, we also witnessed the all-too-familiar routine of judicial and physical repression of Indigenous Peoples in Chile, Nicaragua, Peru, Panama and elsewhere. It is a centuries-old trend that shows no signs of abating, however one particular indigenous land rights case in Mexico remained markedly subdued: In 2016, 500 indigenous Huichols descended in a quiet tide into the Mexican valley of Huajimic, beginning a process for the restitution most feared by the ranchers now holding the bitterly contested 10,000 hectares. Two Huichol leaders who fought to reclaim that land were tragically assassinated in 2017; however, the Huichol people have remained steadfast in their quest to reclaim the land, and the court system is slowly but quietly backing them.

Please read on for a closer look at some of these and other watershed moments for Indigenous Rights in 2017, as reported by our network of volunteer writers.

Maya Weavers propose a collective intellectual property law

The Maya Weavers movement presenting the proposal for the recognition of collective intellectual property, February 2017. Photo: AFEDES

A national movement of Maya Weavers, who have been fighting the theft of their textile art as one more form of dispossession, introduced a new bill in Congress to have their collective intellectual property rights recognized under Guatemalan law. Made up of some 30 organizations from 18 linguistic communities in Guatemala, the movement is led by the Women’s Association for Development of Sacatepéquez. Story by Manuela Picq.

Chile continues to use Pinochet’s Anti-Terrorist Law against the Mapuche

Jaime Huenchullan, one of eight Mapuche leaders violently detained by Chilean forces on Sept. 23. Photo by Prensa Opal Chile.

An Anti-Terrorist Law enacted by Augusto Pinochet in 1984 to facilitate the crushing of political dissent is still being used to repress and neutralize Mapuche leaders and community members. In September, eight of the most prominent Mapuche leaders were illegally and violently detained under the law; none of these leaders were provided a formal detention order–the Carabineros argued that a ‘verbal detention warrant’ was sufficient. Even more alarming, however, is former President Sebastian Piñera’s argument last year that Law 18.314 “needs to be perfected to make it more efficacious”. Referring to the Mapuche who are struggling desperately to claim their indigenous land rights, Piñera said, “The terrorists should not be given even a millimeter of advantage.” Story by Alejandra Gaitan Barrera.

Court issues ruling in world’s first “Rights of Nature” lawsuit

A sweet moment with children of the Awá community of Guadualito in their diverse chacra (rotational farm plot). Shade grown cacao is a good alternative to oil palms in the Chocó rainforest ecoregion (Photographed by Hazlewood on Oct 30, 2016)

After six and a half years of combined suspense and patience, Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Provincial Court handed down its decision on the world’s first constitutionally-based Rights of Nature lawsuit on Jan. 11 2017. The plaintiffs — the Afro-descendant community of La Chiquita and the Awá community of Guadualito — filed the landmark case against Los Andes and Palesema Oil Palm companies on July 23, 2010, a little over two years after Ecuador recognized the Rights of Nature in its 2008 constitution. Judge Juan Francisco Gabriel Morales Suarez only “partially” accepted the communities’ claims, demonstrating that the judge agrees with the evidence provided by the plaintiffs while also evading a determination that the oil palm companies are guilty as charged. As one La Chiquita resident stated, “The sentence does not have either heads or tails.” Story and photos by Julianne A. Hazlewood, Ph.D. and The Communities of La Chiquita and Guadualito.

Hawai’i Government Approves Thirty Meter Telescope on sacred mountain

Artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Credit: TMT Observatory Corporation

For the Kanaka Maoli Peoples, Mauna a Wakea – or Mauna Loa – is a sacred center, as much an ancestor as it is a home of deities. It is in many ways a living temple, a site of numerous shrines and ceremonies and an important burial ground. The Kanaka Maoli also believe the Mauna a Wakea mountain plays an integral role in Hawaii’s water cycle, and use the water collected at its summit for healing and ceremonial practices. That didn’t stop the Hawai’i Board of Land and Natural Resources from approving construction of the controversial Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) on top of the mountain – despite a lengthy battle based on environmental, cultural and spiritual concerns. Story by Gabriella Rutherford.

Justice thwarted in Huichol land restitution case

Photo: Octaviano Díaz Chema

A century-old land conflict has flared up again in the Western Sierra Madre, deepening already raw tensions in the wake of the May 2017 assassination of two indigenous Huichol (Wixárika) leaders who fought to reclaim that land. On the date the court set for reclamation of the second parcel, 1,200 Huichols hiked for three hours down a mountain into the contested valley of Huajimic to meet the court officials scheduled to sign over to them a bitterly contested piece of farmland. The officials never arrived, however, because ranchers opposing the restitution staged a roadblock. Story by Tracy L. Barnett.

Chevron’s Amazon Chernobyl Case moves to Canada

The Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Quichua, and Huaorani have suffered numerous problems from oil production on their lands. Laura Mendo, 59, recalls a time when the Cofan wandered freely and lived off the land. Now the rivers are contaminated, crops don’t grow, and new illnesses and cancer have been introduced. Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network (CC BY-NC 2.0)

After perpetrating what is probably the worst oil-related catastrophe on Earth — a 20,000-hectare death zone in Ecuador, known as the “Amazon Chernobyl” — Chevron Corp. has spent two decades and a billion dollars trying to avoid responsibility. In 2011, indigenous and peasant villagers won a $9.5-billion compensation judgment in Ecuador. Chevron, despite accepting jurisdiction in Ecuador to avoid a U.S. jury trial, refused to pay. The company sold its assets in Ecuador to avoid seizure, left the country, and threatened the victims with a “lifetime of litigation” if they pursued compensation. The 30,000 plaintiffs, however, have not given up. The case now moves to Canada, where Chevron holds assets, and where the victims hope, at last, to gain justice. Story by Rex Weyler.

Panama trial of three Ngäbe leaders reveals “a pattern” of intimidation and criminalization

Manolo Miranda, one of three Ngäbe leaders facing trial, explains the impacts of the Barro Blanco Dam on the Tabasará River and surrounding communities. (Jonathan González photo)

Manolo Miranda, leader of an indigenous community that was recently flooded by the Barro Blanco dam, now faces criminal charges for causing delays and financial losses to the hydroelectric dam company that has ruined his community’s way of life. Miranda and two other Ngäbe-Buglé leaders who opposed the dam face up to two years in prison for trespassing and interfering with the “inviolability of work.” Human rights and environmental leaders say the case is typical of a growing trend of using the courts to silence and intimidate environmental and human rights defenders throughout the country. Story by Tracy L. Barnett

Yezidi establish the Provisional Government of the Autonomous Nation of Ezidikhan

In response to the horrifying genocidal assault by ISIS that brought them to the edge of extinction, the Yezidi Peoples of northwestern Iraq have proclaimed an autonomous nation. After invading Yezidi towns and villages near the Syrian border, the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters killed 5,000 Yezidi and enslaved more than 4,000 women and children. Tens of thousands more were displaced as a result of the siege. An estimated 3,200 women and children are still held under conditions of sexual slavery. Story by John Ahni Schertow.

An Aymara leader is sentenced to 7 years for protesting against a Canadian mining project

Aymara people outside the courthouse in Puno on June 28, 2017, during final hearings of the trial

Aymara leader Walter Aduviri was sentenced to 7 years in prison and ordered to pay a 2 million sol fine (over $600,000) in connection with his opposition to a Canadian mining project. Initially, 100 Aymara had criminal investigations brought against them after the “Aymarazo” protests in the southeastern region of Puno. They had all been equally charged with obstruction of public services, disturbing the peace, and aggravated extortion. The investigations were dropped against 82 of the Aymara, leaving just eighteen to stand trial. Those 18 endured the six-year trial and faced up to 28 years in prison and massive fines; all but Aduviri were eventually acquitted of all charges. Story by Sian Cowman and Aldo Orellana López.

Indigenous Peoples cautiously celebrate Hunt Oil withdrawal from Amarakaeri Communal Reserve

The Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region is the largest watershed in the southeast Peruvian Amazon, bordering Bolivia, Brazil and the Peruvian regions of Cusco, Puno and Ucayali. Consisting of 85 300.54 km2 of primarily low lying rainforest with a population of only 109 555 (2005 stats) is home to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Photo: Kimlee Wong

After struggling for more than a decade to remove the U.S.-based Hunt Oil from the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve (ACR) in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, the Harakbut, Machiguenga and Yine Peoples are cautiously optimistic. Fermin Chimatani (Chima), president of Eca Amarakaeri (ECA) received word that Hunt Oil finally decided to pull out of indigenous territory otherwise known as “Lot 76”. Just four years after the Peruvian government granted protection to the Indigenous Peoples by creating the ACR, 90% of the land was ceded to Hunt Oil without the knowledge or consent of the region’s Indigenous Peoples. IC visited the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve 12 months ago to learn more about the struggle. Story and photos by Kimlee Wong.

Risks surrounding the Canyon uranium mine exposed

Representatives from Haul No and the Havasupai Tribe march to the gates of the Canyon Mine which lay upon grounds sacred to many indigenous nations in the region. Photo: Garet Bleir

This past summer, Intercontinental Cry spent six weeks investigating the Canadian-owned Canyon uranium mine, which lay upon grounds sacred to many indigenous nations. From extraction to transport to processing, every stage of this controversial mining operation could expose this iconic landscape, its watershed, and its inhabitants to high levels of radiation. Whether it was the incredible Grand Canyon landscape that welcomes a staggering five million tourists per year, the grassroots movement that’s fighting to protect the region, or the opportunity we had to witness the Ram Dance–a tradition the Havasupai haven’t practiced for over 100 years–we were driven to take readers beyond the fences and front lines, to shed light not only on the controversies but also the people standing on either side of them. Story and photos by Garet Bleir.

Miskito Face a Military Siege Following Nicaragua Elections


Nicaragua’s Indigenous Yatama Party has lost far more than the municipalities of Waspam, Bilwi, Prinzapolka, and Awaltara. Following the November elections last year, at least four people were killed and dozens more were injured or taken as political prisoners. Yatama’s Miskitu-language radio station and sacred headquarters was also burned down; the “indio guerillero” (warrior Indian) statue was destroyed; and Yatama’s own flag was replaced by the flag of the Sandinista nation-state. As the dust began to settle, word came down that the Sandinista even ordered the capture or execution of the historic political and spiritual leader of Yatama, Brooklyn Rivera. Despite the threat on his life, however, Rivera braved a public appearance to celebrate Yatama’s 30-year anniversary. Stories by Laura Hobson Herlihy and Brett Spencer.

‘Indigenous Navigator’ offers new way to monitor Indigenous rights worldwide

A new interactive watchdog was announced that lets users keep track of the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), outcomes from the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and key elements of the Sustainable Development Goals — more than one-third of which are related to UNDRIP. Local communities respond to a questionnaire either via the website or through a downloadable paper version. The information is then processed through a globally accessible system that allows users to make a variety of comparisons with both international and national laws. Story by Elizabeth Walsh.

Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’


California Governor Jerry Brown, a man that is bizarrely portrayed as “a green governor” and “climate hero,” went to the climate talks in Bonn to promote California as a global model of climate leadership. But when he was confronted by Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and climate activists during his speech, the supposed environmental champion showed his true colors. The banner-carrying protesters yelled, “Keep it in the ground” and other chants, referring to the governor’s strong support of fracking, both offshore and on land in California, and cap-and-trade policies that could prove catastrophic to the Huni Kui People of Acre, Brazil and other indigenous communities around the globe. “I wish we have could have no pollution, but we have to have our automobiles,” said Brown as the activists began disrupting his talk. “In the ground, I agree with you,” Brown said. “In the ground. Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here.” Story by Dan Bacher.