The Indigenous Rights Report

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Indigenous Rights Report

Indigenous Rights Report

Issue #7, August 3-9, 2019
A court order prohibits the community from fishing, hunting, building new houses and gathering firewood at Limoy. Photo: William Costa

In this week’s Indigenous Rights Report:

  • Costa Rica enacts new law recognizing indigenous communities on the country’s border
  • US federal circuit court affirms the validity of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)
  • A Guarani community wants to recover lands from a hydro industry giant
  • Young Taiwanese are reconnecting with their indigenous roots
  • Indigenous Peoples’ Rights recognized by the IPCC
  • Indigenous Pacific knowledge to help save the ocean
  • Ayoreo environmental defender latest victim of deadly epidemic
  • Land returns after complaint to World Bank offer hope in Cambodia
  • Defending the environment now more lethal than soldiering in some war zones: new report
  • Tribes win ruling against copper mine on ancestral territory
  • Minerals survey begins over Nuu-chah-nulth territory without First Nations’ consent
  • India Supreme Court postpones decision on the eviction of millions of forest dwellers
  • Tribe files formal request for hearing on Dakota Access Pipeline expansion
  • Biodiversity is the highest on Indigenous-managed lands: new study
  • California Assembly Member pulls a repatriation bill from consideration
  • Indigenous peoples from Venezuela seek safety across the border in Brazil
  • Humanitarian emergency due to murder of Indigenous people in Colombia
  • Yunupingu announces new native title mining claim
  • Tribal communities in Michigan use traditional knowledge to tackle modern public health crisis
  • International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019


Costa Rica has enacted a new law that recognizes the nationality of Ngäbe indigenous communities that are located on the country’s border. Indigenous people living in those territories have long suffered marginalization of state services due to the lack of official acknowledgement of their identities. The legislation establishes mechanisms to recognize the indigenous population, comprising some 3,000 people near Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean border with Panama.

At the same time, the government issued a decree that creates a database of the Broran people, in the southern area of Térraba, to facilitate the determination of their genealogical patterns and the preservation of their customs, traditions and cultural wealth. Deputy Enrique Sánchez, promoter of the law, explained that the law was made in consultation with the indigenous populations. “From that recognition, they will be able to access the rights associated with nationality,” Sánchez explained. “They’ll know that they won’t have any problem when they have to access [a public clinic], when they have to enroll their sons and daughters in Costa Rican schools, when they have to complete paperwork at any government institution.”


A US federal circuit court reversed a lower court’s ruling by affirming the validity of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a law passed in 1978 to protect Native American families and children when nearly a third of Indian children were being removed from their parents and placed mostly with white families. In its decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that it found plaintiffs had standing on a number of points in the suit, now referred to as Brackeen v. Bernhardt. But what may be the most significant aspect of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling today is its denial of the claim that ICWA is a “race-based” law.

The Fifth Circuit rejected his reframing of ICWA, saying, “we conclude this was error.” Quoting an earlier case, the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision stated: If these laws, derived from historical relationships and explicitly designed to help only Indians, were deemed invidious racial discrimination, an entire Title of the United States Code (25 U.S.C.) would be effectively erased and the solemn commitment of the Government toward the Indians would be jeopardized.


A Guarani community in Paraguay is currently engaged in a legal battle to recover their lost land while also facing the dire threat of a second eviction from their temporary settlement in the Limoy nature reserve.

The community is living between two contrasting landscapes: the Limoy reserve and an area of intensive agriculture. Photo: William Costa

Tekoha Sauce is one of many indigenous communities that were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands in eastern Paraguay during the construction of the Itaipú Hydroelectric Plant which took place from 1973-1984. A total of 38 indigenous communities, consisting of approximately 688 families, were forced from their ancestral lands along the Paraguayan side of the Paraná as a result of the expropriation. On the Brazilian side of the border, a recently released report commissioned by the country’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, states that the rights of Guaraní communities living in Brazil were also severely violated during the construction of Itaipú. No such report has been carried out by the Paraguayan state.

More recently, Itaipú Binacional, which is jointly  owned by the governments of Brazil and Paraguay,  pushed a measure through the courts that prohibited Tekoha Sauce from hunting, fishing, building new houses and from using wood from the reserve which is administered by the company.

Tekoha Sauce’s legal team is currently awaiting the final decision of Paraguayan authorities. If a favorable decision is not obtained, they plan to take the case to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR).


Taiwan’s younger generation is breaking away from a long cycle of abuse and neglect by reconnecting with the culture that their parents were uprooted from, through language, music and nature, as they push for the government to recognize and protect their rights.

The historical trauma of Taiwan’s 16 Indigenous peoples – who endured centuries of mistreatment at the hands of the government – has only recently been acknowledged in an official capacity. In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen apologized for the history of abuse that dates back to colonization by Japan in the 19th century and former leader Chiang Kai-shek’s assimilation policy in the 1960s that banned all Indigenous peoples from speaking their own languages, singing their native songs and practicing traditions like hunting. The trauma of loss led to widespread depression, anxiety, alcohol dependence and high rates of liver disease and fatal accidents among the 24,000-strong Truku community, said National Taiwan University researcher Ciwang Teyra.

Despite better recognition, Indigenous peoples in Taiwan are still fighting for greater control of their land. Official data shows about two-thirds of Taiwan’s 174 mining sites are located on their ancestral lands. Indigenous peoples make up 2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, the majority of whom trace their ancestry back to China.


A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on land use recognized the land ownership rights of indigenous communities, as a means to curb global warming. The IPCC report highlights that Indigenous communities are the best guardians of land and forests, and that securing their land rights is essential to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The report also offers recommendations for better agricultural and forestry land use worldwide. Several opinions gathered in a press release, signed by leaders of 42 Indigenous groups, agreed that they play a decisive role in safeguarding land, which is essential to combating climate change.

Leaders of the movement to protect Mauna Kea. (Photo by Anne Keala Kelly)

The lands where indigenous communities and peoples are located total 16 million square kilometers and occupy 76 percent of the planet’s tropical forests. According to the UN, there are 370 million indigenous people in 90 countries worldwide, representing 5,000 cultures. In addition, an indigenous language disappears every two weeks.


At the first global workshop in New Caledonia aimed at arresting the decline of the world’s oceans it was agreed that Indigenous Pacific knowledge should inform the science to save the world’s oceans. The Noumea gathering launched the development phase of the Pacific’s science action plan to feed into a global summit in March.

The United Nations’ World Ocean Assessment Report recently confirmed the seas are in a bad state, with increased temperatures and acidity negatively impacting fish stocks and biodiversity.


Chagabi Etacore, one of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode’s leaders and environmental defenders, is the latest in a long line of victims of an epidemic of tuberculosis and related diseases that are devastating Paraguay’s Ayoreo-Totobiegosode communities. The epidemic started 40 years ago due to forced contact by the fundamentalist American missionary group, New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360), which captured large groups of uncontacted Ayoreo and brought them to the mission base.

The Ayoreo continue to demand full recognition and protection for their forests and their uncontacted relatives who live in them. The Paraguayan government has not done so, despite demands from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


Indigenous villagers in Cambodia are hoping to regain their livelihoods after they successfully pressured the World Bank over its financial ties to a land-grabbing company. Kak Village was one of 12 ethnic minority villages in Andoung Meas and O’Chum Communes, comprising 1,368 households, who complained their ancestral forests and land used for swidden farming were grabbed by HAGL’s Cambodian subsidiaries when they received a 50,000-hectare economic land concession for rubber from the government in 2009. In March, Rattanakiri Province authorities agreed with HAGL to cut out 64 disputed areas – around 742 hectares – including ‘spirit mountains’, wetlands, traditional hunting areas and burial grounds to the 12 affected communities after years of dialogue and negotiations.

Large-scale land grabs by companies with connections to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party have proliferated across rural Cambodia since the early 2000s, affecting hundreds of thousands of lowland Khmer farmers and thousands of indigenous villagers in the Northeast.


Indigenous peoples are continuing to pay a heavy price for standing up for their ancestral lands

According to new research (published in Nature) the effort is now more lethal than some war zones. Numerous lawyers, park rangers, and journalists have also been killed attempting to protect both resource and biodiversity-rich land from extractive industries. But Indigenous groups account for the largest proportion of these killings: in 2018 alone, at least 164 indigenous people were killed defending the environment, adding to hundreds more deaths in preceding years.  A UN report highlighted that nature under indigenous control is declining less rapidly than in other lands, and indigenous people are willing to put their lives on the line for nature.


A federal judge has halted plans to begin digging an open-pit copper mine this month south of Tucson, citing an “inherently flawed” analysis of surface-use rights by the U.S. Forest Service. The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Soto of Arizona overturns a decision by the U.S. Forest Service in 2017 that granted Rosemont Copper Co. final approval to dig a large-scale pit mine in the Coronado National Forest. The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pasqua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe also were part of the suit. The Forest Service noted that the Rosemont Mine would have disturbed and desecrated 33 Native American burial grounds in the area.

Conservationists cheered the ruling as a victory for humans and wildlife. Hudbay Minerals of Toronto, which owns Rosemont Copper, intends to appeal.


A helicopter survey by Geoscience BC is being carried out to identify areas for potential mineral deposits on Vancouver Island. The elected chief of the Ehattesaht First Nation, Rose-Ann Michael, said that “They should be consulting us if they’re exploring our territory.”  Michael worries that this massive helicopter survey, which will fly over her First Nation as well as other Nuu-chah-nulth territory, may trigger a new mineral exploration in this part of the province.

Geoscience BC is a not-for-profit society that garners research and data about minerals, energy and water resources throughout British Columbia. Geoscience BC will utilize collected data to update geological maps. Information obtained from its helicopter survey can then be used to determine mineral potential of certain areas. The data can also assist with making decisions about potential mineral resource development on Vancouver Island.


India’s Supreme Court postponed its decision on the eviction of millions of forest dwellers. The Central government in India chose not to argue on the main question of evicting people, but instead just pointed out that due process has not always been followed.

Many forest communities in India continue to fight for the Central government to defend the law and have this order withdrawn.


The Standing Rock Sioux have requested a hearing on a plan by Texas-based Energy Transfer, the developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to double the line’s capacity, a move the tribe believes will multiply the risk of an oil spill.

Image Credit: Rob Wilson photography

The $3.8 billion pipeline is less than  half a mile from the Standing Rock Reservation, beneath a Missouri River reservoir that serves as  the tribe’s water source. Fears of an oil spill into the river sparked massive protests in 2016 and 2017, drawing thousands of pipeline opponents to North Dakota.


A new UBC-led study suggests that Indigenous-managed lands may play a critical role in helping species survive. The researchers analyzed land and species data from Australia, Brazil and Canada and found that the total numbers of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles were the highest on lands managed or co-managed by Indigenous communities. The study is the first to compare biodiversity and land management on such a broad geographic scale, the researchers say. According to a recent United Nations report, more than one million plant and animal species worldwide are facing extinction.


Assembly Member James Ramos agreed to pull Assembly Bill 275 bill from consideration after several tribes expressed concerns. Ramos, D-Highland, Serrano/Cahuilla, a citizen of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the first California Indian to be elected to the state legislature, says he filed the bill to ensure that all Indigenous California peoples have equal access and oversight over remains and funerary items in California university archives and museums. The bill came under fire after California tribes said the bill would bar most of California’s non-recognized and terminated tribes from participating in repatriation committees to bring their ancestral remains and funerary items home for reburial.

Over the past decade, the state has been moving toward more engagement with all Indigenous peoples in California, including recognized, non-recognized and terminated tribes. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to tribes for the state’s past atrocities and promised to initiate a “Truth and Healing Council” to address and clarify the record.


After violence broke out in their native Venezuela, hundreds of members of the Pemon Indigenous peoples fled to Tarauparu village across the border in Brazil.

With the collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the resulting food and medicine shortages, crippling inflation and widespread social upheaval, it’s not clear when – or even if – the hundreds of Pemons who have found safety in Brazil will return to Venezuela. As a result, UNHCR is working with Aldino Alves Ferreira, who serves as tuxaua, or chief, of the Tarauparu to find longer-term housing solutions in Tarauparu and other nearby villages.


The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has declared a humanitarian emergency due to the assassination of 158 Indigenous people since the 2016 signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the former FARC-EP guerrilla group. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, a pioneer organization of the Indigenous Movement in Latin America, also recently denounced the increase in murders, threats, accusations and persecutions against those who build peace in Colombia.

In Colombia, there are 102 indigenous communities and eight in voluntary isolation. At least 70 of the 102 communities are at serious risk of physical and cultural extermination, with 31 facing  extinction, and 39 facing imminent physical and cultural extermination, according to the Constitutional Court.


Prominent Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu has revealed plans to secure royalties from bauxite mine that began operating on remote Arnhem Land.

The government failed to consult traditional owners before granting a mining lease to Swiss miner Nabalco in the 1960s. The large bauxite mine’s current owner is Rio Tinto. If successful, Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s case could far outstrip this year’s landmark $2.5 million NT Timber Creek native title case that put a price on intangible harm caused by disconnection with country.

The Gumatj people operate the first Indigenous-owned mine at Gulkula, and they sell their bauxite to Rio Tinto.


Tribal communities in Michigan are working to improve infant and maternal health, in part by reviving traditional cultural practices around pregnancy and motherhood. And that’s an urgent issue: the latest state data show the infant mortality rate for Native American babies in Michigan increased around 40 percent from 2013 to 2017. For every 1,000 Native American babies born in Michigan, more than 14 don’t reach their first birthday. That’s more than triple the infant mortality rate for white babies. There are several factors that contribute to the increased infant mortality rate for Native American babies: limited access to health care for people who live in rural areas, discrimination in health care settings, a higher rate of commercial tobacco usage in some tribal communities, and inter-generational trauma, said Raeanne Madison (an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Bois Forte Band and who works in the Maternal and Child Health Department at the Intertribal Council of Michigan).

There is a growing movement for “indigenous birth rights.” In Michigan, tribal communities are also reviving traditional practices around pregnancy and postpartum, improving nutrition by eating traditional foods, and reviving traditional ceremonies and practices around how to care for babies and new parents.


The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was commemorated on August 9. This year’s theme focuses on the current situation of Indigenous languages around the world, aiming to highlight the critical need to revitalize, preserve and promote Indigenous languages to safeguard the life of Indigenous cultures for future generations. Indigenous people speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s 7,000 languages. Tragically, many Indigenous languages are under threat. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 230 languages went extinct between 1950 and 2010. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Four in ten existing languages are at risk of disappearing.

In a call for a decade of action to reverse the “historic destruction” of age-old dialects, UN-appointed experts urged  “UN member States to recognize, protect and promote indigenous languages through legislation, policies and other strategies in full cooperation with indigenous peoples.”

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