The global pandemic of environmental racism and corporate impunity

By Chizom Ekeh
Friday 3 March 2012

The indigenous Uwa peoples of northern Colombia have threatened to commit collective suicide if multinational corporations get government permission to extract oil from their ancestral homelands.

In resistance to government’s attempts to displace them from their territories, the Uwa have said they will continue to fight for a future that is not dependent on oil and gas.

In a Youtube video released by Peace Brigades International, a human rights NGO, community leader Henry Salon said: “ We have always maintained that while the Uwa people exist, while the Uwa people have thought, wisdom and power, we will not give up. If in a given case we find we can resist no more, then we will commit collective suicide - because for us to see our mother (earth) violated is something grave and tragic.”

Over the years the Uwa have witnessed the militarisation of their territories, including the increased presence of FARC guerrillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian army.

Salon explained, “Where there is petrol there are guerrillas and paramilitaries and these groups help to open the space for the multinationals to come in.”

Armed groups locked in a running battle for control over the Uwa’s resources, aim to reap huge profits which can help to fund the war.
As a result civilians become victims in the cross-fire and serious human rights abuses are committed with alarming frequency.

The Uwa’s campaign for the withdrawal of armed groups and multinational corporations from their homeland began in 1998 in the aftermath of a massacre committed by paramilitaries in which five people were murdered, including a pregnant woman.

In 2007, Alvaro Salon, the Uwa’s most important and charismatic community leader, was murdered in circumstances still under investigation. But the community say that his murder was inevitable due to his relentless struggles for the recuperation of Uwa ancestral lands.

Despite the UN’s 2007 adoption of the declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples, human rights violations against communities in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Artic, are committed with impunity. Such abuses include racism, violence, forced relocation, expropriation of ancestral lands, destruction of the environment and impoverishment.

The declaration recognises the rights of indigenous peoples to self determination and grants them sovereignty over their lands. However in the face of poorer states’ attempts to promote ‘development’ and increase GDP such rights are being bypassed with the consequence that many indigenous communities could be wiped out.

In the Omo region in Ethiopia, indigenous groups opposed to government plans to remove them from their homelands, have been threatened with violence and imprisonment from state authorities. The government plans to lease out indigenous territories to state and private companies for conversion into large-scale sugar cane, cotton and biofuel plantations.

According to reports by the NGO Survival international, up to 250 people from the Bodi, Mursi and Suri tribes have been jailed. A Malaysian investor has collaborated with the Ethiopian government to arm and train 130 soldiers, which have left locals fearing that their fathers and sons will be killed if they try to defend their lands.

In a briefing to mark human rights day last month, the NGO set out to reveal ten hidden abuses against indigenous tribes globally.
According to the briefing, in Botswana in 2010, ” tourists could be seen relaxing around a swimming pool in the middle of the Kalahari desert, whilst Bushmen were refused access to water, despite having secured historic rights to their lands.”

In Brazil, “ Gunmen with hitlists are executing high profile Indian leaders. Cattle ranchers employ them to stop the Guarani from returning to their land.”

And in the Indian Andaman Islands: “in what are now recognised as human safaris, tourists treat the indigenous Jarawa like animals by throwing them food.”

In addition, indigenous communities are typically disproportionately affected by the environmental consequences of climate change. In the Artic, ice and snow dependent Inuit communities are struggling to cope with the impacts of global warming. In an urgent appeal to the international community in December 2011, the Inuit demanded that action be taken to protect their fundamental human right to a healthy environment.

Calling for the global adoption of a binding agreement to ensure the future of their Artic homelands, the Inuit Circumpolar Council said:
“The future health and wellness of our families and communities depends on our ability to maintain our land-based livelihoods and pass on our cultural knowledge to the next generation. The global community must do everything possible to prevent further climate impacts on the Artic.”

The Council, which represents Inuit across Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Russia, implored wealthy nations to exercise moral responsibility and ensure that temperature rises were maintained well below two degrees.

In a further twist to their plight, Aaqaluk Lynge, Chairperson of the Council, warned that ” the Arctic region was attracting the attention of oil, gas, mining and shipping companies, as the rapidly melting icecaps opened up new opportunities for exploration.”

The declaration on the rights of indigenous people enshrines the right to free, prior informed consent regarding natural resource extraction or infrastructural development in indigenous territories. In light of this, the Inuit have demanded involvement in all decision-making processes on any plans that may impact on their lands.

In its report ‘Progress can Kill’, Survival international states that most indigenous peoples are excluded from the so-called benefits of ‘development’ and experience a severe decline in their social, economic, cultural and physical well being. The report highlights increased rates of depression, addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, diabetes and obesity. It notes that when indigenous communities are removed from their environment life expectancy plummets, such as in the case of the Aborgines in Australia who have a life expectancy that is 17-20 years below other Australians.

Similarly suicide rates in indigenous populations are reported to have soared and in some cases are up to 10 times higher than the national average.

Challenging the common assumption that ‘progress’ is always good the report concludes that: “Projects which remove tribes from their land and impose progress cause untold misery. This is not surprising:  ‘progress’ – the conviction that ‘we’ know best – shares with colonialism the effect of taking over native lands and resources. Tribal peoples do not survive it. On the other hand, when on their own land choosing their on development, they simply thrive.”

In his speech to the tenth session of the permanent forum on indigenous issues, the UN special rapporteur said that in many places worldwide, there is a lack of social consensus about the importance of advancing indigenous people’s rights.

Widespread attitudes of racism and discrimination he said, could be blamed on the portrayals of indigenous peoples by governments and the media. He outlined his own experiences: “In my work I have been confronted by many misconceptions about indigenous peoples and their rights. For example I have heard state representatives take the position that securing indigenous rights to land and resources is incompatible with other interests of the State, such as its interests in development, and specifically, in carrying out natural resource extraction projects… I have also heard that the advancing of indigenous rights will threaten State sovereignty or create so-called “states within a state.”

Yet despite historically prejudiced perceptions of indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ or as ‘enemies of progress,’ in November  2011 the World Bank officially recognised that in order to promote  environmental conservation globally it is best that indigenous peoples remain on their lands.

The special rapporteur conceded that the UN system was guilty of failing to protect indigenous rights through a lack of joined up working across its agencies.

He outlined that on a daily basis multiple institutions within the UN system,  including the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, the International Labour Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation , carry out hundreds of activities and manage millions of dollars within programs that have impacts on indigenous peoples.

He added that the World Bank and International Financial Corporation fund natural resource extraction and other large-scale development projects carried out on indigenous lands.

”In the course of my work, I find that there is still much work to be done to orient the programs and staff within the UN system to effectively respond to the needs of indigenous peoples in accordance with their internationally recognised rights”, he said to conclude.

Despite their struggles to obtain redress for the crimes committed against them by governments, multinational corporations, armed groups, and the media, many Indigenous peoples are determined to resist and have opted to fight for their rights.

Inuit Council leaders have signed a Declaration to preserve Inuit rights during extraction of natural resources from their territories and have encouraged other indigenous communities to use it to advance similar aims. 

The Permanent Tribunal for the People (TPP), a bi-regional European and Latin America NGO, has developed a network of activists to challenge the power of transnational corporations and states guilty of violating human and environmental rights.

TPP encourages bi-regional collaboration and carries out independent investigations.  In addition to indigenous peoples, their networks include peasant farmer movements, NGOS, environmentalists and trade unions. Work is being done to develop new concepts and legal instruments with which to challenge and hold corporate power to account.

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Date: 03/03/2012


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