The role indigenous peoples play in tackling organized environmental crime

Often facing retribution and violence for doing so, indigenous peoples and local communities are on the frontlines resisting the main industrial drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate breakdown.

On the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, we highlight their crucial role in tackling organized environmental crime.

Many of these areas are potentially important biocultural landscapes and indigenous peoples actively protect and conserve an astounding diversity of globally relevant species, habitats and ecosystems.

This provides the basis for clean water and air, healthy food and livelihoods, while also achieving climate-resilient outcomes advancing indigenous peoples’ rights, and preserving cultural, spiritual and other values.

At a time of unprecedented global environmental threats facing both nature and people, there will be more reliance on the critical solutions that local governance and resource management can provide.

5 threats to environmental defenders

  • Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the impact of mining – stripping them of their sovereignty, their traditional wealth, and posing multiple impoverishment risks.
  • Mining often produces widespread environmental impacts both directly and indirectly related to extractive processes. These impacts may directly and disproportionately affect the land-based livelihoods and traditional activities of nearby indigenous communities.
  • During the last decade, land grabs facilitated by multinational corporations have been escalating as investors and local governments pursue agribusiness.
  • Indigenous peoples who have occupied land for centuries are losing their homes and livelihoods to corporations exploiting their land for profit.
  • Illegal logging of protected forests is undermining the human rights and erasing the traditions of indigenous peoples.
  • Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and cultural practices often depend on maintaining a close connection to their traditional forested lands. Consequently, illegal logging endangers biodiversity, climate, culture, and human rights.
  • Indigenous peoples play a central role in tackling the illicit wildlife trade.
  • When sufficient revenues from legal and sustainably managed trade accrue to local communities, they can support the survival of traditional knowledge and culture, return equitable benefits and help finance needs. However, normally only a small proportion of revenues from trade reach the communities involved.
  • Often, many countries do not recognize indigenous peoples' rights to their environment and ecosystems. This is a critical challenge that these guardians face in their fight to conserve their lands, territories and resources.
  • Indigenous peoples' rights are often ignored, with their traditional lands included and demarcated as part of national parks or other areas. Their rights are often disregarded, with daily livelihood activities restricted or even declared illegal, along with the potential for future resource extraction that brings adverse health and environmental risks.

Communities at risk: what are the impacts?

Indigenous peoples and local communities are on the frontlines of resisting the main industrial drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, and they often face retribution and violence for doing so.

Indigenous peoples face risks of retaliation, including killings, for protecting the environment and their ancestral lands.

People living within and around protected areas have experienced forms of violence ranging from physical harm to psychological trauma. Critical conservation studies have documented violence in conservation spaces, but inadequate attention has been paid to violence as a human rights issue.

Along with other challenges, these multiple stressors can have cumulative and compounded effects on indigenous peoples and local communities, which in turn pose longer-term threats to their lives, cultures and resilience. However, they continue to resist and respond to these threats in diverse ways.

Many policies and laws at national and global levels still fail to provide appropriate and explicit recognition and support to indigenous peoples and local communities.

The formalization of rights to lands and resources is particularly important, as is equipping indigenous peoples with tools to address unwanted development.

It is crucial that the conservation community takes a stand on the dire situation of environmental defenders worldwide and recognizes and upholds their rights.