The role indigenous peoples play in tackling organized environmental crime

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.

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 threats to the global environment, local leadership in governing and managing natural resources is increasingly becoming a critical solution for both people and nature.

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.
  • Land grabs facilitated by multinational corporations, foreign investors and local governments in a pursuit for agribusiness have been escalating during the last decade.
  • 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 often maintain a close connection with the traditional forested lands on which their livelihoods and cultural practices depend. Illegal logging, therefore, not only threatens biodiversity and climate, but also significantly undermines indigenous peoples’ cultures.
  • 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.
  • A fundamental challenge to the role of indigenous peoples in conservation of their lands, territories and resources is that many countries do not recognize their rights as custodians of the environment and ecosystems.
  • Unequal power relations often mean that indigenous peoples are not granted their rights. Indigenous areas are often included or demarcated as national parks or other conservation areas, with indigenous peoples rights ignored; customary livelihood activities restricted or even declared illegal; and/or the potential for future resource-extraction that carries negative 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.