Violence Against Indigenous Peoples Destroys Our Common Home

Munduruku community assembly. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

In May this year, two brothers, Vázquez and Agustín Torres, were murdered near Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico. They were Wixárika (Huichol) leaders, working to preserve their land from incursion by cattle ranchers and drug cartels. This tragedy of greed and corruption serves as an alarm bell for activists attempting to preserve our natural world.

The worldwide crisis on Indigenous land is as urgent as climate change or biodiversity loss. Approximately 400 million Indigenous peoples, with 5,000 distinct cultures, represent most of the world's cultural diversity. Their land is threatened by mining and logging companies, ranchers and farmers, oil exploration, and now by the drug cartels too.

In spite of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, few nations actually recognise the land rights of Indigenous peoples. Their land is lost to resource extraction without legally mandated prior informed consent. Since Indigenous lands contain vast biological diversity, these communities are fighting not only to preserve their cultures but also to preserve what is left of Earth's wild ecosystems.

Political capital in Mexico

Miguel Vázquez Torres, commissioner of Wixárika public lands, and Agustín, an attorney in the land claim battle, were members of the Indigenous San Sebastian Teponahuaxtlán community. They led a campaign to recover 10,000 hectares, a meagre 4% of Wixárika ancestral lands. They had invited ranchers to engage in peaceful dialogue and had asked the Mexican government to provide security to avoid violence while resisting the cartels.

Drug cartels now infiltrate Wixárika land, seeking remote regions to grow illegal crops. In 2001, drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán confiscated Wixárika land for cannabis plantations. After El Chapo was captured in 2014, the Sinaloa and Nueva Generación (New Generation) cartels took over, and poppy plantations replaced marijuana, serving the US heroin market. Since ranchers and drug dealers shared the desire to eliminate Wixárika resistance, some believe the two groups collaborated in the violence.

During European colonisation, the 240,000-hectare Wixárika territory on the west coast of Mexico was confiscated, primarily by ranchers. Armed settlers, often assisted by police, have resisted Wixárika efforts to retrieve their land.

After a 50-year struggle, Nayarit courts ruled to return 10,000 hectares of land to the Wixárika. Vázquez Torres set up a dialogue to ease the fear of ranchers and petitioned the government to create a transfer fund for ranchers, to avoid violence. When the government refused the fund and failed to provide security for the scheduled transfer, Wixárika leaders mobilized 1,000 community members to occupy a single abandoned farm.

Angry ranchers established roadblocks, trapping court officials, journalists and the Wixárika. Public lands commissioner, Santos Hernandez revealed that officials were afraid to travel in the region due to the threat of violence. "They [ranchers and cartels] are watching all of us and our families," he told the Center For World Indigenous Studies. In January 2017, Isidro Baldenegro, an environmental leader in the Tarahumara community, was gunned down in Chihuahua.

In the Mexican Congress, House Minority Speaker Clemente Castañeda's resolution for government security in the Nayarit/Jalisco region passed into law in February 2017, but to no avail. The government stalled. In May, Vázquez and Agustín Torres were shot and killed.

"We solicited the governor of the state," said Fela Pelayo, head of Jalisco congressional commission for Indigenous Affairs. "We said that the situation was delicate, and ... now, after eight months of inaction, we have two Indigenous leaders dead."

"Indigenous people don't represent political capital for the political parties," Vázquez Torres told a journalist before he was killed; "that's why they don't have us on their agendas."

The human family

All around the world, Indigenous people are fighting to protect their land. From the Sami in Scandinavia, to the Ainu of Hokkaidō in the Sea of Japan; from Tibetans and Mongolians occupied by China, to the Degar and Khmer Krom in Vietnam; from the Balinese, Sasak, Nuaulu and over 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia, to the Arctic Inuit, and thousands more on every continent.

Over 60 uncontacted tribal peoples remain in the Brazilian Amazon. Protecting their independence would also preserve millions of hectares of tropical rainforest. In the 1950s, land belonging to Guarani and Kaiowa peoples were sold for plantations. Reduced to living in poverty in cities and settlements, the suicide rate among Indigenous Peoples rose to 22 times that of other Brazilian citizens. When Guarani and Kaiowa people returned to live on their ancestral land in 2004, loggers, ranchers and farmers attacked them. In 2011, elder Nizio Gomes was shot and killed.

In 1964, Texaco (now Chevron), discovered oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They began drilling in 1967. Twenty-five years later, they left behind a nightmare of contaminated water and land, causing rates of cancer to increase among the Indigenous population. The Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani peoples launched a 30,000 member class-action lawsuit against Texaco in 1993. In 2014, after 20 years in court, the plaintiffs won a $9.5 billion judgement in Ecuador's highest court. Chevron bought Texaco, left Ecuador, and refused to pay the judgement. The case was dismissed in a US court, but earlier this year the case against Chevron moved to Canada. Chevron has spent $2 billion on lawyers to defend themselves, but not one cent has gone to their Indigenous victims.

The Guarani and Wichi people of Argentina have survived conquistadors, slave traders, missionaries, juntas and death squads. In 2004, they took on big business too. The governor of Salta, in northern Argentina, Juan Carlos Romero, granted permission to bulldoze and burn 18,000 hectares of previously protected forest for soy plantations, on behalf of agribusiness giants Monsanto and Cargill. The Wichi and Guarani people invited Greenpeace to help them restore their homeland.

I travelled to Argentina in the summer of 2005 for the campaign and witnessed an entire horizon ablaze with fires. Ranks of bulldozers swept across the land like wartime tank divisions, obliterating the home of the Wichi people and the homes of fox, tapir, ocelot, jaguar, anteaters, wild pigs, toucan, raptors and parrots.

When the Wichi and Greenpeace occupied bulldozers and gained media attention, prominent celebrities stepped forward, including football star Diego Maradona, who invited Wichi elders onto his television show. In October, 2006, Argentina's president, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, finally intervened to preserve the Wichi homeland. "We asked the president to put people and the forest ahead of multinational corporations," said Guarani campaigner Noemi Cruz. "For once, we won."

Destructive development

Political economists rationalise seizing Indigenous land for industrial development with the theory that this will lift people from poverty. In reality, industrial resource extraction drives people from modest, secure lives in productive ecosystems into poverty in urban slums, while the money flows to rich developers and multinational corporations.

Violence against Indigenous peoples reveals the limitations, perhaps complete failure, of the World Bank and free-trade economic theories. Globalisation has not benefited masses of people, but has widened the gap between rich and poor. The challenge of 21st century society remains to discover a credible, honourable balance among economy, ecology and social justice.

During the 2015 climate conference, a gathering of Indigenous leaders – Sami, Mongolian, Lakota, Salish and others – met outside Paris in the town of Millemont. In a statement to world leaders on "The Critical State of Our Mother Earth," they wrote:

"Our sacred Mother Earth – who gives life to all living things – is critically wounded, degraded, poisoned and depleted by the misguided activity of our human family. Colonialism, industrialism, consumerism and warfare are primary drivers of this relentless assault on our beloved Mother Earth...

"We must remind ourselves and our Human Family, through living, sacred prayers, songs, ceremony and our ancient prophecies, that Mother Earth is our sacred provider of life, not to be treated as an endless storehouse, a limitless dump for our waste, and to satisfy our appetite for the material dimension of life."

Wixárika leaders and brothers, Vázquez and Agustín Torres, gave their lives for this sacred prayer.

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