The Amazon river, Brazil. CIAT/Neil Palmer

Uphold human rights of Indigenous peoples, allow traditional knowledge to lead land decisions, U.N. delegates say

Preserve Indigenous culture and languages to protect environment

For Ashton Janvier, land and water are the portals to teaching and preserving the Denesuline language, which he says originates from the environment. 

“In my culture, everything that we talk about and everything that we teach one another has to do with the land,” said Janvier, an educator and filmmaker from La Loche community near the Clearwater River Dene Nation in Canada’s province of Saskatchewan.

Janvier is one of more than 1,000 delegates at the U.N. in New York this week for the 18th Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), where participants are making the case that traditional knowledge, culture, languages and the restoration of land rights are key to repairing the environment and combating climate change.

“We’re working on creating resources, books and knowledge in the Dene language,” Janvier said. “We teach the younger generation land-based teachings – making fire, offering tobacco, trapping, hunting, fishing on the land – and that’s how we work on revitalizing the language.”

The community is at risk from a proposed uranium mine at nearby Patterson Lake, according to Janvier, who has made two films with Wapikoni, a non-profit mobile film studio headquartered in Montreal that travels to Indigenous communities.

Uranium and oil companies are destroying traditional hunting and trapping grounds and fishing areas in northern Saskatchewan, Janvier said. “I’m working toward educating people about how these impacts are going to damage our culture and language.”

Indigenous peoples make up less than 6 percent of the world’s population but account for 15 percent of the poorest people, according to the U.N. They live across some 90 countries, represent 5,000 different cultures and speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages. Over 80 percent of biological diversity is found on Indigenous peoples’ lands.

Worldwide, the risks are real for Indigenous communities trying to protect their land, a key focus of some of the side events at the U.N. this week and outside the venue on the sidelines of the official activities.


Almost 1,000 environmental defenders have been killed since 2010 and at least 207 land and environmental activists – almost half of them Indigenous – were targeted and murdered for defending their forests, rivers, wildlife and homes against destructive industries in 2017, according to human-rights watchdog Global Witness. This is six more murders than the year before, making it the worst year on record.

Overlapping land rights mean that access to land is being given to agribusiness, oil concessions, mining, logging and infrastructure development, said Leila Salazar-Lopez, executive director of Amazon Watch who is also at the U.N. this week.

“This is an opportunity to have it on the record, so that Indigenous people have more leverage to engage with and also pressure their governments, because in many cases, the governments are the ones threatening their rights and territories, livelihoods and traditional knowledge,” Salazar-Lopez said.

Amazon Watch is hosting various events throughout the week both at the U.N. and elsewhere in New York. The non-profit organization will stage a rally outside the Permanent Mission of Brazil on Tuesday in solidarity with Indigenous-led resistance to new policies introduced by conservative President Jair Bolsonaro. 

In January, Bolsonaro put the ministry of agriculture in charge of land claimed by Indigenous peoples, an act widely seen to benefit agribusiness.

At the rally, Amazon Watch, Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), the Articulation of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International, Defend Democracy in Brazil Committee and the Brasil Solidarity Network will jointly deliver a petition signed by thousands of people in protest.

“The best protected forests are in Indigenous communities,” Salazar-Lopez said. “Our mission is to amplify the voices of Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, in particular at a time when Indigenous peoples’ rights and territories are under incredible threat in Brazil with the new government reeling back decades of achievements of Indigenous peoples.”

Amazon Watch will also release a new report on Thursday to shine a spotlight on the companies behind a recent surge in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, she said.


Through the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), designed to bring an ethical and moral voice to the protection of the world’s rainforests, UN Environment will launch a new sanctuary program as a rapid response system to protect environmental defenders from threats, crafted with five interfaith organizations supported by the government of Norway.

“If we want to protect forests, we also have to protect rights of Indigenous people, and that protection is a human rights issue, an environmental and social justice issue,” said Charles McNeill, senior advisor for forests and climate at UN Environment, which will host a side event at the U.N.

“We’re seeing that it’s a spiritual concern for religious leaders,” he said. “What we’re also seeing is that Indigenous people are being persecuted, threatened, displaced and even murdered for defending nature and forests. This is wrong, it’s got to stop.”

The IRI was formed in 2017, two years after Pope Francis shared his fears about the impact of human activities on the environment, climate and rainforests in an influential document entitled Laudato Si’ (Praise Be).

In response, two years later in 2017, IRI was launched. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders made a pact with Indigenous peoples to make rainforest protection a priority. So far, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Peru, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mesoamerica have joined

Actor and environmental activist Alec Baldwin will also speak to the U.N. delegation on Tuesday about the importance of recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples to protect forests, reduce escalating violence over land and help achieve goals embedded in the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We welcome it when well-known individuals will lend their renown and celebrity to difficult issues,” McNeill said. “We’re grateful.”


The land should be looked at as a continuum of forests, agro-forests and peri-urban areas, since rivers flow from forests into cities, said Nonette Royo, executive director of the Tenure Facility, which focuses on securing land rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities. Indigenous people are asking for stability in the areas they occupy as co-investors in the assets that they would manage with the state, she said.

“The last remaining forests and landscapes are there not because they are natural environment but mainly because Indigenous Peoples are living in these forests, living within and depending on the natural environment,” Royo said.

“That’s because it’s part of their culture, part of their practices, part of their spirit world relationship, part of their ancestral stewardship. Because of that, the last remaining forests in the world are the territories of the Indigenous peoples. They have been helping to really manage the carbon sinks, the lands of the earth.”

Royo, who is involved in an interactive session at the U.N. on Tuesday, said that to ensure that collective land tenure and governance of key landscapes and forest areas are maintained by Indigenous peoples, investment and policies at the individual government level must occur. “It would be a U.N. call to action that all governments should agree to this,” she said, indicating that it might be in the cards this week.

There are 16 countries that have either given land rights or established policies for Indigenous land rights. In Indonesia, some provincial governments have a certain amount of autonomy and often community groups can stop some land conversion to oil palm plantations even without holding a title. This has led to an active engagement in sustainable conversions, Royo said. 

Change is occurring, but people are still being persecuted despite an increasing recognition that Indigenous land rights and knowledge should be recognized, Royo said, adding that “the shift is happening, but the old ways are still happening. We’re not seeing it completely yet.”

“I feel under threat all the time, I get death threats on a daily basis,” said Benjamin Murray, a hip-hop artist who lives in Thunder Bay, a city in the Canadian province of Ontario, where the police force has been labeled systemically racist by the provincial police watchdog. Findings were detailed in a 2018 report titled Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service. 

Murray, who was awarded the 2018 “Respect Award” from the city, made a music video titled Heritage with Wapikoni to highlight the fact that he was told he could not learn the Miꞌkmaq language at the local university.  

“I was told I’d have to go to the East Coast to learn the Miꞌkmaq language and that there was just no call for it where I was regionally,” he said. “I found out Jesuit priests had altered it a long time ago, so I would never be able to learn the unadulterated version, and that really angered me, so I wrote a song about it. It was altered more than 300 years ago, so there is really no one who knows the original anymore.”

Murray also conducts workshops with youth in remote northwestern regions of Ontario. 

“A lot of these kids are afraid to come to Thunder Bay to get medical attention or education because of the things they’ve heard,” he said. 

Murray and Janvier will participate in a session at the U.N. on Wednesday and at a film showcase side event at the Tisch School for the Arts on Saturday.

The 18th Session of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues is at the United Nations in New York from 22 April 3 May 2019.

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