Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo credit: Tony Webster (used under creative commons license)

Indigenous youth explore human rights challenges in ‘Through Their Eyes’ book

Authors share concerns and vision of a more just future

Victor Lopez-Carmen, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona and Mexico, campaigns for human rights at an international scale.

In similar fashion to other motivated youth activists who attended the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York last month, he is pushing back against intergenerational colonization and assimilation policies in an effort to protect Indigenous rights.

Currently co-chair of the U.N. Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC), Lopez-Carmen was also named a 2018 Native American 40 under 40 award recipient. As youth representative for the International Indian Treaty Council, he was part of the U.N. human rights hearing delegation at Standing Rock on treaty rights and the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017.

Lopez-Carmen, who earned a Master of Public Health degree from Australia’s Western Sydney University, is a student at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Among his ongoing concerns is the major public health risk of pesticide contamination caused by agribusiness spray operations in the fields near the Yaqui River.

Many Yaqui people work in the fields, and companies do not provide protective equipment, so they are contaminated by pesticides and track them into their homes, Lopez-Carmen said.

“It gets on the children’s clothes and infects the family, and for pregnant women, it gets into their breast milk and infects the womb. We see children born with leukemia and sclerosis of the liver,” he added.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths and so many developments that it impacts on our youth – it really impacts the way that they can be on the land in their own territory because it’s not safe,” he said, during an interview with Landscape News on the sidelines of UNPFII. “They play in the water and there are chemicals in it.”

His concerns intersect with those of many other Indigenous youth around the world who are working to overcome discrimination and ensure their rights are upheld in accordance with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).


Through his political activism and experiences, Lopez-Carmen and other members of the U.N. youth caucus conceived an idea for a book to express first-hand the observations of Indigenous youth, the specific concerns they face and their vision of a more just future.  The book, titled Global Indigenous Youth: Through Their Eyes, which also aims to dispel racist stereotypes, was launched at UNPFII.

“As Indigenous people, we’ve had very little space in the world of literature and media,” Lopez-Carmen said.

Published by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, the book was jointly edited by Lopez-Carmen, Dali Angel Perez and Elsa Stamatopoulou. It features stories by 17 youth from each of seven Indigenous sociocultural regions of the world, namely Africa; Asia; the Arctic; Eastern Europe, Russian Federation and Central Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; and North America and the Pacific.

In 13 chapters, the authors delve into narratives demonstrating that although each Indigenous nation has a unique culture, language and perspective, they share similar challenges. Among them: the collective trauma of colonization; living in two worlds – Indigenous and non-Indigenous; the often ignored free prior and informed consent dictate under UNDRIP, intended as a safeguard to the right of self-determination and non-discrimination; vulnerability to suicide and mental health issues; climate change and its impact on ancestral lands; traditional knowledge and Indigenous food and agriculture systems.

Worldwide, there are about 370 million Indigenous people, equal to about 5 percent of the global population. They make up 15 percent of the world’s poor and 900 million extremely poor rural people, according to the United Nations. Indigenous communities face inordinate violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, consequences of large-scale development and abuses by military forces and others.

“Despite these incredible challenges, Indigenous young people are the bearers of the diversity and cultural richness of their peoples and driving positive changes in their communities from within,” states Jayathma Wickramanayake, the U.N. Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, in the forward of the book. “It is a mistake to think of them as victims rather than actual survivors with an enormous potential for transformation.”


One of the authors featured in the book, Aisah Carriane Mariano is a member of the Asia Young Indigenous Peoples Network from Benguet province on the island of Luzon in the northern Cordillera region of the Philippines.

She was inspired to become a human rights defender by the resistance efforts of Macli-ing Dulag, a member of the Butbut tribe, who was martyred after he was killed in 1980 by state agents for trying to protect ancestral lands around the Chico Mega Dam project, which was cancelled after his death.

Benguet was agrarian before gold mining became prevalent in the area.

“When the Benguet (mining) Corporation entered our community it destroyed our land,” said Mariano, a member of the Kankana-ey tribe. “This is a mining company which has been in our community for a hundred years. After a hundred years when no more gold can be extracted, they just left, without even properly restoring the land.”

In her story in the book, she details violations of Indigenous human rights in various contexts with a focus on land and access to education.

“We’re no different in terms of situations where our lands are being grabbed,” she said. “We’re being displaced.”

Mariano’s mother, a community health worker, has been a political prisoner in the Philippines for six months, accused for providing basic social health services to remote communities, she said.

“There’s always the fear of death or even the mere fact of harassment, vilification by the state or the military against us,” Mariano said. “It’s hard for her, it’s hard for everyone. It’s hard for me because I am the eldest in the family. It’s like I had to take her position in the family to take care of what she left. It’s a continuing struggle for us as a family, but it’s still a continuing fight for us as well for justice.”


The fact that youth are getting more organized in terms of their engagement is positive, said Joan Carling, also a member of the Kankana-ey tribe and co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (IPMG) for sustainable development. “They’re learning a lot, but at the same time they are also inspired by getting together.”

Through connecting, youth realize they are sharing common issues, common problems, and that their actions are also as important, said Carling, a recipient of the 2018 Champions of the Earth lifetime achievement award from UN Environment. “It’s encouraging for us in the movement to see youth stepping up and taking leadership roles because we’re at a critical juncture now and we need second-line leaders.”

Mariano faces unfair limitations because of her mother’s imprisonment, she added. “How can she contribute if she’s bogged down with this reality that she has to take care of her mum who is completely innocent and is in jail?”

Last year, Carling was placed on a terrorist list by the Philippine government, an action that drew sharp criticism from the United Nations. Her name has since been removed.

“It’s also preventing parents from making sure they are taking care of their, kids if they are in jail, for example,” Carling said. “How can they work for the future of their children or provide their children a better future if the response is repression?”

Youth leaders are taking action because it is their future at stake, she said. Indigenous youth face the challenge of either pursuing their careers individually or taking part in the movement, but many youth not involved at the U.N. level do not have as many options, she added.

“They still don’t have access to education, they still don’t have access to decent jobs, and they are still ending up in slavery and as child laborers,” Carling said. “This is still the reality that they are facing.”

Indigenous people are often portrayed as “the noble savages, the fierce savages or extinct nations” in literature, academia, legal writing, film and pop culture, the co-chairs of the Indigenous youth caucus said in the introduction to the book.

“We Indigenous peoples are a dead race in the minds of many in the world,” wrote Qivioq Nivi Lovstrom, Kibbett Carson Kiburo and Q”apaj Conde.

“We belong in old black and white movies and history books—relics of a shameful past that many would rather forget. With this book, we ask you to challenge the colonial past, to see past the mere illusionary idea of indigeneity. We also invite you to embrace our truth – the truth that we are alive and our roots are strong.”

The book is available from the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Colombia University in New York.

Read Landscape News stories from the 18th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues here.

Learn more at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in Bonn, Germany, 22-23 June 2019.

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