The Grounds for Conflict

Indigenous Rights Versus Extractive Industries in South America

The competitive pace of globalisation and neoliberalism have pressured Extraction Industries (EI) to explore all corners of the Earth in order to increase profits and other economic benefits. Valuable resources are usually located on or near indigenous lands and territories, resulting in the disruption of indigenous traditions particularly land rights.

Indigenous Protesters in Brazil (Source: Survival International)

There is an estimated 375 million indigenous peoples managing 12 per cent of the world’s land, with 16 million indigenous people living in South America. For indigenous communities in South America their traditional lands and livelihoods are threatened by resource extraction and lack of government protection. The significance of indigenous peoples distinct histories and connections to the land cannot be underestimated by extraction initiatives.

Before Columbus’s arrival, large metropolises such as Tenochtitlan or Machu Picchu practised concepts that were foreign to Europeans such as urban sanitation, regeneration of soil, and ecological agricultural methods. They developed different species of maize according to climate and soil type, showcasing their societies complexities and understanding of nature. Indigenous people exhibited a strong interdependency with the land for sources of sustenance, resource extraction, and socio-cultural elements.

The European narratives towards existing indigenous traditions and laws led to a colonial redistribution of land in South America. From the European viewpoint, land was not the original goal of the South American conquest. After interactions with the local indigenous population bore no gold, the Conquistadores turned their attention to the vast lands of the continent. In other words, the land held potential for socio-economic power and resource gains. The lands of South America were seen as “terra nuillus” or nobody’s land. Acting with a lack of respect and understanding of the local traditions the map of South America was redrawn. Indigenous people who survived the coloniser’s enforcement of land ownership experienced a reduction in their capacity to grow crops and practice their traditions on ancestral lands.

Columbus arriving in the ‘New World’ (Source: Native Voices)

The decreased population of South American indigenous peoples further allowed the land grabbing by colonists. By the time Spanish colonisers had arrived large indigenous populations had been wiped out by European diseases from first contact and spread much faster than the foot soldiers of colonisation. Eurocentric thought viewed land as an economic asset while indigenous people built a strong relationship with the land. The entrenchment of western superiority interfered with indigenous traditions and continues into the 21st Century. Contemporary narratives illustrate the resilience of indigenous people struggling for land right recognition.

Two important international documents are required in order to understand indigenous rights, these are the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. UNDRIP was ratified in 2007 by the United Nations in order to formally recognize the legal rights afforded to indigenous people worldwide with 144 countries initially adopting the declaration. The idea of “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) is reiterated across many articles of UNDRIP. This idea has many implications in the framework of indigenous rights. The concept behind FPIC encourages an ideally more horizontal approach to decision making processes in development and resource extraction. UNDRIP focuses on individual states responsibility to protect the rights of indigenous peoples within their borders. Article 10 explicitly states, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories”. Asserting their rights under free and informed consent the interests of indigenous people overrides the interests or economic benefits held by states and EI. To create international recognition, UNDRIP enshrines indigenous rights based on ancestral occupation and their interdependency with the land.

The International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries can be seen as progressive statement for 1989. The preamble contains the following:

Considering that the developments which have taken place in international law since 1957, as well as developments in the situation of indigenous and tribal peoples in all regions of the world, have made it appropriate to adopt new international standards on the subject with a view to removing the assimilationist orientation of the earlier standards…

        This statement highlights the lens under which Convention 169 views indigenous rights prior to the creation of UNDRIP. Although it does not hold as much sway in international law as the Declaration it acts as an important precursor to contemporary legal structures. By rejecting the ‘assimilationist orientation’ of the past Convention 169 laid the foundation for future advancement of indigenous peoples rights. Land is often not only for economic value or sustenance, but holds spiritual or cultural importance. Furthermore, it is important to note that the Convention not only recognises occupied lands, but also lands that may be used for hunting or cultural purposes, such as for nomadic or seasonal indigenous groups. Finally, the western idea of personal property is broken down in the Convention as it recognises that land ownership may be a collective idea for some groups. Convention 169 offers a varied but focused legal framework for indigenous rights, with special attention paid to land rights.

Deforestation in Brazil (Source: Independent)

Central to indigenous rights is a broad understanding of indigenous ways of knowing and living. By side-stepping international frameworks governments and EI undermine the progress that has and is being made. It is difficult to hold EI accountable for human, indigenous, and environmental violations abroad due to the fact that EI are subsidiaries of multinationals with head offices in developed countries that do not hold them responsible for their global actions. A recent development in indigenous communities’ ability to hold international EI accountable for their offences is established by legal cases being filed in Canada by Latin Americans. In its infancy, the urgency to push for indigenous peoples’ capacity in demanding that EI be accountable and responsible for human and environmental costs of their actions. By recognising and respecting indigenous interdependency with the land, culturally sensitive practices by the state, extractive industries, and NGOs can transform indigenous struggle for land rights.

Understanding and acknowledging indigenous rights may be the key to protecting some of the world’s most precious natural resources. Many indigenous cultures show a deeper respect for the land than neoliberal businesses and extractive industries. With an increased focus on the impacts of climate change it has been shown that negative effects will cause the most harm to the people who live closest to the land. In many cases these are indigenous groups that were stewards of the land since immemorial. In South America, the cultures and livelihoods of many indigenous peoples are threatened by encroaching resource extraction supporting national and global economic benefits and deforestation for agricultural use.



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Kaylia Little is a first year Master’s Student in the Master’s of Development Practice program. She works as the Student Engagement Coordinator for the Master of Development Program. Her research interests include community development, human rights, decolonization, gender equality, indigenous land rights, and sustainable agriculture.


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