Land Conservation: A Risky Business

The Mapuche, a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, celebrate their New Year. Indigenous and local communities are on the frontline to protect the land – a vital ecosystem. Credit: Fernando Fiedler/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2019 – In light of land degradation and climate change, the protection of the environment is crucial—but the protection of the very people working tirelessly and with much risk to preserve nature should be just as important.

Forests have long been underestimated—they sustain biodiversity, regulate the world’s water and weather cycles, and even provide the air we breathe.

In fact, one third of the climate solution lies within the land-use sector, which includes the protection of forests, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has found.

And it is indigenous and local communities who are on the frontline in protecting this increasingly vital ecosystem.

“Thanks to us the forests are there, thanks to our blood and our fight we still have the Amazon. If we just depended on the economic model, the Amazon would be devastated,” said indigenous Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga during the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

“Many people think that the problem of indigenous peoples are an isolated one. No—the Amazon is vital for humanity…our struggle is a global problem…destroy the Amazon and the world will be destroyed,” she added.

However, indigenous environmental defenders are facing growing threats as they are pushed off their own lands or are even killed simply for protecting forests.

“Criminalisation and violence against indigenous peoples and human rights defenders is a global crisis…[they] are intended to silence indigenous peoples’ protest,” said Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

According to international NGO Global Witness, 207 land defenders were killed in 2017. Most of these deaths took place in just four countries: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines.

“At the root of this violence is systematic racism and the failure of governments to recognise and respect indigenous land rights,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

Killer Institutions

The Special Rapporteur found that a majority of those killed were defending their lands against extractive private sector projects.

In August 2018, the body of Jorginho Guajajara, the leader of the Guajajara people, was found in the Brazilian Amazon’s Maranhao state. Due to his work in protecting the forests, many suspect illegal loggers as the perpetrators.

After opposing mining activities in his community, Mexican indigenous rights activist Julian Carrillo was shot in October 2018.

“Our territories hold the resources that are so envied by the oil and mining concerns on which the global economic model is based. And in terms of human rights, economy wins out. Because our rights as indigenous peoples are not being respected and they never have been,” Gualinga said.

Such activities are often enabled by governments, and now the rise of populist governments threaten to reverse the little progress that has been achieved.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has long attacked indigenous rights and lands, saying that it is a “shame” that the Brazilian army did not exterminate indigenous communities like the United States of America and that indigenous-designated territories are an “obstacle” to agri-business.

Just hours after taking office earlier this year, Bolsonaro transferred the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry and has since proposed to open up the Amazon and other indigenous territories to commercial farming and mining.

“Our fundamental rights is being destroyed by a…fundamentalist who adopted a hate discourse against indigenous people and denies people their territory rights. When they deny that, they are denying their original peoples,” said indigenous activist and national coordinator of Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) Sonia Guajajara.

Guajajara has joined over 4,000 others in Brasilia for the ‘Free Land’ protest which is expected to be the largest indigenous protest in the South American nation.

“We are not going to go back, we are going to resist. It’s five centuries that we’re still here…we need to help the earth, we are responsible, we have to give hands and go together and say that the fight for mother earth is the mother of all fights,” Guajajara said during a UNPFII event.

In The Name of Conservation

Though a number of countries have recognised the importance of forest and land protection, some conservation policies have resulted in the exclusion and displacement of indigenous communities.

In Kenya, there has been an escalation of violence as the Forest Service has repeatedly evicted and burnt Sengwer homes in the Embobut forest and has even shot several community members.

Tauli-Corpuz found that the Kenya Forest Service is among the recipients of the European Commission-funded climate change project in the area.

Maridiana Deren, an environmental activist based in Kalimantan, Indonesia, was speaking in 2015 about how palm oil companies were destroying indigenous peoples’ ancient way of life. Indigenous environmental defenders are facing growing threats as they are pushed off their own lands or are even killed simply for protecting forests. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

While Indonesia has worked to drastically reduce deforestation, its conservation policies have also been detrimental to the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous communities.

In 1992, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry designated the Mount Salak-Halimun forests into a national park.

Prior to that, the area was indigenous Kasepuhan community land which was used to gather food and other subsistence needs but the group now face harassment and intimidation from the park rangers and struggle to survive.

Despite its protected status, the forests still sees illegal logging and deforestation. 

“The problem we are facing is because of the conflicting laws and also the conservation so far that has been very much dominated by non-indigenous paradigm that has also become the paradigm of the government,” said Secretary-General of Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), or the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Rukka Sombolinggi. She noted that indigenous communities have already long been protecting their environment.

According to the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group, 80 percent of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity are in indigenous peoples’ territories, which only make up approximately 18 percent of the world’s total land.

And it is no coincidence.

Forest Trends found in 2004 that such communities invested between two to four billion dollars per year on resource management and conservation, equal to one-quarter of the amount spent by the conservation community on all public protected areas worldwide.

Forests managed by indigenous peoples are also found to have lower rates of deforestation and more climate benefits.

“When we protect the forests, we are protecting all of us. So when you are protecting indigenous peoples, you are also protecting yourself,” Sombolinggi said.

Providing land rights and titles can thus help in the fight to protect the world’s forests and lands from further degradation.

Bright Spots of Resistance

While indigenous communities customarily own more than 50 percent of the world’s lands, only 10 percent is legally recognised.

Launched by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility is the first and only multi-stakeholder financial mechanism focused on securing land and forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities.

It provides grants to indigenous organisations to help scale up implementation of land and forest tenure reform policies as well as to map and register their lands.

For instance, the facility helped AMAN title over 1.5 million hectares of land belonging to 200 indigenous communities and achieved recognition of 230,000 hectares in Indonesia in just 24 months.

Sombolinggi also highlighted the need to provide technological support to indigenous peoples.

Already, governments and civil society have taken advantage of today’s technological advances by creating easily accessible monitoring and information services.

The Forest Watcher mobile application, created by the Global Forest Watch, helps monitor, act on, and prevent deforestation and illegal wildlife activities, which often take place away from the public eye.

However, the app gives information in real time to those on the frontline, including rangers and indigenous forest communities. 

But first and foremost, the international community must respect indigenous rights, including by working to protect land defenders and end impunity.

“I have hope that we will be able to stop this criminalisation and to ensure that indigenous people will continue to play their role in protecting the forests not just for themselves, but for the rest of the world,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

US Takes Back Signature on Arms Trade Treaty

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2019 – The United States dropped a political bombshell when President Donald Trump announced his administration would withdraw from the historic Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which the former Obama administration signed in September 2013.

“We are taking our signature back”, said Trump April 26, addressing a meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful gun lobbies in the US.

The US, in effect, joins three other “rogue states” – North Korea, Iran and Syria – who voted against the treaty at the UN General Assembly back in April 2013, along with 23 countries that abstained on the voting, including China, Russia, India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and ex-President of the Pugwash, told IPS that President Trump “continues to create mayhem in the field of disarmament by wrecking the legal regime created by the international community at the behest of vested interests in the gun lobby sacrificing the humanitarian norms of the world to which the US has contributed.”

The US, which has increasingly shown virtual contempt for multilateralism, has already scuttled the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, refused to participate in the global migration compact, pulled out of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, abandoned the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and revoked the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Full Professor with the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS President Trump is pandering to the National Rifle Association yet again.

She said his announcement that the United States is “un-signing” the Arms Trade Treaty is yet another example of this administration’s abdication of responsibility in the arms control sphere.

In the fact sheet announcing this decision, the Trump Administration stated, “The ATT is simply not needed for the United States to engage in responsible arms trade.”

“The Trump Administration has not been engaged in responsible arms trade in any way, shape, or form. There is indisputable evidence that Saudi Arabia, for example, consistently violates international human rights and humanitarian law”.

“But the Trump Administration continues to pursue arms sales agreements with the Saudi regime,” said Dr Goldring, who is also a Visiting Professor of the Practice in the Duke University Washington DC program.

She pointed out that the United States is the world’s largest arms dealer. It’s long past time for the United States to show leadership on the global arms trade, rather than merely treating arms sales as economic transactions, she added.

The ATT, which was adopted by the United Nations in April 2013 and entered into force in December 2014, was initiated by the UK, a NATO ally of the US.

As of last week, the Treaty has 101 state parties with ratifications, and 45 countries which have signed but not ratified.

Responding to questions at a press briefing April 26, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the Arms Trade Treaty is the only global instrument aimed at improving transparency and accountability in the international arms trade.

“It is a landmark achievement in the efforts to ensure responsibility in international arms transfers. This is particularly important in present times, when we witness growing international tensions and renewed interest in expanding and modernizing arsenals,” he added.

Credit: Sarah Myers

Rachel Stohl, Managing Director at the Stimson Center and a consultant who helped draft the text of the treaty, said that President Trump has “once again walked away from America’s leadership role in the world and undermined international efforts to reduce human suffering caused by irresponsible and illegal arms transfers”.

In statement released here, Stohl said “Un-signing the Arms Trade Treaty will undermine international peace and security, increase irresponsible and illegal sales of conventional weapons, and harm the American economy”.

A transparent, responsible arms trade fundamentally serves U.S. national security, promotes U.S. foreign policy objectives, and supports American values.

The ATT facilitates transparency and accountability in a global arms trade worth nearly $90 billion a year, building confidence among governments and ending decades of impunity, she declared.

Dr Goldring said the US government regularly claims to have the strongest global standards for arms transfers. Yet it seeks to abandon the only legally binding treaty that addresses these issues.

“This may seem like a symbolic step, because the Trump Administration had already made clear its lack of support for the treaty,” she added.

But this act has substantive implications as well.

It’s in the US interest to be part of the ATT and to work with other countries to increase their standards for importing and exporting weapons, she noted.

‘Unsigning’ the ATT decreases our leverage with these countries. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is a cynical and unpersuasive policy approach,” said Dr Goldring who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.

Abby Maxman, President of Oxfam America, said Trump’s decision to un-sign the Arms Trade Treaty “is a reckless, self-inflicted wound that continues to demonstrate the Administration’s desire to turn its back on global norms, standards and US leadership. It is one more misguided step to dismantle the international partnerships that keep us all safe.”

Just last week, the Administration held hostage a UN Security Council resolution to address sexual violence in conflict– until language about the need for sexual & reproductive health services was removed.

And, it’s no coincidence that this comes on the heels of President Trump’s veto of the Yemen War Powers Resolution and continued military support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, said Maxman.

President Trump is sending a clear message to civilians caught in the crossfire: “we don’t care.”

The United States will now lock arms with Iran, North Korea and Syria as non-signatories to this historic treaty whose sole purpose is to protect innocent people from deadly weapons.

“The Arms Trade Treaty was developed and signed by the US and others to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who may use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The treaty has the power to save millions from death, rape, assault and displacement. Each year an estimated 500,000 people are killed as a result of the unregulated and under-regulated arms trade,” said Maxman.

“The Treaty does not infringe on Americans’ right to bear arms or hamper the country’s ability to defend itself or its allies, despite what groups like the NRA, and the Trump Administration may claim.”

Last week’s announcement, he said, “is an empty play to pander to those who resisted this Treaty from the beginning.”

Meanwhile, in a report released April 29, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said total world military expenditure rose to $1,822 billion in 2018, representing an increase of 2.6 per cent from 2017.

The five biggest spenders in 2018 were the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India and France, which together accounted for 60 per cent of global military spending.

Military spending by the US increased for the first time since 2010, while spending by China grew for the 24th consecutive year. The comprehensive annual update of the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database is accessible from at

The report also said that US military spending grew—for the first time since 2010—by 4.6 per cent, to reach $649 billion in 2018.

The US remained by far the largest spender in the world, and spent almost as much on its military in 2018 as the next eight largest-spending countries combined.

‘The increase in US spending was driven by the implementation from 2017 of new arms procurement programmes under the Trump administration,’ said Dr Aude Fleurant, the director of the SIPRI AMEX programme.

Link to ATT Secretariat data on ratification:

The writer can be contacted at