Indigenous Peoples and allies from 25 countries took their demands for land rights to the streets on Earth Day, April 22 and the following week. In Guatemala and Brazil, indigenous activists marched directly to the halls of legislators.
The global actions were coordinated by Land Rights Now, a campaign that aims to double the area of land recognized or owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities by 2020. Over 550 groups are part of Land Rights Now. The campaign contributes to the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights, a solidarity movement of organizations and communities to promote the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Women activists from the Maya Qéqchi community of the Alta Verapaz region in Guatemala marched to the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Livestock and the Office of the Land Fund in Guatemala City on Earth Day. The Maya Qéqchi community has been fighting against expanding palm oil plantations that have forced residents off of their land and polluted rivers despite supposed legal protections.
The Maya Qéqchi leaders denounced the violent community evictions and demanded land ownership and tenure rights highlighting currently 75 percent of the Land Fund budget goes towards leasing of land and only 17 percent for purchase of land. They also called on the Ministry of Agriculture to allocate 15 percent of its budget to support rural women who play a major role in food production.
Margarita Osorio, a local women’s leader and land rights activist, said, “The destruction of the forests began when they started planting palm oil. We feel challenged and intimidated by the way they criminalize and threaten us.”
In the last several years Osorio has been at the forefront of struggles to protect community land in her region. In testimony before a Labor Ministry gathering in 2015 Osorio noted that they had filed reports about fish die-offs in the Lemon, Jute and San Ramon Rivers as a result of contamination from palm oil projects in the area. Indigenous and other local farmers depend on those rivers for their livelihoods.
“Before, we could go draw water in five minutes,” Osorio said on Earth Day this year, “because we were near water sources. Now, we have to walk to the river that’s half an hour away. This is not how we want to live but we’re forced to.”
Indigenous activists from the Amazonian region of Brazil marched on Brasilia, the nation’s capital, on Earth Day to defend their rivers and communities from often deadly conflicts with ranchers, illegal loggers and others. The activists called on Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio, who was an advocate for agri-businesses in Congress, to stop the assault on indigenous rights.
They called on Serraglio to halt projects such as the São Luiz do Tapajós mega dam that threatens the Munduruku communities and others, as well as to stop trying to pass laws such as Constitutional Amendment PEC 215 that would lead to further Congressional control of demarcation of indigenous territories.
“If you want to take care of the forest, you need to invest in us—Indigenous Peoples—because no one takes better care of the forest than we do,” declared Antonio Dace Munduruku, a member of the community. “If it weren’t for us, the cattle and the soy would have taken this whole forest. I know we are only of the size of a grain of sand but we make a huge difference. The air you breathe comes from [the Amazon]. The water you drink comes from here. And so, by killing us, you are killing nature and therefore yourselves.”
The land rights efforts in Guatemala, Brazil and elsewhere have not yet resulted in positive legislative action after Earth Day but future projects will continue according to the activists in Land Rights Now and one of their allies in the United Nations.
“The power of the Land Rights Now initiative is its unifying call to respect the rights of approximately 2.5 billion people, which includes 400 million Indigenous Peoples,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN.
“Recognizing these rights also means reducing conflict, fighting against climate change, promoting sustainable development, preserving cultures, and protecting the world’s most fragile ecosystems.”