Economic opportunism in response to COVID-19 erodes Indigenous land rights, generate violence and deforestation

In their quest to bolster economies battered by the pandemic, governments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere have set aside social and environmental safeguards in favor of destructive development projects that are harming Indigenous communities and the forests they care for, according to a report released today by Forest Peoples Programme.

The report was jointly produced by researchers at the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, the School of Law at Middlesex University in London, and Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), in collaboration with several Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in the five countries. Based in part upon interviews with affected communities, the report also draws upon five country-specific studies co-authored by national researchers and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and support groups.

Open-pit mines, industrial agriculture plantations, infrastructure mega-schemes and hydropower complexes are among the projects fueling a rise in human rights abuses and deforestation in five countries that contain the majority of the world’s tropical forests.

“This research proves beyond question that the behaviour of governments and commodity producers in these five countries conflicts directly with growing demand in consumer nations for supply chains that are free of human rights abuses, deforestation and biodiversity loss.” said Dr. Myrna Cunningham, President of the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) and speaker at a press briefing today to release the new report.

“Now we must ask, how will the global community respond to these findings? During the pandemic, governments have not only failed to stop land grabs and human rights violations by corporate actors, but have rewritten and reversed hard-won policies that are vital to any strategy aimed at protecting human rights and stopping the destruction of priceless ecosystems].”

Entitled “Rolling back social and environmental safeguards in the time of COVID-19,” the new report examines how the governments of the world’s most tropically forested countries have used the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic to justify recalling social and environmental legal protections.

“It is wrong to prioritise economic development over the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and tropical forests, especially during a pandemic,” said James Whitehead, director of Forest Peoples Programme (FPP). “In 2021, two big international conferences will address climate change and the frightening loss of biodiversity globally. This study provides yet more evidence that the international community and businesses need to urgently maintain and strengthen protections for human rights and tropical forests and proactively support Indigenous Peoples to secure and protect their territories.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights has always been inadequate and yet the laws are trending backwards. The nation has a history of epidemics—including numerous Ebola outbreaks—which create a high-risk health context that the government uses to control the population. The current COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the national economy, providing cover for new national policies that circumvent longstanding moratoriums on resource extraction on Indigenous lands and threaten the limited protections for Indigenous Peoples’ rights that currently exist.

As documented by a growing body of evidence, Indigenous Peoples and local communities play a crucial role in averting climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemic risk.  Indigenous Peoples have been shown to outperform other forest managers in preventing deforestation, which has particular significance in tropically forested countries that are home to some of the most carbon-rich and biodiverse lands on the planet.

“The pandemic can never be an excuse to trample upon human rights and destroy our planet,” said Joan Carling, director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International. “Rolling back environmental and social protections in the name of promoting economic recovery is adding insult to injury for Indigenous Peoples.”

The new report released today represents a collaborative effort between international researchers, rights advocates, and Indigenous communities in the world’s five most tropically forested countries. It is also a call-to-action for international and national actors to better protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights now and into the future.

The authors of the paper note that, despite confronting persistent efforts to weaken environmental and social safeguards, land rights and the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, Indigenous Peoples in tropically forested countries have rallied together to oppose the systematic erosion of their rights in the name of COVID-19.

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