Archive for environment

Indigenous Environmental Justice: A Need for Substantial Recognition of Indigenous Voices

 By Guest Contributor Sakshi Aravind, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She works on Indigenous environmental justice in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. 

In the last week of May, the mining colossus Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000 years old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia (WA) during its operations in Brockman 4 mines. The caves were of profound cultural and spiritual significance to the traditional owners, the Indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) peoples, while also carrying immense historical and archaeological value. Rio Tinto had obtained ministerial consent from the state Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to carry out the blasts under Section 18 of the obsolete WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1972 (‘Heritage Act’). In response, the destruction of these culturally significant sites evoked shock and anger around the world. There were calls for addressing the deficiencies in the law, which does not make provisions for consultation with traditional owners or review of the ministerial consent in light of subsequent discoveries. Following this PR backlash, Rio Tinto attempted to recover with apologies and clarifications, although these went in vain. Rio Tinto’s specious regrets were as wicked as its attempts to attribute the blasts to certain ‘misunderstandings’.

Overhead view of the Rio Tinto mining at the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. // Source: Venture magazine

As I have argued elsewhere, these blasts are not a single event of destruction. They are an ongoing process of festering the wounds of settler colonial capitalism, which have never been allowed to heal. The destruction of Juukan Gorge is irreversible damage and an incommensurable loss to the traditional owners of western Pilbara. Further, they reveal a pattern of systemic erosion of Indigenous rights and identities. Rather than an exception, Rio Tinto is only emblematic of the noxious extractivism that has been foundational to the expansion and sustenance of capitalism and colonialism around the world. 

Elsewhere, First Nations in Canada have suffered repeated setbacks in their fight for rights over land and sovereignty against mining companies. While treaty rights and Constitutional rights have guaranteed a certain degree of Indigenous participation in decision making, categorically, often Indigenous sovereignty must concede to economic benefits. The recent blockade by Wet’ suwet’ en people in British Columbia against the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline illuminates the challenges of fighting for traditional territories against the combined forces of the State and private corporations. 

Brazil has also witnessed relentless destruction of forests and Indigenous territories by mining companies under the aegis of the Federal government, with little or no recourse to legal remedies. To put it plainly, the status of Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental justice have been continually eroding in settler nations.  

The ‘duty of consult’, i.e. the obligation to consult and accommodate Indigenous interests in policies and decisions that affect them, has often been conflated with Indigenous environmental justice. It is said to embody aspects of participation and recognition within Indigenous rights framework. Jurisdictions like Canada, with an advanced constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights, have contributed significantly to the jurisprudence around duty to consult. Australia trails far behind in this respect. However, the legal frameworks of settler-colonial nations have only allowed for ‘consultation’ and not unequivocal consent. This approach blatantly fails to address the question of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty over land and territory, some of which have been better articulated in international rights instruments such as The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”). 

The UNDRIP in 2007 was a notable political gesture from the state bodies in coming together and recognising the questions of indigenous differences and vulnerabilities. Despite criticisms for its inadequacy or watered-down provisions, the UN Declaration made substantial provisions for adhering to the ‘distribution-recognition-participation’ paradigm of environmental justice amongst other measures for political empowerment.The UN declaration: recognises obligation towards indigenous rights as an extension of the existing Human Rights obligations (Art 1); protects the First Nations from all forms of discrimination based on identities (Art 2); re-asserts the need for indigenous self-determination (Art 3); protects the communities from forceful dispossession from Indigenous land (Art.8 and Art.10); right to free and prior informed consent in any economic/military activities on indigenous lands (Art. 29, 30, and 32). Hardly any of them have made their way into domestic legislation in either Australia or Canada. 

As a consequence, Indigenous communities may be heard, but only as a matter of procedural necessity. First Nations continue to be denied the power to veto extractivist projects over their land and resources. Such denial has grave implications for the idea of Indigenous environmental justice. Achieving justice in settler colonial contexts demands truth and reconciliation. These values can only be accomplished by providing an apparatus for substantive Indigenous voices and representation in the social, political, and economic process. In Australia, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal to amend the Australian constitution to enshrine Indigenous voices in the Parliament is a significant step towards reformulating the idea of justice within a settler State.

Courts have attempted to achieve Indigenous environmental justice through means available to them. For instance, I have argued that in Gloucester Resources v Minister for Planning (Gloucester Resources), the New South Wales Land and Environment Court focussed on the testimony of Aboriginal elders, their connection to the land, and cultural heritage. Although Gloucester Resources was primarily articulated as a climate change litigation launched against the commencement of a coal mine, it had vital contributions to Indigenous environmental justice. While specific case laws cannot realise the idea of Indigenous environmental justice, they demonstrate the significance of ‘listening’ to Indigenous communities to achieve it. The blasts in WA have now provoked us to revisit what justice means. And we must revisit it in settler nations, mindful of the fact that they are established on the dispossession, displacement, and erasure of Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous environmental justice cannot reconcile with extractivism and capitalism, which operate in cahoots with the State and perpetuate the erasure of Indigenous identities. Extractive economies thrive on the severing of Indigenous ties with land and environment. These exploitative idioms of capitalism cannot be remedied with mere ‘duty to consult’, just as the incommensurable loss of Juukan Gorge cannot be restored with trifling apologies or paltry compensations. Australia at this hour needs more than a review of heritage laws. It needs to acknowledge that the nation’s past and present are caught in toxic tangles of settler colonialism and capitalism. The redemption lies in accepting and acting on constitutional reform enshrined in Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

Chitwan National Park & the Displacement of Tharu Peoples

By Erica Bower, student at Columbia College


The following Photo Essay is an excerpt from a post I wrote on my blog while studying abroad through Cornell Nepal Study Program (CNSP) in the spring of 2013.

 Our stay in Chitwan National Park was truly a once in a life time experience—a scene straight from the discovery channel.

However, as incredible as this experience was from the perspective of a tourist, as a student of Human Rights and environmentally-induced displacement, Chitwan has an incredibly dark side.

In many ways, the case of Chitwan is the inverse of most instances of the environment-displacement under study in Nepal given that efforts for environmental protection, rather than environmental degradation, have caused massive displacement.

The brutal reality is that in order to create such a pristine National Park, the Nepali government has forcibly removed all of the Indigenous communities in the district.

The Tharu peoples have lived in the Chitwan region for hundreds of years, and have a rich cultural history tied to the jungle and physical location of Chitwan.

In fact, Tharu peoples are known throughout Nepal as “Son of the Earth.”

However, upon King Mahendra’s decision to make the park “protected,” the Tharu peoples were told they had to leave behind the land of their ancestors and every facet of their livelihoods.

During a visit to a Tharu museum, I was captivated by an exhibit about individual experiences of the Tharu peoples living outside of the National Park in “Buffer Zones.”  There are accounts of houses being burned and army officials dragging mothers and children away in extremely violent ways.

Today, there are efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into conservation, as well as to ensure that displaced peoples retain their livelihoods and benefit from the increased tourism and income that is generated by the national park. For instance, the following photograph is a portrait of a Tharu family-owned business selling local honey.

I left the Tharu village and Chitwan Park with an immense sense of conflict.  As an environment appreciator, I am so amazed at the biodiversity and natural beauty of Chitwan, yet as a human rights activist, there is something deeply unsettling about this violation of rights and disruption of livelihoods.

While the discourse surrounding Climate Induced Migration and displacement considers the indirect anthropogenic contributions to Climate Change as a driver of movement to be a Human Rights violation, the parallel discourses surrounding the more direct development and conservation induced displacement must not be ignored.

As I kept finding again and again throughout my semester in Nepal, circumstances are far more complicated and deeply rooted in complex cultural histories than the surface “skin” that appears obvious to the naked eye.

Erica Bower is a senior at Columbia College majoring in human rights and sustainable development.  Her research interests focus on the nexus of environment and mobility, both in the context of climate-induced displacement in the mountainous communities of Manang and Mustang districts and the contrasting example of conservation-induced displacement in Chitwan National Park that reaffirms the inherent complexity in the displacement discourses.

Towards Sumak Kawsay (Good Living) in Ecuador: Fundación Pachamama visits Columbia University

Narcisa Mashiento, Belen Paez, Robin Fink, Carolyn BuckLuce

By Milagros Egas Villacres, human rights graduate student at Columbia University


“The land we inhabit is the land where our spirits live and we want future generations to have enough resources, clean land, and a better life standards in order to stay on the land that has always been our home.”- Narcisa Mashiento

On October 15, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted an event with the Fundación Pachamama from Ecuador that is part of the Pachamama Alliance. The event featured talks by Belén Páez, President of Fundación Pachamama; Carolyn Buck-Luce, co-founder of Imaginal Labs and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University; and Narcisa Mashiento and Robin Fink, Program Directors of the Jungle Mamas program.  Speakers presented the work they do in order to protect the cultural and biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest.  Some of these efforts include: changing the Ecuadorian Constitution to recognize environmental rights, working with the government to change measures of societal success; and working with indigenous leaders to modify millennia-old traditions in order to promote maternal and community health.

Jungle Mamas started as a result of the high mortality rate among mothers and newborns in isolated Indigenous Communities in Ecuador. Traditionally, birth took place “with nature” while the woman was alone in the jungle. If complications arose, however, mothers were alone and communities did not have the skills to respond to emergencies. In response, Jungle Mamas trains Achuar women and men on how to have: safe births, healthy mothers and children, and necessary prenatal and postnatal care. While respecting the traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous communities, Jungle Mamas has improved the health of families and communities as well as the environment where these communities reside. Narcisa Mashiento explained that the women of these communities were the driving force of Jungle Mamas. It is hard for her and her peers to get any assistance in an emergency, as clinics tend to be closer to towns than to Indigenous land. Narcisa said that her community sees western practices as a tool to save lives in a health crisis and not as a negative presence.

Founded 17 years ago, Fundación Pachamama is dedicated to working to “create an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, human presence on our planet.” After fifteen years of work, Fundación Pachamama has achieved successes for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and their cultural, social, and economic development. However, each speaker stressed that this is an ongoing struggle which has profound effects, not just in Ecuador, but globally. Fundación Pachamama works with the Achuar community on various projects that seek to ensure economic viability while enabling Indigenous Peoples to protect the land they inhabit, such as Ecotourism and Clean Energy projects. Belén Páez explained that oil exploitation has not brought any kind of development to the communities inhabiting the affected areas. In most cases, companies simply contaminate the land and water without contributing to the economic success or sustainability of the communities they affect. The most recent case is the Ecuadorian Government’s project to exploit one of the most diverse areas in the Amazon, the Yasuní Park. In this case, Fundación Pachamama together with the Indigenous Communities, have a strong position against the project and demand that the state protect and respect the right of Indigenous peoples to prior consultation, which is required by international law in order to seek prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples before commencing any development project on indigenous lands.


Milagros Egas Villacrés is an Ecuadorian MA candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program, concentrating in Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Her main interests are Indigenous Peoples located in the Andean region, their relationship with land, and the right to self-determination.