Survival of Africa's indigenous peoples 'seriously threatened'

A new report on the state of the indigenous peoples around the globe has highlighted the serious threats to the life and livelihood of indigenous peoples of Africa. Baher Kamal explains.

THE cultures and very survival of indigenous peoples in Africa are seriously threatened. They are ignored and neglected and fall victim to land grabbing and land dispossession caused by extractive industries, agribusiness and other forms of business operations.

These are some of the key findings of a major report The Indigenous World 2017, on the state of indigenous peoples worldwide, issued on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The report, launched on 25 April by the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) during a meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (24 April-5 May), emphasises that in spite of progress, there are still major challenges facing indigenous peoples in Africa.

Africa is home to an estimated 50 million indigenous peoples; that's around 13% of the total of 270 million indigenous peoples worldwide. They live in all regions of Africa, with large concentrations in North Africa where the Amazigh people live. In West Africa, there are large pastoralist populations in countries like Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon etc. There are also large concentrations of indigenous peoples in East Africa, with big pastoralist populations in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Hunter-gatherers are found in many countries in central and Southern Africa, though they are smaller in number than the pastoralist groups.

In several African states, explains IWGIA, 'indigenous peoples are yet to be recognised as such'. Arguments that all Africans are indigenous or that the concept of 'indigenous peoples' is divisive and unconstitutional are persistently expressed in political statements and continue to shape the policies of a number of African countries.

Large-scale dispossession of indigenous peoples' lands remains a significant challenge in several African states, the report says, adding that the global drive for raw materials, agribusiness and building of major infrastructure projects are pushing indigenous peoples to their last boundaries.

A recent African Commission report on extractive industries and indigenous peoples reveals the negative impact several mining, agribusiness and logging projects are having on indigenous peoples' land rights and access to natural resources, according to IWGIA.

In several cases, tensions with indigenous peoples have led to open conflicts, including loss of lives.

In this regard, the African Commission has sent urgent appeals to a number of African governments on serious human rights violations affecting indigenous peoples.

Forced evictions, human rights violations

Marianne Wiben Jensen, IWGIA's senior advisor on Africa and land rights, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that Africa's indigenous peoples are victims of land grabbing and other forms of land dispossession caused by extractive industries, agribusiness and other business operations.

'This leads to forced evictions and other forms of serious human rights violations,' she said, adding that indigenous peoples in Africa are 'marginalised economically and politically and are only to a very limited extent participating in decision-making processes.'

'So they have very limited possibilities of voicing their perspectives and priorities and influencing their own futures,' Wiben Jensen warned, explaining that they typically live in marginalised and remote areas with very limited and bad social infrastructure.

The issue of extractive industries is once again a recurrent and overarching theme in the indigenous world. Numerous examples show that both states and industries are repeatedly ignoring the key principle of free, prior and informed consent.

Mega infrastructure projects, investments in extractive industries and large-scale agriculture are increasingly posing a threat to the everyday life of indigenous peoples and their ability to maintain their land, livelihood and culture.

At the same time, Wiben Jensen added, indigenous peoples in Africa have proven to be very resilient, and despite the many problems they face and the lack of support they receive from their governments, they still manage to survive in often very harsh environments based on their unique indigenous knowledge of nature and natural resources.

'All this is happening amidst an alarming rate of violence and discrimination of indigenous peoples and human rights defenders around the world.'

Wiben Jensen also warned that violence against indigenous women and girls continues to feature in several indigenous communities in Africa, including harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, early or forced marriage and inaccessibility of good standards on reproductive rights.

Overall, one could put African states into three categories as far as the protection of indigenous peoples' rights is concerned.

First, some African states have fully endorsed the concept of 'indigenous peoples in Africa' and have moved on to adopt legal or policy frameworks aimed at addressing the concerned com-munities' particular human rights situation. 'These states are still small in number but their potential impact is immense.'

Second, some African states recognise and are willing to redress the historical injustices and mar-ginalisation suffered by certain sections of their national populations that self-identify as indigenous peoples, 'but remain uncomfortable with the term "indigenous peoples" and therefore prefer using alternative concepts in their laws or policies.'

Third, there are African states that continue to contest the existence of indigenous peoples in the continent or the relevance of the concept in Africa. There are numerous reasons for this denial, including a mis-understanding of what the concept 'indigenous peoples in Africa' means.

The forgotten peoples, reported

The Indigenous World 2017 is IWGIA's 30th report on the status of indigenous peoples and comes in a special edition on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide and a comprehensive overview of the main global trends and developments affecting indigenous peoples during 2016. It contains 59 detailed country reports and 12 articles on defining global processes over a total of 651 pages.

It also highlights that despite some encouraging national achievements, the country reports in this year's edition continue to illustrate the great pressures facing indigenous communities at the local level.

Over 70 experts, indigenous activists and scholars have contributed to The Indigenous World 2017, which was published with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Danida (the term used for Denmark's development cooperation). - IPS                              

*Third World Resurgence No. 319/320, Mar/Apr 2017, pp 52-53