Land defenders, guardians of the culture and identity of Indigenous Peoples
| 2022-08-03

Indigenous Women are criminalized for defending the land of their communities from dispossession and exploitation by the States and companies. The CEDAW General Recommendation provides for a legal framework that protects Indigenous Women and guarantees their rights to land.

Since she was a youth, Joan Carling, an Indigenous woman leader of the Philippines, understood that the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and land is special. Joan grew up in a mixed community with Indigenous and non-Indigenous families; thus, she could see the differences between her community and the rest of the Philippine society. For the Kankanaey, the Indigenous community of the Northern area of the Cordillera in the Philippines, to which she belongs, land is collective and inherited equally by men and women. Forests are subject to collective norms and people help each other during times of crisis. Land is not a mere natural resource or a commodity, but it is the basis of the culture, identity, wellbeing and cohesion of the community, a concept that brings Indigenous Peoples together from America to Asia.

When Carling was a child, the pine forest was her playground. “During my childhood, we hung up from trees, we collected pine cones to gather pine nuts  for the community pine trees nursery , and we hunted  for mushrooms on rainy days,” she explains with the voice of someone who remembers happy times. But soon, she understood that if she did not fight and defend the land, it would be taken away from the traditional custodians, as her community lived in a gold-rich region. The company that exploited the forest where she grew up was the same one that had expropriated an area of collective land to extract gold and copper. The land had been completely destroyed: the underground water and rivers were polluted and the unstable land due to mining activities would collapse at their feet. 

During her college years, Carling spent  two months of summer with  the  Kalinga tribal villages which successfully defended their territories from the construction of four hydro dams that would destroy their livelihoods. Although resistance came along with blood and imprisonments, the Kalinga People managed to stop the dam. This marked a milestone in the defense of lands for Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines, as it proved that fighting together with determination  yields results. 

Since then, for over 20 years, Carling has been defending Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights  not only in the Philippines but  also in Asia and at the global level.  In 2018, she received the Champions of the Earth award for her trajectory, the most important distinction of the United Nations in environmental matters. For an effective land defense, Carling recommends having a solid community organization, including women leadership, creating alliances with diverse stakeholders (communities, academics, local governments) and not letting companies set foot on the lands of Indigenous Peoples. “Once they are inside, it is much harder to get them out,” she warns.

The fight of the Amazigh People for collective land in Morocco

In Morocco, Amina Amharech, Amazigh indigenous activist, faces the latest assault of the Moroccan government against the notion of collective land of the Amazigh People as well as disregard for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2019, three laws were adopted that destroy the inalienability, which protected collective lands in Morocco, whereby these could not be sold, transferred or rented. Only the State could acquire the lands in those cases that proved to contribute to the wellbeing of the community. The Amazigh, also known as the Berber, is an Indigenous People that inhabits Northern Africa from Siwa, Egypt to the Canary Islands, with their own language, culture and identity. 

For Amina, behind such laws there is a clear intention of the State to encroach on the collective land, which still covers most of the country’s territory. “The French eliminated the customary right of the Amazigh to the land, the Izarfan, which guaranteed equal access for everyone to the land and natural resources. However, colonizers could not entirely end the relationship of the Amazigh with the land. We preserve the forms of community governance, decision-making processes where women are included, and food-sovereignty methods,” Amina explains. Upon the elimination of the 1919 French protectorate laws, the Moroccan State has taken even one step further in the dispossession of land from Indigenous Peoples, a situation that is exacerbated by the effects of climate change, preventing them from reaching the SDGs. 

The cultural basis of the Amazigh People: women, language and territory

Amina relates the new laws on collective lands to a fundamentalist Arabization project that intends to undermine the leadership position of Amazigh Women within their communities. “During my childhood, women have been very present. I saw how they could give their opinion and take part in debates without being discriminated against. They are the center of the family and the community; they are the ones who take care of their children and their households, but also those who preserve  ancestral knowledge and land,” Amina says. The word Tamazigh designates language, territory and woman, a highly symbolic term in the Amazigh cosmovision, which makes reference to the matrilineal structure of these people. However, in the 1980’s, the rising of the radical Islam negatively impacted the freedoms and social status of women in Morocco. 

This patriarchal character is found in the reaction caused by the new land laws. By renaming the collective land as soulaliyates (arabic word for female descendant), the Moroccan State has alienated men from women, as men believe that it will be women who benefit from this land. However, the reality is quite the opposite. “These are the consequences of a simple change of name and show the weak position that women have in regards to the land,” Amina remarks. In fact, the only ones who will gain control of these lands will be the private investors and oligarchs favoured by the new laws.

Criminalized for defending the land

Both Joan Carling and Amina Amharech have faced high risks for defending the land of their Indigenous Peoples against the expropriation by the State or extractive companies. Over the years while Carling worked for the Cordillera People’s Alliance, she was called a terrorist, along with other activists. At that time, she received numerous threats and four of her colleagues were murdered. Pressure on her life and her family was so high, that in 2006 she decided to take a break and leave the danger zone through the Oak Human Rights Fellowship Program

In turn, Amina Amharech has personally faced the corruption of the Moroccan State and judicial system, her family and community struggling for years against the state apparatus that is trying everything to expropriate them for belonging to the Amazigh People. When she intended to bring the case to justice, she was faced with a different kind of corruption, that of the judiciary system, with the Amicale Hassania des juges du Maroc trying to get their hands on those lands part of the Land Title 1683K. In Morocco today, there is a land mafia targeting all Amazigh land, whether collective or private. There are no laws in place to protect the rights of the Amazigh to their lands and natural resources and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find specialized attorneys who dare lead such cases.

Every time the Amazigh People protest, leaders are arrested and imprisoned. “Nothing can protect us. That is why I searched for the alternative before international bodies,” Amina states. Amharech participated in the UN Indigenous Fellowship Programme and, ever since, she has been a pioneer in taking the fight of the Amazigh People before the United Nations. 

A new legal framework for Indigenous Women to defend the land

In CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls, Amina finds the possibility of protecting the rights of her people and, particularly, the rights of women, from a State that deliberately violates them. However, she claims that for the Recommendation to reach the communities, previous dissemination and awareness efforts must be undertaken. “Women need to be taught how to use these mechanisms,” she affirms. 

For Joan Carling, who is currently the Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), the danger is that the Recommendation remains a dead letter. In order to avoid it, it would be necessary to establish an accountability process and for the States to apply sanctions to those violating Human Rights. In any case, the CEDAW General Recommendation is a milestone in the history of the rights to land of Indigenous Women and Girls. The next challenge will be to enforce it.