To be stripped of your home and culture is to be stripped of your life, your identity, and often, your dignity. The indigenous people of tribes from every corner of the world know this all too well.
Picture your family as one of 600 in a small, but close-knit community in the Samrong District, Oddar Meanchey Province, of northwestern Cambodia. It’s 2008.Your village has existed and flourished for decades, its people thriving on the lush, natural surroundings. You’re villagers—farming a variety of crops from rice to vegetables, foraging for food and goods from a nearby forest. You sustain your livelihood with these natural resources, as well as water from the streams and wells. You’re villagers—farmers. It’s who you are.
But it all disappears in a flash.
Word spreads that the government granted your land to a Thai company for sugarcane planting, even though they knew that the land is not empty. Even though they knew that the land is the home of 600 families. You’re afraid, frustrated, angry. But what rights do your people have?
Within just a few years, more than half of the forest has been cut down. More than 300 homes have been demolished or burned by staff and security forces conducting evictions. Your rice fields have been looted. Your people’s land and belongings have been lost. Families have been separated and destroyed. Children are sent away by their parents to work in Thailand as farming becomes impossible with 49,000 acres gone.
It’s a nightmare. The forests are felled, homes are destroyed, and community life is disturbed forever.
This horrific –but true– story is simply one of thousands among the world’s 2.5 billion indigenous people. The lands they live on constitute over 50 percent of all the land on the planet, but legally, they own just one-fifth.
These lands, critical for the livelihoods of the indigenous, are protected by the international human rights law, as well as social and environmental standards. The government is not allowed to relocate indigenous peoples without their free, prior, and informed consent, nor should customary and informal land rights be disrespected. With these principles incorporated into an abundance of national laws, one would think that the process of relocating native inhabitants nowadays is well-regulated.
However, time and time again, governments seem to ignore these standards, often considering them “empty” simply because many communities lack legal titles to their land. In most cases, the presence of native inhabitants in an area isn’t a question. It’s known that they’re there. Yet, even with knowledge that there are indigenous families living in a region, corporations often consider land to be “idle” or “underdeveloped” and proceed with their operations, indifferent to the numerous lives they’re destroying.
In the southeast Amazon on the other side of the world in Nemonpare, Ecuador, 18 indigenous Waorani communities have fought for thousands of years to protect their rainforest home, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet; encompassing 2.5 million acres, their territory houses over 200 species of mammals, 600 bird species, nearly 300 fish species, and thousands of species of insects.
Waorani culture embraces vibrant life with a variety of songs for every purpose imaginable—from teaching life lessons and history to raising children and comprehending the complexities of the forest. They dance to promote family ties and a healthy social structure, wielding weapons such as chonta wood blowguns and feather-laden spears.
But, one of the most fundamental components of their lifestyle is living within a healthy, bountiful, living forest. Their land is laden with historic battle sites, ancient cave-carvings, jaguar trails, medicinal plants, animal reproductive zones, important fishing holes, creek-crossings, and sacred waterfalls. A thousand years of observation and experimentation in the jungle has given the knowledge and techniques to heal and cure a plethora of ailments, including snake bites, gaping wounds, and even psychological illness with the use of plants and other forest items. The forest defines the Waorani way of life.
Unfortunately, the last half-century has been ruthless for the Waorani people: roads for oil platforms and pipelines by multinationals and the Ecuadorian state oil company have been spilling right into the heart of their ancestral land. If that wasn’t hard enough, one of the last oil-free, roadless areas in Waorani territory is in danger of having its rights sold by the government and its oil exploited: the headwaters of the Curaray River. Their territory encompasses 2.5 million acres, roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, but the entire region may soon be auctioned off to the highest bidders in the oil industry. A millenary indigenous culture may soon be destroyed for the short-term economic gain of the Ecuadorian government and the international oil industry. Upon learning of the potential auction, the Waorani launched an international petition against the oil drilling, asking the world for help.
Their story mirrors thousands around the globe. From the infamous creation of the United States on stolen Native American land to the recent protests of the Tseil Wauhtuth against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Canada, power-hungry governments and companies threatening the homes that countless indigenous groups depend on for survival seems to be a disappointing, common theme. Such stories must be made known, as these senseless actions of governments and companies on community lands, whether they be for infrastructure projects or private investments, have grave consequences on native inhabitants.
It’s really time to take action. Every year that we ignore these issues is another year that greedy governments and companies tear apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of native people. Spread awareness. Conduct presentations on the rich biodiversity of their lands. Learn and understand the historical and present-day connections between these communities and their environments. Organize community assemblies. Build strategies to resist the imminent auctioning of their ancestral territory to pipelines and the oil industry.
-Ryan Doan Nguyen