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Cameroon forest people: Land rights abuses threaten survival
by Inna Lazareva
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sept. 2017
Leaders of Cameroon''s indigenous forest peoples say their survival is at risk if they are further deprived of access to the lands that are the source of their livelihoods.
Speaking in Cameroon''s capital, Yaoundé, indigenous representatives said they had experienced increasingly serious violations of their land rights by palm oil and other agro-industries, mining firms and timber concessions, as well as the process of creating protected areas on their ancestral lands.
"This disturbing situation foreshadows a future where we, as indigenous peoples, will no longer have land," said Hélène Aye Mondo, president of Gbabandi, an organisation of more than 50 indigenous Baka and Bagyeli communities. "If we continue to lose our lands and forests, the very survival of our cultures and peoples is at risk."
At the meeting this week, forest community leaders signed a joint declaration calling for recognition and respect of their customary land rights, timed to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Cameroon is a signatory.
The U.N. declaration says governments must consult indigenous peoples to gain their consent before approving any decisions that affect how their land and resources are used, and they are entitled to redress for any such activities.
Suzanne Ndjele, a member of the Baka ethnic group from the village of Assoumindelé in south Cameroon, said in a written testimony handed out to journalists that her community no longer has access to the forest they depend on for food and medicine.
Ndjele used to work in the forest, hunting and gathering food and other resources with women from her community. But for the past four years she has not been able to enter it.
"Eco-guards came and told us ‘nobody can go into the forest anymore''. If we continued to enter the forest we were threatened. I went in and was beaten," she said.
The forest in question was incorporated into the Ngoyla-Mintom Reserve, created in 2014. Access to parts of the forest was restricted and local people were instead given "community forests", smaller parcels of land which they say are not enough.
The community forest for Assoumindelé is located 10 km (6.2 miles) away from the village, which inhabitants say is not practical for their everyday activities.
Lydie Essissima, an official with Cameroon''s social affairs ministry who attended the meeting, said the government was aware of the problem, and stands by its commitments made in the 2007 U.N. declaration. Cameroon was one of 144 countries that voted in favour of its adoption in 2007.

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World still lagging on Indigenous Rights 10 Years after Historic Declaration
by UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, agencies
Aug. 2017
World still lagging on Indigenous Rights 10 Years after Historic Declaration, by Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, Albert K. Barume and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
The world’s indigenous peoples still face huge challenges a decade after the adoption of an historic declaration on their rights, a group of United Nations experts and specialist bodies has warned. The group says States must put words into action to end discrimination, exclusion and lack of protection illustrated by the worsening murder rate of human rights defenders.
The joint statement from the Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples reads as follows:
“It is now 10 years since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly, as the most comprehensive international human rights instrument for indigenous peoples. The Declaration, which took more than 20 years to negotiate, stands today as a beacon of progress, a framework for reconciliation and a benchmark of rights.
But a decade on, we need to acknowledge the vast challenges that remain. In too many cases, indigenous peoples are now facing even greater struggles and rights violations than they did 10 years ago.
Indigenous peoples still suffer from racism, discrimination, and unequal access to basic services including healthcare and education. Where statistical data is available, it shows clearly that they are left behind on all fronts, facing disproportionately higher levels of poverty, lower life expectancy and worse educational outcomes.
Indigenous peoples face particularly acute challenges due to loss of their lands and rights over resources, which are pillars of their livelihoods and cultural identities.
Indigenous women face double discrimination, both as women and as indigenous peoples. They are frequently excluded from decision-making processes and land rights, and many suffer violence.
We call on all States to ensure that indigenous women fully enjoy their rights as enshrined in the Declaration and emphasize that their rights are a concern for all of us.
The worsening human rights situation of indigenous peoples across the globe is illustrated by the extreme, harsh and risky working conditions of indigenous human rights defenders.
Individuals and communities who dare to defend indigenous rights find themselves labelled as obstacles to progress, anti-development forces, and in some cases, enemies of the State or terrorists.
They even risk death. Last year alone, some sources suggest that 281 human rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries – more than double the number who died in 2014. Half of them were working to defend land, indigenous and environmental rights.
We urge States to protect indigenous human rights defenders. Crimes committed against them must be duly investigated and prosecuted, and those responsible brought to justice.
Indigenous peoples are increasingly being drawn into conflicts over their lands, resources and rights. Lasting peace requires that States, with the support of the international community, establish conflict resolution mechanisms with the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples’, in particular indigenous women.
Many States still do not recognize indigenous peoples, and in particular indigenous women and youth still face a lack of official recognition and direct political participation. Even in States where laws are in place, the Declaration has not been fully implemented.
It is high time to recognize and strengthen indigenous peoples’ own forms of governance and representation, in order to establish constructive dialogue and engagement with international and national authorities, public officials and the private sector.
The minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world, as set out in the Declaration, must now be met.
These include the rights to identity, language, health, education and self-determination, alongside the duty of States to consult and cooperate with indigenous peoples to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing measures that may affect them.
The Declaration represents important shifts in both structure and the practice of global politics, and the last 10 years have seen some positive changes in the situation of indigenous peoples and greater respect for indigenous worldviews.
But we still have a long way to go before indigenous peoples have full enjoyment of their human rights as expressed in the Declaration. We call on all States to close the gap between words and action, and to act now to deliver equality and full rights for all people from indigenous backgrounds.”
* Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine is Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Albert K. Barume is chairman of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous People have Rights, by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
“Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” You have perhaps heard this phrase, often attributed to the Cree people. It is a clear warning. We are reaching the limits of our planet''s capacity to absorb damage.
Indigenous people have rights, intrinsically and inalienably; and they have developed deep knowledge which we would do well to heed. If we do not recognise, promote and protect their rights, and safeguard the knowledge which indigenous peoples treasure, we will irreparably harm the destiny of all humanity.
Ten years ago, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a historic step forward for recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to live in dignity, and to maintain their own institutions, cultures and traditions.
But the Declaration continues to face massive challenges. There remains an enormous gap – in some cases a chasm – between governments declared intentions to support indigenous peoples rights and the reality of indigenous peoples’ lives. How can we bridge the gap between what we say, and the daily grind in which so many are forced to live?
Frequently, States allow the interests of big business to overshadow and sometimes subsume the rights of indigenous peoples to protection of their lands, territories, resources and environment. Frequently, “consultations” with indigenous peoples are mere pro forma exercises and the key principle of free, prior and informed consent is neglected in both law and practice.
The dominant narrative is “de-risking” projects for business and investors – not for those whose lives may be devastated by ill-conceived projects. Indigenous Peoples are also habitually overlooked when it comes to deriving benefits from these business and development ventures.
Development is essential for all States. But its purpose is to increase well-being throughout society – not to increase the burdens endured by communities. No projects should be financed without extensive public deliberation, and consultation with the directly affected communities that is free from intimidation.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers us a new beginning for development that is built on universality, human rights, equality and environmental sustainability. It makes explicit reference to indigenous peoples’ development concerns. This framework offers real hope for accountability and effective, human-rights based policy. We need to ensure that indigenous voices are amplified in all related processes.
I don''t mean to ignore the significant progress which has been made in implementing the Declaration, including with respect to land rights. In the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) draft report on good practices, you note that regional and national courts increasingly invoke key principles of the Declaration, such as the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
For example, the Inter-America Court of Human Rights in Pueblo Indígena Kichwa de Sarayaku vs. Ecuador, and the Mexican Supreme Court in the Independencia Aqueduct case. Courts have also recognised indigenous peoples’ rights to traditional lands, including in the Endorois case before the African Commission, the recent Ogiek case before the African Court, and the Sarstoon Temash Institute case before the Supreme Court of Belize.
The Declaration has also been brought to life at national level through its influence on constitutions and statutes. In Ecuador, the Declaration is directly applicable. The Republic of the Congo was the first African country to adopt a Law on Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous activists have been instrumental in many such cases, including in Brazil where indigenous groups drafted their own protocol for consultation.
Furthermore, a number of new regional instruments are based on the Declaration. Last year, the Organization of American States approved the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognizing among other rights the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral territories; consultation; and the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
Similarly, Finland, Norway and Sweden signed a Convention this year on indigenous Sami rights and culture, which will now be examined by the Sami parliaments and national legislatures.
Indigenous women and girls are particular targets of violence, and this issue is now receiving long-overdue attention from some States. I welcome the Human Rights Council’s panel discussion last year on “The causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls, including those with disabilities”.
And yet I have been acutely concerned by the large numbers of murders in the past year of human rights defenders seeking to realise land, environmental and indigenous rights – many, but not all of them in Central America. Just ten days ago, another armed attack in Honduras targeted Bertha Zuñiga, the daughter of the murdered indigenous activist Berta Cáceres. Fortunately, she survived. It is intolerable that these attacks continue, and that so few of the perpetrators are ever held to account.
Progress in achieving the goals of the Declaration remains dwarfed by the structural violence and injustice so many indigenous people endure, including obstructions to their access to justice and failure to recognise their right to self-determination. In some States, they are not even recognised as indigenous peoples, making it almost impossible to claim their rights as a discrete group.
The suffering and injustice of indigenous peoples is reflected in a very wide range of recommendations from the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other independent experts; Treaty Bodies; and the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. We simply cannot continue with business as usual, a parade of commitments that frequently fail to be carried through on the ground.
I urge all States to follow through with the essential commitments they made at the World Conference in 2014, including adoption of national action plans. A General Assembly resolution relating to participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives in UN Meetings is currently in preparation, and I encourage you to take a supportive stand on this issue.
Engagement needs champions. Many established champions of indigenous peoples rights are in this room today, and I offer you my deep respect. Others here are new to us. I welcome the 2017 OHCHR indigenous fellows, and hope the knowledge you gain here in Geneva will inspire you to return to act as agents of change in your countries. We also welcome all support provided to the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, which has helped many beneficiaries to attend this session.
We need to step up our work to advance the rights of indigenous people. All of us – experts, NGOs, representatives of States, young and old – need to ensure that this becomes, at last, a priority, as it always should have been. A decade has already gone by: may the second decade of the Declaration’s history be one of vigorous implementation, and the transformative realisation of indigenous peoples’ rights.

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