Twenty-First Session,
5th Meeting (PM)

Indigenous Peoples Routinely Exposed to Toxic Substances, Their Lands, Waters Poisoned by Reckless Companies, Special Rapporteur Tells Permanent Forum

Indigenous peoples are routinely exposed to highly toxic substances left behind by reckless companies that poison their lands and waters with cyanide, mercury, lead and cadmium, the Special Rapporteur on the issue told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today, as participants engaged with three United Nations experts on ways to uphold their basic human rights on the international stage.

Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, said extractive industries have left a legacy of severely contaminated sites on indigenous lands.  Highly hazardous pesticides sprayed by the agro-industrial complex and irresponsible Governments trying to eradicate illegal crops “in what is really a self-destructive war against plants” reflect the alienation between humanity and nature. 

“The list of toxic exposures on indigenous peoples is long,” he said, despite normative instruments like the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169.  Their exposure continues, even with the increasing recognition of key rights and protections, including free, prior and informed consent, as well as a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Highly hazardous pesticides should be phased out because they pose unacceptable harms to internationally accepted human rights, he continued.  However, there is no instrument for such action.  The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade has been paralyzed by the failure of its Conference of the Parties to list hazardous pesticides, despite the repeated advice of its scientific body. 

He said the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Panel of Experts on Pesticide Management does not refer to indigenous peoples, while the Minamata Convention on Mercury permits the use of mercury in small-scale mining, arguing that miners are poor and must make a living.  “No one has the right to harm another to make a living,” he emphasized, pointing out that mercury is among the most hazardous substances known to humans.  “The environmental injustice of this is ostensible and it must come to an end.”  Toxics are a form of violence against the land and its people, he said.

José Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, detailed his activities, noting that in May 2021, he provided expert testimony to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in the Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel Peoples of Sumpango vs. Guatemala case.  In March 2022, he testified at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a case involving Peru.  He also participated in discussions of the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues, and for the first time, addressed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Heritage Committee on the nomination of heritage sites.

He said his report to the General Assembly will focus on protected areas and indigenous peoples’ rights, reviewing the ways resources are removed from indigenous lands and efforts to ensure cultural heritage protection.  His annual report to the Human Rights Council meanwhile will focus on indigenous women as knowledge keepers, identify threats against them and make recommendations on protecting their ability to develop, apply and transmit knowledge.

Rounding out the panel, Megan Davis, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said the Human Rights Council subsidiary body held its fourteenth session virtually in July 2021, during which it adopted a study on the rights of the indigenous child.  The study showed that the capacity of indigenous peoples to meet their children’s needs depends on their ability to exercise the right to self-determination.  Indigenous children are also at a higher risk of violence, exclusion and discrimination than their non-indigenous peers, due to poverty and other factors.  The arrival of mining, which has led to the contamination of natural resources, has compounded the disparities indigenous children face due to structural discrimination and colonial legacies.

She recommended actions to mitigate the effects of climate change and attain the highest health standards, as well as measures to improve birth registration, reduce the over-representation of indigenous children in alternative care and justice systems, and improve access to primary and secondary education in indigenous languages.  The Expert Mechanism’s annual report highlights the right to self-determination as the foundational right, without which civil, political economic and social rights are meaningless.  It also describes the correlation between recognition of indigenous peoples and the extent to which States fulfil their right to self-determination.  The greater the recognition, the more profound implementation of that right, she observed. 

She added that the Expert Mechanism’s fifteenth session, to be held from 4‑8 July, will include a panel exploring the impact of development projects on indigenous women.  A thematic study on treaties, agreements and other arrangements between indigenous peoples and States, discussed during a virtual seminar held on 29 November and from 1‑2 December 2021, will also be adopted. 

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, representatives of indigenous organizations described a myriad of environmental conditions that impinge upon their rights to a life of health and dignity, with many calling on businesses to meaningfully engage with them to obtain their free, prior and informed consent on decisions and outcomes affecting their communities.

The speaker from the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice, noting that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, described the challenge of combating colonial, industrial and corporate interests.  In the Pacific, this manifests in “sustainability campaigns”, operating in tandem with militarization efforts to distract the public from the destructive activities of colonial forces.  “Green colonialism violates indigenous rights to land and to free, prior and informed consent,” she stressed, adding it also interferes with traditional knowledge transmitted through daily activities.  She recommended support for indigenous demilitarization efforts, pressing authorities to align their climate plans with the Convention on Biodiversity and ratify ILO Convention No. 169.

Similarly, the speaker from the Innuit Circumpolar Council welcomed the United Nations Environment Assembly decision to create a legally binding treaty on plastics, emphasizing that recognition of indigenous knowledge on global plastics management must be ensured.  “States have the power to oblige companies to strictly comply with human rights,” he declared, noting that in Canada, hunters opposing mining activities have little time to respond.

Others spoke more broadly about discriminatory practices.  The speaker from the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean voiced concern that 10 years after the creation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, States, international organizations and businesses are still challenged to ensure that indigenous peoples participate broadly and effectively and that their views are considered.

The speaker from the Asian Indigenous Peoples Caucus said indigenous peoples in Asia are high on the list of targets for killings, arbitrary detention, intimidation and violence.  Noting that attacks against indigenous women and human rights defenders have increased during the pandemic, she urged the Special Rapporteur and Expert Mechanism to facilitate discussions on the development of guiding principles for realizing the right to self-determination

The speaker from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said his organization is one of five in Canada speaking for the Métis, non-status peoples, status peoples and southern Innuits.  Canada has only chosen to work with three groups, none of which represents the rights of these peoples.  “We need to be consulted,” he demanded, notably in relation to land claims, health care, infrastructure and natural resources.

Government representatives also offered their perspectives, with Chile’s delegate describing steps taken in the area of restorative justice and establishing new relations with indigenous peoples.  She pointed to a draft constitution which would recognize the pluri-national and intercultural nature of Chile, describing it as “a first major step”.  Having that mechanism in place would broaden democracy to ensure intercultural governance.  Chile is committed to fully realizing the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, she said.

The representative of Peru described the “huge task to interculturalize our country” given the historic gaps in public policies affecting indigenous communities.  She acknowledged the need to strengthen diversity, noting that Peru relies on ILO Convention No. 169 and the Declaration to help ensure respect for Afro-descendent Peruvians.

The representative of China urged the Special Rapporteur and Expert Mechanism Chair to devote more attention to “the dark history of genocide and cleansing of indigenous peoples”, especially the murder of indigenous children.  They should also prioritize their rights to survival and development, and enjoyment of their civil, political, economic and cultural rights.

Speaking to some of those issues, Estonia’s representative called attention to the fact that the Crimean Peninsula, home to the indigenous peoples of Ukraine, has been occupied and annexed by the Russian Federation since 2014.  The number of people speaking Finno-Ugric in the Russian Federation is “declining constantly” due to its hostile stance and “very limited” opportunities for these peoples, he said.

Other delegates raised questions to the panellists, including Bolivia’s representative, who asked the Special Rapporteur and Expert Mechanism Chair for recommendations to resolve the tension between protection for indigenous territories and the pursuit of economic development.

An observer from the European Union asked how businesses could mitigate their social and legal risks by obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and called for ideas on how to prevent attacks against rights defenders.

Also speaking were speakers from the following organizations:  Coordenação das Organização Indígena da Amazônia Brasileira; MADRE and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung; United Confederation of Taino People; Union of Reindeer Breeders of Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug; Organización Nacional de los Pueblos de la Amazonia Colombiana; Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation (Raipon); and Union des peuples autochtones pour le réveil au développement.

The representatives of Ecuador, New Zealand, Mexico and the Russian Federation also spoke in an observer capacity.

The Forum member from the Russian Federation also made an intervention.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Thursday, 28 April, to continue its twenty-first session.

For information media. Not an official record.