Past Time for Respect for Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Despite the challenges of 2021, it closed with some important milestones. At long last, the U.N. Human Rights Council recognized “the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and appointed a Special Rapporteur to focus on rights in the context of climate change. Additionally, the U.S. officially designated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 11. President Biden’s proclamation acknowledges “the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities” and celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ “resilience and strength” and “immeasurable positive impact . . . on every aspect of American society.”

Violence against Indigenous Peoples and nature is deeply intertwined. For generations, Indigenous lands have been exploited as a “hunting ground” for resources with colonialism propped up by racial and gender hierarchies. In the U.S., Native American and Alaska Native women experience sexual assault at a rate 2.5 times higher than other women, with 86% of perpetrators non-Native men. For example, the oil boom in the Bakken region brought a 75% increase in sexual assaults and a 53% increase in violence with the influx of hundreds of transient male workers, housed in “Man Camps” near Indian territories. Moreover, with strained infrastructure and Indian tribes lacking jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants, there is often no accountability. Indigenous leaders have highlighted the link between sovereignty over land and bodily autonomy.

Against this backdrop of abuse, the climate crisis is displacing Indigenous communities at increasing rates and leading to economic instability, land disputes, and disruptions in social safety nets, contributing to increased risk of gender-based violence. Moreover, Indigenous leaders have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change and may also experience violence as retaliation for their actions as human rights defenders confronting environmental degradation. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Indigenous Peoples, aggravating preexisting inequalities and resulting in heightened rates of infection and  increased environmental degradation, economic insecurity, and gender-based violence, threatening Indigenous cultures. 

Our Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law has had the opportunity to document these intersections in collaboration with Indigenous partners and the Benjamin B. Ferencz Human Rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic at Cardozo School of Law. A series of reports address the implications of gender and environmental violence for Indigenous rights. This includes a short synopsis report, a longer human rights framework, and case studies focused on Pipelines and Man Camps in the Northern United StatesCanada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; and Environmental Destruction, Land Dispossession, and Gender-Based Violence Against Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, shared with U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and various Special Rapporteurs to inform guidance on rights in connection to Indigenous women and land.

Indigenous women can lead the way in addressing the twin crises of gender-based violence and climate injustice. They have borne the brunt of these crises for generations and, in many communities, serve as keepers of seeds and cultural knowledge. As Victoria Sweet (White Earth Band of Ojibwe, NoVo Foundation) told the Human Rights Clinic, “We don’t need to be saved; we need to be empowered to save ourselves.” 

Moreover, Indigenous women can share important lessons for us all. As Aimée Craft (Anishinaabe-Métis; University Research Chair, University of Ottawa) stated, “If we can understand environmental justice through the lens of having a relationship or kinship with our mother, then we will be back to a position of being able to live in sustainable ways.”

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