Indigenous peoples are disproportionately and systematically impacted by environmental conflicts stemming from the ongoing extractive and development projects of major industrial sectors around the world, according to a new study published in Science Advances.
Indigenous peoples compose about 6.2% of the world's population but are estimated to be involved in at least 34% of documented environmental conflicts worldwide, the analysis reveals. Most of these conflicts are caused by mining (24.7%), fossil fuels (20.8%), dams (15.2%), and the agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and livestock (AFFL)(17.5%) sector — and most were identified on Indigenous ancestral lands across Central and South America, the Indian subcontinent, Western Africa and Southeast Asia. Arnim Scheidel and colleagues noted that the number of cases impacting Indigenous peoples is likely to be much higher, since many have not yet been documented in global datasets.
Although mining and fossil fuel activities accounted for more conflicts, the AFFL sector was most frequently implicated in the most predominant impacts, including the loss of landscapes ( e.g., loss of aesthetics and a sense of place in 56% of cases), land dispossession (50%), and livelihood loss (52%). The sector was also responsible for the most deforestation and biodiversity loss impacts.
"That extractive industries can pose severe threats to Indigenous peoples is well-known and has been highlighted by Indigenous leaders and scholars [for] decades," said Arnim Scheidel, Ph.D., researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), and lead author of the study. "[It] is important to contextualize their incidence and to understand whether they reflect single cases of bad project management or rather are a systemic feature of how the world economy operates."
"We hope that our study contributes to pressure policymakers to include zero-tolerance policies of Indigenous peoples' rights violations into larger corporate due diligence policies and regional trade agreements," said Scheidel, who also noted that more quantitative, systematic analyses of global data on these conflicts could be valuable resources to inform civil society groups and activists involved in divestment campaigns.
International Policy and Indigenous Rights Violations
For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have practiced a multitude of different land and water stewardship practices, which have contributed to their outsized role in helping to preserve biodiversity and mitigate environmental harms. But centuries of colonial oppression — and the frequent violation and breaking of treaties and agreements with Indigenous peoples by colonizing nations — have persistently threatened Indigenous ancestral lands, knowledge systems and ways of life.
International policy instruments have been developed to uphold Indigenous rights globally, including the International Labour Organization's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (ILO C169), which is a legally binding treaty but has only been ratified by 24 countries — and the more recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has been recognized by over 140 countries but lacks legal power.
"UNDRIP is the most comprehensive international instrument addressing Indigenous peoples' issues," said Ibrahim Garba, S.J.D., a senior researcher at the University of Arizona's Native Nations Institute and study co-author. "However, it is a 'declaration,' and thus lacks the legally binding character of a treaty or other stronger forms of international law."
In short, it would be very challenging to enforce Indigenous rights worldwide — but it is not hopeless. "Declarations can still be hugely influential," said Garba. "They often serve as initial drafts of treaties. They can also be powerful tools for advocacy and mobilization."
This hope motivated Scheidel and colleagues to use an analytical framework that prioritized Indigenous rights as outlined by UNDRIP's 46 articles. "We worked to center Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, including customary rights and relational responsibilities articulated in [UNDRIP] to guide our analysis," said Dominique David-Chavez, Ph.D., director of the Indigenous Land & Stewards Lab at Colorado State University and study co-author.
Analyzing Indigenous Rights Violations on a Global Scale
They evaluated 11 impacts suffered by Indigenous peoples due to the extractive and development activities of different industries — impacts that constitute violations to Indigenous rights as outlined in UNDRIP — including loss of biodiversity, knowledge, landscapes and livelihoods; land dispossession; displacement; deforestation; militarization; water and soil degradation; and impacts on women. Industrial sectors included mining, fossil fuels, AFFL, dams and other sectors partaking in extractive and environmentally intensive industrial development activities.
The researchers carefully reviewed a combination of global knowledge on Indigenous lands and language use, and data from 3,081 vetted case studies of environmental conflicts worldwide, to identify 1,044 conflicts involving self-identified Indigenous peoples from at least 740 distinct Indigenous groups — about 15% of the estimated 5,000 known Indigenous groups worldwide.
"We know that the definitions of Indigeneity are often context-specific and vary within and across regions," said Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Ph.D., researcher at ICTA-UAB and study co-author. "To accommodate regional specificity in the definition of Indigeneity in this otherwise global analysis, we established self-identification as the most fundamental criterion for defining a particular community as Indigenous."
A Global, Collaborative Platform for Documenting Environmental Conflicts
The 3,081 analyzed case studies were sourced from the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) — a global collaborative database that documents historical and ongoing socio-environmental conflicts using a variety of crowdsourced, vetted records such as academic papers, news articles, lawsuits, and formal complaints.
EJAtlas was started in 2010 and has largely been moderated by several of the study co-authors associated with ICTA-UAB. As of this writing, the resource contains 3,875 verified reports of environmental conflicts spanning all inhabited continents on Earth.
"We worked with partner organizations to merge different thematic or regional databases into the EJAtlas," said Daniela Del Bene, Ph.D., researcher at ICTA-UAB, coordinator of EJAtlas, and study co-author, commenting on EJAtlas' development. "Over time, hundreds of other organizations and individuals, researchers and activists from affected communities engaged with the EJAtlas and contributed to making it the largest database on socio-environmental conflicts globally."
In the future, the researchers aim to fill gaps in EJAtlas' coverage to document more socio-environmental conflicts impacting Indigenous, traditional, and local communities worldwide. "We envisage that the EJAtlas will reach 5,000 entries by 2026, improving its geographical and thematic coverage," said Joan Martínez-Alier, emeritus professor at ICTA-UAB, co-founder of the EJAtlas, and study co-author.