From the Wet’suwet’en to West Papuans: Continuing indigenous peoples’ struggles

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Indigenous peoples from around the world continue their strong assertions of their right to self-determination, as 2019 witnesses their enduring struggles for rights and sovereignty amid threats from state armed forces, right-wing elites and transnational corporations (TNCs). Sustained actions by empowered people’s organisations and movements, such as indigenous peoples’ movements and organisations, are essential in transforming societies for development that is led not by the elite, nor corporations, but by the people.

The Wet'suwet'en struggle

The Wet'suwet'en nationin the Canadian province of British Columbia have been asserting their right to their ancestral territories for decades, as these continue to be threatened by corporate interests.Among the various pipeline projects they oppose is the current 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink Pipeline project, led by energy transnational corporation TransCanada.[i]

The USD 4.8 billion pipeline, part of the bigger USD 40 billion fracked gas project,[ii] aims to transport natural gas for later export.[iii] But if built, this would pose environmental risks[iv] and deprive communities of their ancestral territory and their access to lands, bodies of water and resources. The project is backed by the Canadian national government, the government of British Columbia and other TNCs such as PetroChina, Royal Dutch Shell, Petronas, Mitsubishi Corporation and the Korean Gas Corporation.

After a court injunction granting supposed Coastal GasLink access to the land, militarised Canada’s national police force breached a camp constructed by the indigenous peoples and arrested at least 12.[v] The Unist'ot'en camp, named after one of the Wet’suwet’en clans,[vi] was constructedtowards an “indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land”[vii] and blocks the path of the planned pipeline.[viii] The arrests and the ongoing Wet’suwet’en strugglefor their land garnered the support of more than 70 marches for solidarity in Canada, Europe and the United States.

Brazil’s indigenous peoples under Bolsonaro

In Brazil, as Jair Bolsonaro began his first days in office as president, indigenous peoples’ rights came under threat. The far-right president issued executive decrees in January which, among others,forged closer relations with the United States government,[ix] transferred power over indigenous lands from the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) to the Agriculture Ministry,[x] as well as orders that are expected to block any new lands for indigenous peoples.

FUNAI is constitutionally mandated to decide on matters relating to indigenous peoples’ control and protection of ancestral lands.[xi] The transfer of powers to the Agriculture Ministry came at a time when it is headed by Tereza Cristina Dias, former leader of the agribusiness lobby group in Brazil’s congress.[xii] Amid the looming threat of business expansion to indigenous domains, Bolsonaro has previously called land activists as “terrorists”[xiii] and has enjoyedthe support of the agribusiness sector[xiv] and big farm lobby groups.[xv]

In response, indigenous peoples’ groupslaunched protests in at least 22 states to assert their rights for their ancestral lands and their futures.[xvi] They have also decried the role of the country’s environmental policy in the recent collapse of a dam in southeast Brazil,[xvii] while directly affected groups have asserted their resistance to protect their way of life.[xviii]Brazil has almost 900,000 indigenous peoples.

The liberation agenda in West Papua

West Papuans have continued to defend their right to self-determination and liberation, andto resist the militarist attacks of the Indonesian state. West Papua has been annexed as a province of Indonesia since the 1960s after an era of Dutch colonisation. Activists and armed movements cry for an end to the long history of rights violations by the Indonesian state, the mining plunder by United States TNC Freeport-McMoran, and other obstacles to a “free West Papua”.[xix]

In December 2018, after more than 20 supposed military personnel fell from armed actions of the West Papuan National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the Indonesian government intensified military operations in the Nduga region. The Indonesian government claimed that the TPNPB killed civilian construction workers. The TPNPB however point to how the Indonesian military personnel were constructing a bridge in the area for military strategic use.[xx] Other independence leadershave asserted that they “cannot trust the Indonesian government’s account about Nduga, or any incidents in regard to West Papua.”[xxi]

By January 2019, West Papuan activists have increasingly called attention to the resulting “crackdown”and “humanitarian crisis” in Nduga, and called to end military operations[xxii] which saw cases of torture, killings, displacement by the thousands,[xxiii][xxiv] and alleged use of banned white phosphorus weapons.[xxv] Independence activists have also launched protests in December 2018 despite arrests by the hundreds, raising West Papuan flags deemed illegal by the Indonesian state.[xxvi] Other groups have also sent a petition of 1.8 million signatures to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, calling for a referendum on the subject of independence.[xxvii]

The Lumad struggle continues

In December 2018, the Philippine congress extended martial law – military rule – in the whole southern island of Mindanao for another year.[xxviii] In January 2019, two Lumad farmers from the Manobo tribe were killed allegedly by the Philippine army. The military claims that the two were killed amid military clashes with Maoist revolutionary guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA), a claim disputed by rights groups as the two were unarmed civilians.[xxix] Another incident showed the arrest of a Lumad leader and a peasant leader in the region on the common military allegations of links with Maoist guerrillas.

The same month, more than 300 from Lumad communities in the province of Surigao del Sur were displaced due to military bombings and a series of military harassment. Those displaced include around a hundred students of local indigenous peoples schools,Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS).[xxx] This follows a July 2018 case where around 1,500 were displaced due to military encampments in indigenous communities.

Lumad groups have continued to assert their rights. With the assistance of lawyers’ groups, they have filed the fourth petition in the Philippines’ highest court to end martial law in Mindanao.[xxxi] In late January, some groups have travelled to the capital in Manila to raise their voices in opposition of the state rights violations and to save the indigenous schools.[xxxii] Environmental groups have also slammed the attacks on the Lumad indigenous rights defenders,who have a long history of opposing big mining and agribusiness interests.[xxxiii]