Marking the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

August 9th is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

According to the United Nations:

"There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5% of the world’s population, but account for 15% of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.”

Our Network is full of members who use legal empowerment to support indigenous peoples across issues and across the globe. Some of these organizations were finalists or winners of the 2019 Grassroots Justice Prize, signaling that issues impacting indigenous peoples continue to gain prominence within our movement.

These organizations include:

Ogiek Peoples Development Program

Shortlisted for the Grassroots Justice Prize

The land rights of Kenya’s Ogiek community have been violated over time through dispossessions and ejection from the Mau Forest Complex in the name of conservation. These violations have effectively denied this community access to resources such as water, pastures for grazing their livestock, and the ability to engage in their traditional cultural practices. Affected communities have sought to resist their displacement through activism and litigation, yet despite a court ruling in their favor, members of the Ogiek community still face land grabs and related challenges which include threats of eviction, harassment, arrest, and destruction and loss of property and lives in the event of evictions.

In response, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP) strives to promote and advocate for the participation, self-determination, and improved human rights of the Ogiek community, through enhanced inclusivity and of equal opportunity in the economic, social, cultural, and political spheres.

How OPDP uses legal empowerment to address injustice

OPDP has been conducting community-level awareness, sensitization, and training programs to support the Ogiek community to understand the laws that affect them, and the mechanisms to protect their human rights including the constitution, laws, and policies. This has helped the community to prevent as well as report violations of their rights.

About 50 community paralegals have been trained by OPDP between 2012 and 2018. They play the role of human rights monitors and community mobilizers, giving legal education and documenting violations as well as reporting on community issues. Between 2015 and 2016, they supported two communities to map their land in parts of the Mau forest. On 26 May 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights delivered its landmark judgment in the case, finding that the Kenyan Government had violated articles of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, with the violations amounting to a persistent denial of Ogiek land rights and their religious freedoms.

Find out more about OPDP’s work here

@dkobei @fredngusilo @SAMORAI

Women’s Justice Initiative

Shortlisted for the Grassroots Justice Prize

Guatemala faces some of the highest levels of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the world. Over 27% of women suffer from intimate partner violence in their lifetime and the country has the third highest femicide rate globally.

Rural, indigenous women are disproportionately impacted due in part to their social isolation and limited access to resources. Social services and government institutions are concentrated in Guatemala’s cities; they rarely reach indigenous women living in rural areas.

Those women who leave their communities to seek assistance often face discrimination due to their ethnicity in addition to the challenge of navigating a system that does not offer bilingual services. Administrative and geographic barriers are further compounded by social norms that view violence against women and girls as acceptable.

Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI) works in rural Maya communities in Guatemala where women face extreme poverty and have little or no access to social services, making them especially vulnerable to violence, inequality, and discrimination. Their mission is to improve the lives of indigenous Guatemalan women and girls through education, access to legal services, and gender-based violence prevention.

How legal empowerment is used to address the injustice

WJI addresses the challenges indigenous Maya-Kaqchikel women face by providing free, culturally-grounded, legal support; bilingual legal education; and leadership training in 32 communities in rural Guatemala through its 4 programs:

The Women’s Rights Education Program is a six-month legal empowerment course that educates women about their rights, including the right to live free from violence, sexual and reproductive rights, and property and inheritance rights. The program also fosters the women’s leadership, decision-making, and communication skills so they can better assert their rights.

The Community Advocates Program is a grassroots legal advocacy program that provides intensive human rights and leadership training to graduates of the Women’s Rights Education Program, enabling them to become local leaders and grassroots legal advocates for women and girls in their communities. These Community Advocates support WJI in facilitating legal literacy workshops and providing accompaniment to women seeking legal services.

The Legal Services Program provides free legal aid directly to women in need by bringing lawyers and paralegals to their communities and providing bilingual Maya Kaqchikel-Spanish resources.

The Adolescent Girls Program supports girls ages 10 to 17 in asserting their rights, delaying marriage, and achieving their personal goals.

To learn more, read the Member Spotlight on Women’s Justice Initiative

@KateFlatley @VivianaPatal


Winner of the Grassroots Justice Prize

NIRMAN works with Tribal, aboriginal, and forest-dwelling communities in India who face eviction and widespread displacement from their ancestral lands. Their efforts center on raising awareness of progressive legislation that protects land and forest rights, and on mobilizing communities to file and settle claims when their rights are violated. NIRMAN also supports communities to conserve, manage, and govern forest resources sustainably through local institutions.

NIRMAN has been pursuing legal empowerment work through intervention in land and forest governance since 2012. The founder and other senior members of the organization have been associated with a nationwide forest rights campaign since 2002 that was instrumental in the enactment of an empowering piece of legislation - the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). The FRA became the first legislation in the history of forest governance that acknowledged the historical injustices meted out to Tribal and forest dwelling communities during consolidation of state forests and provided a democratic framework for vesting legal rights over customarily used land and forests to individual families and communities respectively for meeting livelihoods.

How legal empowerment is used to address the injustice

NIRMAN is helping Tribal and forest dwelling communities through:

Capacity Building: We raise awareness on the potential of this legislation for legal settlement of rights through community meetings and follow it up with orientation and training of leaders on different provisions of law. Apart from communities, we also sensitize government officials and people’s representatives responsible for implementation of various provisions of law and procedural constraints faced by community for coordinated action at various levels;

Strengthening community institutions: We facilitate their participation in capacity building, mapping of community resources, monitoring claim filing processes by community members, joint verification of claims with government officials, dialogue with government officials on progress of implementation of law, forest management plan, among other engagements;

Filing legal claims over land and Community Forest Resources under FRA: We facilitate filing of legal claims over customarily used forestland by individual families, and a range of community forest rights including right over forest produce, forest village, water bodies, medicinal plants, other traditional rights and community forest resources by village communities;

Interface with Government officials: We also build a platform for regular interface between the community and officials at various levels ranging from Panchayat, Block, district to state levels on implementation and policy issues related to this legislation.


Natural Justice

Photo by Pooven Moodley

Lawyers for Communities and the Environment is a non-profit organization that specializes in human rights and environmental law in Africa in pursuit of both social and environmental justice. It operates in seven countries; Benin, Guinea Conakry, Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe towards the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity through the self-determination of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Natural Justice facilitates the full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in the development and implementation of laws and policies that relate to the conservation and customary uses of biodiversity and the protection of associated cultural heritage.

Natural Justice works at the local, national, regional, and international levels with a wide range of partners. They strive to ensure that community rights and responsibilities are represented and respected at the broader scales and that gains made in international fora are fully upheld at lower levels.

How legal empowerment is used to address injustice

Conservation and Customary Use

This program aims to:

  • Support indigenous peoples and local communities to advocate for recognition and support for their contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of their territories’ natural and cultural heritage;
  • Ensure conservation interventions initiated by other actors do not infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including the customary sustainable use of their resources.

Which is achieved by:

  • Supporting specific communities to assert their rights and affirm their responsibilities in the context of specific conservation initiatives;
  • Coordinating the development of legal reviews that focus, among other things, on how conservation laws either support or hinder indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land and natural resource rights, including in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Senegal;
  • Representing the issues at the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations;
  • Conducting research and advocacy to inform the international debate about systemic changes required to address these issues.

Extractives and Infrastructure

This program aims to:

  • Support communities to improve the implementation of laws that prevent or minimise the impacts of extractives and infrastructure projects.
  • Provide input to project decision-making processes, such as environmental impact assessments, and actively support affected communities to monitor project legal compliance and voice complaints through the relevant decision-making structures.

Which is achieved by:

  • Researching the various strategies being employed by affected communities to prevent or minimise the impacts of extractives and infrastructure projects.
  • Directly supporting local communities in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Guinea negatively affected by development projects by helping them to articulate their complaints and realise their rights.
  • Engaging a specialised team of lawyers and community environmental legal officers to assist communities with respect to extractive or infrastructure projects that impact their lives.

Governance of Lands and Natural Resources

This program aims to:

  • Support communities to secure land and natural resource tenure, with a focus on gaining recognition for their contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity;
  • Provide informed assistance on how the implementation of communities’ land and resource rights can best take place.

Which is achieved by:

  • Developing the land rights elements of Natural Justice’ work to help strengthen the communal land rights of indigenous and local communities;
  • Providing technical advising, supporting existing litigious processes with our partners and engage in advocacy;
  • Providing local legal empowerment in relation to both land and resource rights;
  • Monitoring national level legal processes in relation to land, resources and related traditional governance structures;
  • Engaging in selected regional and international negotiations, including the African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights or the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Traditional Knowledge and Benefit Sharing

This program aims to:

  • Protect traditional knowledge and ensure fair and equitable benefit sharing;
  • Ensure the responsible implementation of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS);
  • Support communities who want to engage in ABS negotiations, or who are already part of ABS value chains.

Which is achieved by:

  • Defending the rights of communities to their genetic resources and traditional knowledge, including the protection and revitalisation of that knowledge.
  • Providing information, training and assistance on ABS, including through the development of community protocols, and by facilitating dialogue with other actors.
  • Providing technical input into the development of national ABS frameworks and engaging with regional and international policy processes to ensure that community rights remain a central part of the discussions

Climate Change

This program aims to:

  • Ensure that indigenous peoples and community rights issues are promoted and recognised in both climate change policy discussions and implementation activities.

Which is achieved by:

  • Working at different levels, from the international with a focus on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to African regional and sub-regional levels, and national and local levels;
  • Supporting elements of legal empowerment and capacity building in person and in writing to assist communities to conduct advocacy and network and negotiate on their own terms;
  • Conducting research, with an emphasis on participatory action research and ‘decolonised methodologies’ which provides an evidence base for our advocacy;
  • Hosting regional multi-stakeholder dialogues on rights-based climate change issues.

@Fatima @shalomndiku @SaidiSaidi @RoseBirgen @Jazzy @Rashidkalicha @Lorchips @Lorraine @Jtsofa @ginococchiaro @Dalle @Cicilia @BarbaraL @Khanali @allanbasa

You can read more about the work of Natural Justice in their following publication:

Council of Minorities

Council of Minorities is a platform for minorities/indigenous community of Bangladesh based in Dhaka. It was established in 2012 with a vision of ‘a peaceful, poverty-and-xenophobia-free world where people, especially minorities/indigenous people, the Powerless and marginalized will have equal opportunities to live with dignity and hope.

Council of Minorities promotes the rights and status of minorities/indigenous alongside fighting for access to justice for minorities/indigenous peoples particularly for the most disadvantaged communities in Bangladesh.

How legal empowerment is used to address the injustice

Legal Empowerment Paralegal Program: Members of the Urdu-speaking community, a linguistic minority group in Bangladesh, are citizens in law. In 2008, the High Court of Bangladesh confirmed the community’s nationality. Yet little has changed for the 300,000 Urdu-speakers who have lived in overcrowded urban “camps” since 1972. Urdu-speakers regularly face discriminatory treatment when trying to acquire birth certificates, ID cards, and passports or to use these citizenship documents to access trade licenses, bank accounts, government schemes, or other rights and services.

Since 2013, Council of Minorities has trained and supported community paralegals from Urdu-speaking camps in seven cities across Bangladesh. Paralegals empower members of their own community to understand the law, learn requirements for obtaining documentation, and initiate the application process. Paralegals then provide free, frontline legal assistance by walking alongside clients as they secure or use citizenship documentation. To date, paralegals have directly assisted over 13,400 Urdu-speakers – the vast majority of whom are women – and reached thousands more in legal awareness activities. Paralegals rigorously track each case to build empirical evidence on how clients experience the process to inform advocacy for national-level change in order to end the discrimination faced by the community in exercising their citizenship rights.

Youth Summit: This leadership summit is a pioneering initiative of council of minorities. It is the first ever minority leadership summit in Bangladesh that has been organized annually for the past six years. It was first introduced by Mr. Khalid Hussain, Executive Director of the Council of Minorities and Ms. Hannah Sholder, a community development and affordable housing consultant based in the USA in 2009, when Ms. Hannah Sholder first came to Bangladesh as a Fulbright scholar to study the land right situation and housing conditions of the camp-dwelling Urdu-speaking community. After being introduced it was later organized in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 & 2015 as a leadership training summit for Urdu-speaking youth. Later in 2017 and 2018 the organizers welcomed youths belonging to different minority and indigenous communities and made it the first ever leadership summit based on minority youth and made it free of cost for everyone.

@urdu @zia @torachisim

You can read more about the work of Council of Minorities in their following publications:

For more information on Network Organizations who work on Indigenous Peoples’ issues, take a look at our Member Directory


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