Protect sacred natural sites to realise indigenous rights, says African Commission

 Extractive industries are pushing Africa’s indigenous peoples and their sacred lands to the margins, but the custodians of these sacred lands are pushing back, writes YLNM Regional Coordinator Hannibal Rhoades.

Originally published in Intercontinental CryJune 28, 2017

From North and South Dakota to the Highlands of Ethiopia, the sacred natural sites and territories of Indigenous Peoples face the threat of destruction; destruction that is often legitimized and legalized by state and regional institutions. But on the African continent, there are hopeful signs things are beginning to move down a different path.

Last week, Africa’s largest and most respected human rights institution published a new resolution urging states, businesses and civil society to recognize and protect Africa’s sacred natural sites and territories in order to guarantee the human rights of her people, and especially the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Passed at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ (ACHPR) 60thOrdinary Session in Niamey, Niger, the resolution is remarkable for its decolonizing tone and content.

In its wording, the resolution acknowledges the continuities of land, culture, life and rights that characterize indigenous cosmologies. It also recognizes the role already played by custodian communities in protecting sacred sites; communities often dispossessed and marginalized by mainstream conservation initiatives.

 States must abide by regional and international laws and respect the rights of custodian communities to govern sacred lands according to their own governance systems, the resolution stresses.

Though it is not legally binding in a straightforward way, according to ACHPR Commissioner Soyata Maiga, the resolution positions the commission “at the vanguard of indigenous peoples’ rights in Africa” and strengthens indigenous-led protection of sacred natural sites and territories across Africa at a critical moment.

SACRED LANDS UNDER THREAT

Thanks to millennia of culture-based conservation, by some estimates, indigenous territories and the sacred sites embedded within them are home to 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.

There is growing global recognition that recognizing and respecting indigenous land rights and governance systems is critical for addressing the most pressing issues of our time, including climate change. But despite this, threats to sacred lands are intensifying in Africa and elsewhere.

New research from the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Peoples (WGIP) and the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reveals the extractive industries to be of particular threat to African Indigenous Peoples and their sacred lands.

African Indigenous Peoples are suffering “environmental degradation, cultural ethnocide and gross human rights violations” at a new frontier of extractive projects feeding “skyrocketing global demand for natural resources driven by the growth of both western and non-western economies”, says the report.

World Heritage Sites, national parks and other protected areas are all under threat. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, 29% of Africa’s protected areas are impacted by oil and gas blocks alone, which have a combined area of 9,030,084 km2.

The sacred natural sites and territories protected by Indigenous Peoples face a similar onslaught that is far less easy to quantify due to the failure of many African states to recognize the collective rights, governance systems, and in some cases the existence of Indigenous Peoples. This means sacred natural sites and territories are often rendered ‘invisible’ compared to formally protected areas, making them a ‘terra nullius’ for resource exploitation without consent, says the new report.

RECOGNITION, PROTECTION, DECOLONIZATION

(Women from a community that maintains one of Benin’s sacred forests gather for the Tolikunkawanxwe festival. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades)

The African Commission’s new resolution explicitly recognizes and makes visible the sacred natural sites and territories of Africa’s Indigenous Peoples and calls on states and business to respect their customary governance systems.

According to Roger Chennels, human rights lawyer and legal advisor for the South African San Institute, this represents an important step towards decolonizing legal systems that enable exploitation of Indigenous lands.

“This Resolution marks an important step in securing Africa’s future as a plurilegal and postcolonial continent, where the customary laws and governance systems of indigenous societies are respected and upheld.”

The resolution indirectly builds on a major victory for Indigenous Peoples at the 2016 World Conservation Congress, which called for all protected areas and sacred natural sites and territories to be ‘no-go’ for extractive industries.

According to Melakou Tegegn, Expert Member of the African Commission WGIP, the resolution is intended to strengthen Indigenous Peoples right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

“It is now high time to recognize that ignoring indigenous and traditional communities and violating their rights constitutes a crime. The gist of the resolution is that there can be no human development without the consent of people who are affected by the various ventures that pass as industrialization, through extractive industries and other development interventions that have hitherto ignored the communities directly affected by their actions.”

The resolution empowers the African Commission, the continent’s leading human rights watchdog, to pressure African states directly to ensure they are aware of and implementing the resolution at national level.

“With the resolution in place, the Commission, which is a quasi legal body, can now hear cases about the violation of sacred natural sites. It can refer cases to the African Court to hold violators to account and develop best practice guidelines for states, NGOs and other regional bodies on how to recognize and support sacred natural sites and their governance systems. The resolution will bring far more scrutiny to sacred site protection and indigenous rights across the continent”, says Joseph Lambert, Legal Officer at The Gaia Foundation, a member of the civil society coalition that lobbied for the resolution.

Nigel Crawhall, Director of the Secretariat for the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, believes the resolution can act as a “springboard” for new legislation recognizing and protecting sacred natural sites and their custodians across Africa and globally.

“Africa has a strong tradition of sacred natural site conservation and it is part of our ongoing efforts to decolonize the law and conservation that makes this event so important for the whole continent. Currently only Benin has legislation on Sacred Natural Sites and this will be a great opportunity for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), African Commission and other groups to get laws and policies adopted nationally and regionally. This will also serve as a springboard for the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity to adopt binding language on sacred natural sites conservation and stewardship,” says Crawhall.

THE HEART OF LIFE

The African Commission’s resolution is the latest victory in a decade-long campaign by Indigenous custodians and civil society allies to secure greater recognition and protections for sacred natural sites and territories.

The new resolution’s content is directly inspired by a 2015 statement on sacred natural sites and territories drawn together by Indigenous custodians of sacred natural sites from Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa.

(Sacred natural site custodian and civil society allies at Lake Langano, Ethiopia, 2015. Photo: Tamara Korur)

The statement forms the heart of the wider ‘call’ to the African Commission from The Gaia Foundation, African Biodiversity Network and a coalition of African civil society groups that led advocacy efforts to make the resolution a reality. Within the document, custodians set out the importance of sacred natural sites and territories to their lives in no uncertain terms.

“Sacred natural sites are the source of life. Sacred natural sites are where we come from, the heart of life. They are our roots and our inspiration. We cannot live without our sacred natural sites and we are responsible for protecting them,” the custodians explain.

Indigenous communities across Africa have been making great strides towards the recognition and protection of their sacred natural sites at local and national level, in some cases reviving governance systems, knowledge and identity in the process.

In Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains, communities have demarcated and secured legal recognition for twenty-two sacred natural sites, some of which have been protected from encroachment of farmland and reforested. With support from MELCA-Ethiopia, the area’s elders’ forum has been strengthened, cultural houses re-built and youth re-introduced to aspects of their culture that had been imperiled.

In Benin, Indigenous communities and civil society groups successfully lobbied for a national law protecting sacred forests in 2012. The law, which recognizes sacred forests as areas of cultural and spiritual potency, as well as biological diversity, empowers custodian communities to continue playing their leading role in managing Benin’s sacred forests.

The new resolution will be a useful tool for advancing these efforts, say custodians and their allies.

“Sacred sites and our rituals keep the land and the local climate in balance. Without them everyone suffers. This resolution will help us in our work to remind people of our responsibility to protect life for the next generation”, says Kagole Margaret Byarufu, a sacred site custodian from Buliisa, Uganda, and one of the co-creators of the 2015 statement.

“Sacred natural sites are the foundation of Africa’s identity, heritage and well-being, which are at the core of the vision of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights… We acknowledge and congratulate the African Commission on this landmark step towards recognizing a core element?of original African traditions”, write civil society organizations supporting Indigenous custodians of sacred sites in a communiqué to the Commission.

 

Related Posts

Protect sacred natural sites to realise indigenous rights, says African Commission
In Photos: Solidarity in action at rally to stop Druridge Bay coal mine
We stand in solidarity: South African and UK communities unite to reject plans for Druridge Bay open-cast coal mine
Open Letter: South African communities ask UK planners to reject new open-cast coal mine
Demonstration targets Petmin’s key investors with demands to divest from Tendele coal mine
Amadiba Commemorates Environmental Defender Sikhosiphi Bazooka Radebe
Resistance, exchange, (post)extractivism: YLNM Coordinators meet in Galicia- in photos
Community Mapping & Resistance Ghana

Community Mapping & Resistance Ghana

  • Written on: 03 February 2017
  • Posted under: Videos
The Matatiele Manifesto: South African communities unite to say yes to life, no to extraction!
In Madagascar, the village of Soamahamanina manages to stop a Chinese mining giant!
Women Building Power- Toolkit for climate and energy justice for African women
New Women Building Power toolkit for women’s rights activists launched
REPORT: The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources
#MineAlert South Africa
Mining, Murder and a British Millionaire: Protestors stand in solidarity with South African communities opposing mining
#StandWithAmadiba

#StandWithAmadiba

  • Written on: 11 May 2016
  • Posted under: Videos
Follow the Money – From Pondoland to London Wall
Talking Africa: Podcast on Mining in South Africa and Issues of Violence and Community Engagement
KZN residents up in arms over proposed coal mine

KZN residents up in arms over proposed coal mine

  • Written on: 25 April 2016
  • Posted under: Videos
SOUTH AFRICA: Fuleni community blockade stops mining authority visit
Respect communities’ right to say “NO” – Benchmarks Foundation to Australian High Commission
Graham Edwards: Divest from MRC!

Graham Edwards: Divest from MRC!

  • Written on: 06 April 2016
  • Posted under: Campaigns
Suspend Wild Coast mining, say leading health academics
Violence and Intimidation at Funeral of ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe
UnderMining Life: Activists Threatened in South Africa

UnderMining Life: Activists Threatened in South Africa

  • Written on: 31 March 2016
  • Posted under: Videos
Statement: 82 civil society organisations condemn the assassination of Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe, chairperson of Amadiba Crisis Committee!
Amadiba Crisis Committee chairman brutally murdered
The Rise of Investor-State Dispute Settlement in the Extractive Sectors: Challenges and Considerations for African Countries
Urgent YLNM Letter: Protect Ekuri Community Forest, Nigeria
Stop the construction of the Cross River State Superhighway immediately!
We need a real “Alternatives to Mining” Indaba
Report: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt
South Africa: 350africa.org, EarthLore and Womin call on Government to protect water and declare climate change state of emergency
PETITION AGAINST THE ACTIVITIES OF AZUMA RESOURCES IN TOME
Take Action: Support the people of Lamu to prevent coal-fired misery!
Diamond mining continues to cause suffering for Bushmen
Mining firm reconsiders Zululand plans

Mining firm reconsiders Zululand plans

Midland Community Take a Stand Against Fracking

Midland Community Take a Stand Against Fracking

  • Written on: 23 November 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
OUR ROOTS, OUR RESPONSIBILITY: INDIGENOUS CUSTODIANS CALL FOR RECOGNITION AND PROTECTION OF SACRED NATURAL SITES
Report: Corporate tax dodging costs Zambia $3billion a year
Revival

Revival

  • Written on: 12 November 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
A Call for Legal Recognition of Sacred Natural Sites and their Customary Governance Systems
Let communities act on water crisis

Let communities act on water crisis

Communities, Companies and Conflict in Zimbabwe
[Briefing] Rights Extracted: Toward transparency & respect for human rights in mining, oil & gas in Francophone Africa
Human Rights Defender Myness Musaamba assaulted at a ‘Community Development’ Meeting at Arda Transau
Map of Abandoned Mines in sub-Saharan Africa
Ngisika elijikayo/The tip of the iceberg

Ngisika elijikayo/The tip of the iceberg

Zimbabwe: Disaster strikes in Arda Transau Mining Relocation Area
The Fuleni coal mine serves no-one

The Fuleni coal mine serves no-one

Zimbabwe: Villagers of Arda Transau displaced by mining told they must pay to farm
Communities being stripped of their heritage by mining
Outrage over coal mine bordering Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness
Our Resistance, Our Hope: Unity Statement of the International People’s Conference on Mining
‘Rivers of Acid’ in Zambian Villages

‘Rivers of Acid’ in Zambian Villages

Huge Opposition to Zululand coal mine ‘catastrophe’
Campaigning against coal in KwaZulu Natal

Campaigning against coal in KwaZulu Natal

  • Written on: 27 August 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
Lesethleng Community fight to recover lost farmland
African Civil Society Says Yes to Life, No to Mining!
Dirty Diggers: A report on gold mining in Upper West Ghana
Social Cartography: opportunities for social movements, activism and resistance in South Africa and Zimbabwe
Achievements of the Global Day Against Mega Mining
Fatal Extraction: Australian Mining in Africa
Ibutho Coal must leave us alone

Ibutho Coal must leave us alone

On Kenya’s Coast, a Struggle for the Sacred
Mining on Top Africa: London Summit Disrupted
Africa-UK Civil Society Letter to the Mining on Top Africa: London Summit
Case Studies: Is Mining really ‘on top’ in Africa?
Corporate Social Investment in South Africa: A view from the inside
PRESS RELEASE: African Civil Society Challenges London Mining Conference
The Community Speaks: Coal Mining in the Tete Province

The Community Speaks: Coal Mining in the Tete Province

  • Written on: 25 June 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
Communities of South Africa’s Wild Coast: Stop forced mining on our sacred beaches!
South Africa: Fuleni communities tell Ibutho Coal to leave and never return!
Support the Maputo Declaration on Climate Justice!
Women‘s Perspectives on the Impact of Mining on the Right to Food
Conservation Refugees – Expelled from Paradise

Conservation Refugees – Expelled from Paradise

  • Written on: 08 April 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
A Healthy Relationship? Wellcome Trust’s refusal to cut ties with fossil fuel industry is unacceptable
In Pictures – Yes to Life No to Mining raises the voice of African civil society against the extractives
Let them eat carbon! The corporate plan to cook Africa in its own fossil fuels
African civil society and global allies challenge Chatham House conference on ‘Extractive Industries in Africa’
Divestment, in Solidarity: NAPE Uganda reach out to London’s divestment campaigners
DECLARATION:  WOMEN STAND THEIR GROUND AGAINST BIG COAL
Mining Our Roots

Mining Our Roots

  • Written on: 19 January 2015
  • Posted under: Videos
Nnimmo Bassey says #YestoLifeNotoMining

Nnimmo Bassey says #YestoLifeNotoMining

  • Written on: 11 December 2014
  • Posted under: Videos
Ghana’s Upper West Coalition on Mining, Food, Water and Sacred Sites calls President to halt Mining activities in Upper West Region
United in resistance – Letters spark solidarity across continents
Save the Lower Zambezi Campaign

Save the Lower Zambezi Campaign

  • Written on: 10 November 2014
  • Posted under: Campaigns
Gold Rush: Protecting Sacred Groves in Ghana’s Upper West region
Ugandan Communities Resist Oil and Gas Extraction in Bunyoro Kingdom
Sierra Leone’s Mining Boom and Human Rights
War and the Militarisation of Mining in Eastern Congo
Drillers in the Mist: Soco International in Virunga National Park
The Impact of Mining on Human Rights in Uganda
Mining and its Impacts on Water, Food Sovereignty and Sacred National Sites in Uganda
South Africa’s Rainmakers Fight Against Coal

South Africa’s Rainmakers Fight Against Coal

Sacred Voices – A film and a message for the world

Start a Conversation. Share Words of Solidarity.

This website is about building a movement. We can only build a movement when we connect with one another. We invite you to do just that…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *