Pope Francis did not reference the Dakota Pipeline: Why it matters

Pope Francis. (Credit: Republic of Korea/Flickr)

After Pope Francis publicly supported indigenous land rights last week, various mainstream media outlets assumed he was referencing the high-profile Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. The Vatican said the pontiff was commenting on indigenous struggles happening daily worldwide, which activists say are woefully underreported.

The Pope spoke to numerous indigenous representatives in Rome at the conclusion of the third Indigenous Peoples’ Forum held by the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. According to an English version of his speech released by the Vatican’s press office, he said indigenous peoples have the right to “prior and informed consent.”

“Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict,” he said.

He also called on governments to enable indigenous peoples to fully participate in developing “guidelines and projects,” with “particular attention to young people and women.”

“For governments this means recognizing that indigenous communities are a part of the population to be appreciated and consulted, and whose full participation should be promoted at the local and national level,” he said.

Several mainstream media outlets, including the Guardian, BBC, and the Washington Post, interpreted Francis’s words as an apparent comment to the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline conflict, which has incited support for tribal land rights in the U.S. A Vatican spokesperson quickly rejected the interpretation, saying “there’s no element in his words that would give us a clue to know if he was talking about any specific cases.”

Indigenous activists welcomed the Pope’s public display of support. One such organization, Survival International, also emphasized the universal nature of the indigenous struggle to claim rightful lands.

“It is certainly true that this is an enormous issue around the world, not just in North America, and that struggles for life and land often don’t get as much media attention as they warrant,” the organization said in a statement to Humanosphere.

International charity organization Oxfam estimates that up to 2.5 billion people depend on lands and natural resources – which make up over 50 percent of the land on the planet – but legally only own around 20 percent. The remaining land remains vulnerable to land grabs from governments and corporations, particularly extractive industries.

This practice has become the norm across Africa, Asia and South America, where investors take millions of hectares for agro-industrial development, mining and deforestation projects. In response, more countries are adopting laws that allow people and communities to register or title their lands, but activists say the processes can be cumbersome, lack basic considerations for human rights and the environment, and benefit the investor instead of the communities that live there.

Land grabs are common in the Pope’s home country of Argentina, where local tribes have had their lands expropriated, their water reserves contaminated and industries exploiting natural resources in their territories. Similar fights are also prevalent in Brazil, CambodiaCentral America and the Peruvian Amazon, where indigenous groups constantly push back against extractive oil industries that they say threaten the health and livelihoods of their communities.

Activists have stressed the importance of legal indigenous land ownership in combating climate change, violence and conflict. According to Oxfam, secure land rights are also a precondition for development, as they increase incomes for the poorest communities, reduce hunger and achieve greater and fairer economic growth.

Gender equality in land ownership also empowers women. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more women land’s tenure would increase average crop yields some 20 percent to 30 percent, which could help reduce malnourishment in 10 percent to 20 percent of people worldwide.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com