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Why Standing Rock’s struggle for land rights is not unique

A child holds a sign at a protest against the Dakota Access pipeline on September 16, 2016. (Credit: John Duffy/Flickr)

While the high-profile controversy over the Dakota Access pipeline has incited support for indigenous land rights in the U.S., the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s experience is one of many similar fights around the world. Indigenous groups have grappled with extractive energy industries on their lands for decades, and recent surveys show that they face more violence than ever before for their efforts.

In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters are occupying land near their reservation in an effort to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. They say the pipeline travels through the tribe’s ancestral lands and passes within half a mile of its current reservation, desecrating sacred land and potentially polluting its water.

But as work crews plugged ahead on the $3.7 billion project, violent clashes erupted last week between protesters and lines of law enforcement officers, who arrested 142 people during what the local sheriff denounced as a riot.

On Tuesday President Barack Obama said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is examining possible alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“We’re monitoring this closely and I think, as a general rule, my view is that there’s a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans,” Obama said in an interview with the news organization Now This.

It was not immediately clear what a rerouting plan might entail.

What is apparent, however, is that the protest has reinvigorated activism for indigenous groups in the U.S. Some sympathizers have joined the escalating protests in Standing Rock, and millions have shown support for the tribe on social media.

The new activists join an international fight that is growing increasingly violent – deadly in some cases – for those who are working for indigenous land rights.

Global Witness, an advocacy organization, reported that 185 land rights and environmental activists were killed last year, 122 in Latin America, with many working to protect indigenous lands. Global Witness called it the most deadly year for activists, and Oxfam International released a new briefing that said this surge of violence against Latin American activists has reached a record high.

“This situation is linked to an economic model that fosters extreme inequality,” according to the Oxfam report. “It is the result of harassment entrenched in a patriarchal culture and governments’ failure to fulfill their human rights obligations – and the influence of powerful groups on governments.”

One example is that of indigenous groups in the Brazilian Amazon, who have long been fighting against encroaching dams, roads and other infrastructure projects that they say threaten their water quality and the livelihoods of their communities.

In Peru – one of the world’s top gold producers – mining has been associated with a number of environmental and human rights abuses, such as forced labor and sexual exploitation of minors.

Mining, both legal and illegal, is taking place on 19 percent of indigenous territories in Latin America, according to the World Bank, and most of that territory is formally recognized indigenous lands.

Activists argue that extraction industries are destroying rich ecosystems around the world. One recent study suggested that one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate industrial damage to these ecosystems is to ensure tribal land rights. Doing so, the study argued, would protect forests and sequester carbon. The study goes on to encourage governments to involve tribes in national planning to work toward climate stabilization.

“When communities have secure forest rights, not only are forests better protected, but communities fare better,” Alain Frechette of Rights and Resources, one of the report’s authors, told the Guardian. “It’s what economists call an optimal solution. Everyone wins.”


About Author

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 or see her latest work at