Land Grabs Have Modernized — But They’re Just As Violent As They've Always Been

New research quantifies the constant violation of Indigenous communities' rights.
Indigenous activists protest in front of the Canada Pavilion against Belo Sun, a Canadian mining company, at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal on Dec. 12, 2022.
Indigenous activists protest in front of the Canada Pavilion against Belo Sun, a Canadian mining company, at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal on Dec. 12, 2022.
ANDREJ IVANOV via Getty Images

Desecrating Native American land, culture and practices has been an ugly U.S. tradition for centuries. A study published earlier this summer, however, has illuminated just how destructive modern agricultural and industrial practices are toward Indigenous communities all over the world.

Although Indigenous people make up only about 6% of the world’s population, they are negatively impacted by at least one-third of all industrial development projects globally, according to researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain and nine other universities around the world that was published in the journal Science Advances.

The international study analyzed hundreds of Indigenous communities to see how land grabs — or large-scale land acquisitions by investors for agriculture and other industries — affected them. They found that many industrial projects around the world negatively impacted Indigenous communities, including through the loss of land and livelihoods, with the biggest culprits being mining, fossil fuels, agriculture and livestock.

Our results provide large-scale evidence of the magnitude of environmental burdens faced by numerous Indigenous Peoples worldwide and bring into focus the Indigenous rights violations associated with these burdens,” the multi-author study reads.

The unfortunate reality here is that governments across the board aren’t doing enough to protect Indigenous communities from displacement. While many countries have areas of land set aside for Native people, they are also often willing to swiftly seize that land once they “need it” for industrial purposes.

“Governments should apply a zero-tolerance policy towards violations of indigenous rights and seek trade agreements that are conditional on compliance with the responsibilities of the UN Declaration [on Indigenous rights] by the companies involved,” said Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, scientist and co-author of the study, in a report about the research.

Forcing Indigenous communities to leave the land they’ve both lived on and stewarded for generations can impact their connection to their cultures in significant ways, but it also inevitably affects their well-being. In countries such as Indonesia, rampant deforestation forces Indigenous people to move to cities in often less-than-ideal conditions. In Brazil, violence, including kidnapping or even killing Indigenous people, can be used as tactics to seize Indigenous land and make way for industry.

The U.S., of course, is also notorious for screwing over Indigenous people and their land — even in the face of long-standing treaties — for the sake of extracting resources or building vanity projects. During his administration, former President Donald Trump tried several times to turn over sacred Indigenous land to mining companies, and the wall he wanted to build between Mexico and the U.S. would cut through hundreds of miles of Native American land.

Indigenous communities deserve autonomy, and governments should not be able to roll back their protections whenever they decide they need more land. Efforts to protect Indigenous land should be taken seriously and be led by the Indigenous communities that are going to be impacted by them the most.


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