As the director of AJWS’s portfolio on natural resource rights and climate justice, I’ve been closely following the protests at Standing Rock. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s struggle to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from devastating their tribal land, desecrating their burial ground and polluting their water source represents the struggles that countless indigenous communities face around the globe.
Today’s decision by the Department of the Army to deny permits to drill at this contested site and to explore alternative routes to the DAPL is an important victory.
But it does not mean an end to the pipeline project overall or to the devastation caused by similar projects on other land.
Indigenous peoples, estimated to be between 350-400 million worldwide, literally sit on the majority of the world’s natural resources—whether water, forests, land, or minerals—on the nearly 20 percent of the world’s lands that they inhabit. These communities bear the brunt of land grabs by governments and corporations that are often illegal and conducted without their consent. They have a front row seat for how our global reliance on fossil fuels is causing climate change and stripping the land of its vital life.
When the Standing Rock Sioux tribe stood up against the pipeline, they stood up for all of our precious land and all of the people who depend on it everywhere. Their rallying cry—Mni Wiconi—meaning “water is life” in Lakota, echoes similar calls for justice made worldwide by those who seek to protect and defend their ancestral land.
Besides their ground organizing, I was deeply inspired by their tactic: legal advocacy. The tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last July, based on their claim that the project had not properly assessed the environmental impact of the pipeline. Similarly, they argued before a federal judge this past August that they had not been allowed to voice their concerns about the potential harmful effects on their land and lives.
These arguments form the bedrock of the Right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) enshrined in international law through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. AJWS supports 33 organizations led by indigenous people in 13 countries in the developing world, and another 52 organizations that directly work with indigenous peoples, advocating for FPIC and for the rights to land, water, forests and other natural resources.
These courageous organizations engage in legal and policy advocacy, along with grassroots organizing and mobilizing in the way the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have done since 2014 to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights are respected.
Indigenous peoples worldwide, including the nearly 9 million in Guatemala and the nearly 90 million in India, are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. They are on the frontlines of climate change and are often the first to endure its detrimental effects. They are also our first responders at the forefront of the global movement for climate justice that is articulating a fossil fuel-free vision for our planet and its peoples.
AJWS rejoices with the Standing Rock Sioux over this initial victory and stands with our grantees around the world as we press on in this struggle together. Make no mistake: Our land and our lives depend on it.
Nikhil Aziz is director of Natural Resource Rights at AJWS.