Plenty to shout about


At least 350 million people are considered to be indigenous. They are divided into at least 5,000 peoples, living in 70 countries. But colonization took a dramatic toll: by the 1930s, Australia’s indigenous population had declined by 90%. The European invasion of the Americas wiped out 90%. Brazil’s indigenous population is estimated to have been around 5 million when the Portuguese first arrived. Today it is 350,000.^1,2^

1 Shrinking territories

Land is central to the survival of indigenous people, but they are losing it at an alarming rate.

• Two centuries ago indigenous people lived in most of the earth’s ecosystems. Today they have the legal right to use only about 6% of the planet’s land and, in many cases their rights are partial or qualified.

• On the border between Brazil and Argentina, the Guaraní people are losing their land at a rate of about 10% a year. They are unable to grow enough food and 60% of children are malnourished.^3^

• In Colombia, the Government, embroiled in a war against Left-wing paramilitaries, forced the Nukak people out of their forest home onto a territory just 2% the size of their own territory.^3^

• In India a large number of indigenous people are killed by security services every year, often in connection with forcible acquisition of their lands for industrial projects.^4^

2 Eat poison

Those who enter indigenous territory rarely take care of it – or its peoples.

• In Malaysia, the Penan people of Sarawak Province have had their rivers polluted with chemicals used by largescale loggers, oil, rubbish and silt.^3^

• In Peru, oil extraction in the Amazonian department of Loreto has led to contamination of water, fish and plants with heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. High levels are found in the blood of indigenous children.^3^

• Amazonian people such as the Enawene Nawe, Ikpeng and Mehinako, report contamination of the fish they eat by the agrochemicals from neighbouring soya plantations and cattle ranches.^3^

• High levels of PCBs and heavy metals have been found in the meat of marine species eaten by indigenous people in the Arctic.^3^

3 Lethal contact

Contact with outsiders is the greatest danger for isolated peoples. Typically their populations plummet by 50% after the first meeting.

In Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand / Aotearoa, indigenous communities who have had long-term exposure to ‘Western’ society have starkly worse health and life expectancy than their nonindigenous neighbours.

• In Guatemala indigenous children are twice as likely to be chronically malnourished and to have stunted growth as their non-indigenous neighbours.^3^

• In West Papua 170 children per 1,000 die before the age of 5, compared with 50 children on average in Indonesia.^3^

• In the Pima Reservation, Arizona, more than half of indigenous people aged over 35 have diabetes.^3^

4 Displacement and resettlement

Indigenous people are often removed from their land and resettled elsewhere. The effect on their health is rarely positive.


• The Onge of Little Andaman Island, who were resettled by the Indian Government in 1976, experienced a doubling of infant mortality rates between 1978 and 1985, due to malnutrition following the change from a varied diet of meat, fish, fruits and honey to one of government rations.^3^

• Botswana’s indigenous Kalahari San (‘Bushmen’) communities living in their traditional lands were barely affected by AIDS until they were forcibly resettled by the Government in 1997. By 2002 40% of deaths in the New Xade settlement were due to AIDS.^3^


As indigenous communities break down under the strains of dislocation and resettlement, death rates from disease, suicide and violence climb.

• The Pikangikum Indians of Ontario have a suicide rate nearly 40 times the Canadian average.^3^

• The Guaraní Kaiowa community in the Brazilian state of Mato Gross do Sul has seen a dramatic rise in suicides, especially of young people. The suicide rate in Cerro Marangatu was 304 per 100,000 residents in 2000, compared with an average of 4.8 in the state.^3^

5 Impoverishment

Traditionally, indigenous people have tended to live simple but sustainable lives. A combination of colonialism, exploitation, racism and disastrous ‘development’ policies has made them poor. Prejudice severely restricts education and employment prospects, compounding poverty.

• Although they account for less than 5% of the global population, indigenous people comprise about 15% of all the poor people in the world.^5^

• Average incomes of Australia’s Aboriginal population are only 62% of the non-indigenous population.^3^

• Ethnic minority groups make up less than 9% of China’s total population but are believed to account for about 40% of the country’s extremely poor people.^6^

• In India 25% of the population live below the poverty line, but among indigenous people the figure rises to 45%.^7^

• In Thailand more than 40% of indigenous girls and women who migrate to cities work in the sex trade.^8^

• Living conditions on Canadian Indian reserves are at the same level as those in a country with a ranking as low as 78 on the UNDP Human Development Index – Canada is ranked 4.^9^

6 Crime, punishment and terror

Indigenous people are criminalized in many ways. Increasingly they are being targeted using post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws.

• Chile’s anti-terrorist laws have been used to give harsh 10-year sentences to Mapuche activists for a supposed ‘terrorist’ arson attack on a forestry plantation on disputed land.^10^

• In Malaysia, Penan leader Kelesau Naan, an outspoken critic of logging companies, disappeared while out on a hunting trip in late 2007.^2^

• In Brazil, at least 76 indigenous people were murdered in 2007 – an increase of 63% on the previous year.^11^

• In the Philippines, at least 26 indigenous rights activists were killed in 2006 by security forces, apparently in an extra-judicial move to suppress protest against President Aroya.^4^

• In Oaxaca, Mexico, police clashed violently with indigenous people in Autumn 2006, leaving 17 dead and hundreds missing or wounded.^4^

• In Australia Aboriginal people, who make up just 2% of the population, are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned.^12^

• In the Indian state of Orissa, 14 tribal people were killed in 2006 while protesting against a large steel plant taking their land. Such incidents are common.^4^

  1. IWGIA, Copenhagen,
  2. Survival International, London,
  3. Survival International, Progress can kill: How imposed development destroys the health of tribal peoples, London, 2007.
  4. IWGIA, The Indigenous World, Copenhagen,2007.
  5. IFAD, Indigenous People and Rural Poverty, Rome, October 2007.
  6. IFAD, International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, Rome, 2006.
  7. Carolyn Stephens, ‘Indigenous health 4, Disappearing, displaced and undervalued’, The Lancet, 17 June 2006.
  8. IFAD, Indigenous Peoples: Key Facts, Rome, 2006.
  9. CHOIKE,
  10. Observatory of Indigenous People’s Rights, Santiago, Chile, December 2007.
  11. Brazzil Mag, 15 January 2008
  12. custodywww 2006

New Internationalist issue 410 magazine cover This article is from the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop