Special Report

15 Most Threatened Indigenous Peoples

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1. Aboriginal people
> Area: Australia

While the Aboriginal people of Australia tend to be identified as one group, there are actually over 500 different Aboriginal peoples, each with their own language and territory. For centuries, ever since the British colonized Australia, the original inhabitants were marginalized and worse — their land was taken from them and their culture and language eradicated. In 1992, the Australian High Court declared the concept of terra nullius — the claim that the land was empty before the British arrived — to be invalid. This was over 90 years after the country’s independence.

Estimating the endangerment of a language is one way to measure the level of threat against indigenous societies. UNESCO has identified 108 extinct or endangered languages belonging to societies native to Australia.

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2. Bushmen
> Area: Botswana

In the middle of an unrelenting land unsuitable for crops lies Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the ancestral home of the Tsila Bushmen. But when diamonds were discovered in the reserve in the early 1980s, government ministers warned the tribe that it was their time to leave. In three clearances in 1997, 2002, and 2005, virtually all Bushmen were forced out, their homes dismantled and water supply destroyed. The Bushmen won a historic victory when judges ruled that their eviction was unlawful and unconstitutional.

Ghaghoo, one of the mines discovered in Bushmen territory, was estimated to contain a diamond deposit of approximately $4 billion. It opened for excavation in 2014. As of 2016 diamonds made up more than 60% of Botswana’s exports, accounting for approximately 25% of the country’s GDP.

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3. Awá
> Area: Brazil

Victims of greed and industrialization, the Awá inhabit the dense Amazon forests in northeastern Brazil, which have all but disappeared. In fact, over 34% of at least one legally-protected Awá reservation has been destroyed by illegal logging in the last three decades — an unusually fast pace of destruction.

But it was the discovery of the largest iron ore mine on the planet in Carajás, 370 miles west of the Awá’s forest that began to spell their destruction. Railways constructed in the 1980s brought trains to forests where previously uncontacted Awá lived. With little regard to the inhabitants, the colonizers hunted and settled on the territory. The spread of disease from newcomers cut through the Awá population, reducing one community to 25 people from 91 in four years. Although the government dispatched troops and federal agents to curb illegal logging in 2014, considered a major victory, logging continued. Only the rainy season provides the Awa some relief as it is difficult to log then.

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4. Rohingya
> Area: Myanmar (Burma)

While the Rohingya refer to themselves as indigenous to Myanmar, they are not recognized as a distinct ethnic group by the government. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship status since the 1980s.

Over the years, this has resulted in numerous obstacles including in access to health care, the ability to travel, and many areas of employment. Recently, in response to a Rohingya militant group attack of 30 police posts, the government responded with military force, including reportedly burning villages and indiscriminately shooting people. While Bangladesh has been receiving fleeing Rohingya since at least the 1960s, more than 480,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the past several months, with over 100,000 forced into concentration camps, according to Dr. Rudolph Ryser, the executive director of the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

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5. Pygmies
> Area: Central Africa

The Pygmy people are not one group but several distinct people such as the Twa, Aka, Baka, and Mbuti living in central Africa. Pygmies are believed to be the continent’s oldest population of humans. Because of their unusually small stature, but also because relatively little is known about them, the various tribes of Pygmies are frequently grouped into one category. A recent effort by researchers estimated as many as 920,000 Pygmies reside across countries in central Africa.

All of these indigenous societies face racism and land grabs due primarily to logging activity, much of which continues illegally due to weakly enforced regulations. In the Congo Basin, for example, hunter-gatherer communities living in the rainforest face hunting restrictions and land encroachment. According to tribal peoples advocacy organization Survival International, the Congo Basin tribes are accused of poaching when they are hunting or when they venture into protected areas they once called home. Further, park guards often treat them as thieves and worse, threaten and beat them and even evict them from their land.