How the war on drugs attacks indigenous people

June 20, 2019

In an ongoing and under-publicised tragedy, indigenous peoples around the world routinely have their rights violated in the name of the global war on drugs.

This year marks the 12th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), originally intended to uphold “minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world”.

UNDRIP’s Article 5 states that indigenous peoples have the right to “maintain and strengthen their distinct cultural traditions”, yet this right is routinely violated by the drug war, particularly in the Americas. The coca plant — from which cocaine is produced — has long been used for medicinal and cultural purposes by indigenous Andean people, but due to international drug treaties that prohibit such practices, these communities face criminalisation and loss of livelihood. Coca fields have been systematically poisoned, burnt and destroyed in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America by both national and international actors.

Article 7 of UNDRIP stipulates indigenous peoples’ right to “life, physical and mental integrity, liberty, and security of person”, and it is here that the brutality of the drug war is most apparent. Caught in the crossfire between drug producers and law enforcement agencies, indigenous people inhabiting fertile crop-producing land are among those who suffer the most.

From the Americas to Southeast Asia, indigenous people regularly face being forced from their land by cartels, being poisoned by toxic sprays designed to destroy drug harvests, and — in countless instances — being killed by the very governments supposed to protect them. The drug war is ravaging the life, liberty and security of indigenous people the world over.

Many are also disproportionately criminalised by the war on drugs. In the US and Canada, indigenous people are vastly overrepresented within the prison population in general, but particularly in the number of people prosecuted for non-violent drug offences.

Criminalisation has damaged indigenous communities globally; the structural racism, marginalisation, and historic abuse they have faced has undoubtedly contributed to significant intergenerational trauma.

Indigenous people also regularly suffer from the contravention of Article 31: the right to their Intellectual Property. In 1985, the World Intellectual Property Organisation estimated that the annual world market for medicines derived from medicinal plants discovered by indigenous peoples amounted to US$43 billion — a figure which is certainly higher today.

Even today, as a new “psychedelic revolution” unfolds, indigenous people are often denied the benefits of the commercialisation of Ibogaine, Ayahuasca and other traditional indigenous medicines. Some indigenous people have begun to benefit from this so-called “narco-tourism” in Latin America, particularly where Ayahuasca ceremonies attract many tourists, but many such experiences continue to be run by non-indigenous operators.

In modern global history, indigenous people have often been the most harmed by the forces of globalisation. UNDRIP was an attempt to cease and redress some of these harms, setting out a framework for indigenous people to be respected, their cultures protected and their lives valued. But the war on drugs has rarely respected, protected or valued life.

On the 12th anniversary of  UNDRIP, we can see that the policies pursued in the global war on drugs continue to violate the rights of indigenous people with impunity. It is time that the rights of indigenous people are not seen as secondary to the rights of others, and that the UN and its members commit to a legally-binding convention - rather than just a declaration. Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of the drug war for generations; it’s time to break the cycle.

[Reprinted from Talking Drugs.]

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