“Indigenous peoples are the best custodians of forests and biodiversity”. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, “Vicky” for the Indigenous Peoples Rights International website, of which she is founder and co-director, has taken the fight to defend indigenous peoples and their territories around the world, all her life. Encouraging collective initiatives by indigenous communities and pushing women to defend their rights and those of the communities to which they belong.
This is because women, she states, “are innovators while at the same time preserve and hand down traditions, which includes seed protection. It is they who fight against deforestation and in defence of soil and water from pollution; because it is they who, thanks to their central position in food production, are combatting against droughts, floods and natural disasters every day”.
Women like her, “indigenous activist of the Kankana-ey Igorot people; social development consultant, civic leader, human rights expert, civil servant and women’s rights advocate”.
Petite and smiling, while always dressed in the traditional clothing of her ethnic group of ancient inhabitants of the Cordillera mountains in northern Philippines, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has never been afraid of confronting power. She participated in the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, was Chairwoman of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from 2005 to 2010 and Chairwoman-Rapporteur of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples. From 2014 to 2020, she was UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. She founded and ran several NGOs, including the Tebtebba Foundation, of which she is executive director.
In 2018, her life was put at risk when then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte blacklisted her as a terrorist, accusing her of being a member of the New People’s Army group, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“This is retaliation”, was her reaction, “because I have openly criticized the government for unjustified killings, martial law, displacement of indigenous peoples, occupation of territories by the military and paramilitaries”.
On that occasion, the most important international institutions, from the UN to the European Union, spoke out in her favour. This was because Vicky has a powerful and authoritative voice; in fact, so authoritative that the Pope wanted her among the twelve special guests at the Synod for the Amazon. “Pope Francis is giving an important message to global public opinion: ‘do not deprive yourselves of the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous people’, he said on that occasion”.
Moreover, in her view, “the encyclical Laudato Si’ is very much in tune with the worldviews, ways of life and cultural values that indigenous peoples promote and with which they lead their lives, which is the ethics of caring for the Earth, and thinking about future generations”. And this “strengthens their claims”.
Another factor thanks to the Pope is for “recognising the importance of human rights. Indigenous peoples could make a greater contribution to solving the problems of climate change if their rights were respected, which include the right to continue to manage forests sustainably; to plant crops appropriate for their ecosystems; to access good, clean, fair and healthy food, which is part of their cultural identity. That text enhances their criticism of modernity and the imposition of technological remedies to problems whose solutions are more political and social”.
Consideration from some of the world’s most influential people has not detached Victoria Tauli-Corpuz from her roots: “My most important experience is as an indigenous woman”.
As a young activist in the Philippines, she pushed indigenous peoples to organize so as to fight President Ferdinand Marcos’ plans, and help to stop the hydroelectric dam on the Chico River, which would have flooded the villages. She also participated in the struggles that, between the 1970s and 1980s, blocked the Cellophil Resources Corporation’s logging operations on ancestral lands of the Tinguianns ethnic group.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is an indigenous and gender advisor to the Third World Network, a member of the Advisory Committee of Civil Society Organisations of the United Nations Development Programme and a member of the World Future Council.
“Indigenous peoples and local communities”, she claims, “routinely hold over 50 per cent of the world’s land, but have legally recognised rights to only 10 per cent. This allows governments to declare them illegal on the lands they have lived on and protected for generations. At the root of the global crisis, there is systematic racism”. Nevertheless, some glimmer of hope is opening up: “Fortunately, the issue of criminalisation of indigenous peoples is now coming out into the open”. (federica re david )