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Exposure to toxic substances a form of environmental violence against indigenous peoples: UN expert

21 October 2022

NEW YORK (21 October 2022) – Indigenous peoples exposed to hazardous substances are suffering a form of environmental violence that has caused deaths and endangered lives through loss of food sources and medicinal plants, forced displacement, birth defects and cancers, a UN expert said.

“To satisfy the expansion of a global economy addicted to extractivism, States and businesses continue to step into ever remote regions, searching for metals, minerals, and fossil fuels, leaving a legacy of pollution and dumping of hazardous substances”, said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, in a reportto the UN General Assembly today.

The Special Rapporteur’s report addresses the range of human rights violations and abuses that indigenous peoples suffer due to industrial expansion, extractive industries, hazardous pesticides, military activities, waste dumping, and exposure to hazardous substances and wastes.

Orellana expressed strong concern that about 50 per cent to 80 per cent of all mineral resources targeted for extraction by mining companies are found on indigenous peoples’ lands and territories. Oil and gas companies continue to explore and exploit hydrocarbon deposits even as the planet faces a climate emergency. This invariably results from States promoting fossil fuel industries, often in indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, he said.

“In various countries, agribusinesses are encroaching on indigenous peoples’ lands, exposing them to the hazardous pesticides used in monocultures. Aerial fumigation indiscriminately spreads toxic substances that drift on crops and waters upon which indigenous peoples depend for material and spiritual sustenance”, Orellana said.

Hazardous waste dumping, including in abandoned military facilities, leaves indigenous peoples with decades-long health and psychological trauma, the expert said. “At times such dumping renders their territories uninhabitable. Forced displacement resulting from toxic pollution threatens indigenous peoples’ very existence.”.

The Special Rapporteur also expressed deep regret that due to racial discrimination indigenous peoples’ voices are too often silenced in decision-making processes involving chemicals and waste, which aggravates the disproportionate harm indigenous peoples suffer from toxic pollution.

“Access to justice by indigenous peoples that seek remedies for the adverse effects of toxics is limited. State discrimination, corruption, and a lack of protective laws cement their continued marginalization”, Orellana said.

The Special Rapporteur presented recommendations to States, including to identify activities and industries causing toxic effects on indigenous peoples and to adopt immediate actions to stop the influx into indigenous territories of toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, and hazardous waste.

The Special Rapporteur also recommended that States should end the double standard of allowing the production and export of highly hazardous pesticides that they ban for use in their own territories. This is a form of exploitation that externalises the health and environmental impacts of toxic pesticides on the most vulnerable, he said.

He also called upon business enterprises to seek and obtain free, prior and informed consent from indigenous peoples whose rights, lands and livelihoods would be affected by their activities.

“The effective enjoyment of the rights recognised by the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples rests on respect for the right to live in a non-toxic environment,” Orellana concluded.

Dr. Marcos A. Orellana is the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what are known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name for the Council’s independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms that deal with specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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